Donald Trump's presidential campaign has entered a new stage in Texas, putting in place an organization hoping to translate massive crowds the billionaire has drawn across the state into actual votes in the March 1 primary.
In recent weeks, the campaign has opened an Austin office, increased its paid staff and recruited point people in every congressional district, plus about 50 of the biggest counties.
"What we're seeing in Texas is the most excitement I've seen in 20 years in Texas politics," Corbin Casteel, Trump's Texas state director, said in an interview Thursday. "I've never seen anything like this before."
Joining Casteel on the campaign payroll in Texas are three other staffers: Joshua Jones, who is assisting on statewide efforts; Kayla Hensley, a Houston-based field director; and Eric Mahroum, North Texas field director. Based in the Vaughn Building in downtown Austin, the state campaign is still hiring, specifically with an eye on Central Texas and South Texas.
The staffers are overseeing a statewide organization that includes at least one coordinator in all 36 congressional districts, an important milestone this cycle because most Texas delegates will be selected by district. Casteel said the campaign also has tapped county chairs in the more than 50 counties in the state that make up 70 to 80 percent of the primary electorate.
Last month, the campaign forged another Texas connection when it brought on board Garland tea party activist Katrina Pierson as its national spokeswoman. Pierson, an active supporter of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during his 2012 campaign, said Trump's appeal in the Lone Star State is like it is elsewhere. "He's like the trophy for the American dream," Pierson said of the mogul.
"He speaks the language of Texans," Casteel added. "He's an independent like Texans. He's a free thinker like Texans. He's not afraid of a fight like Texans."
Trump has visited the state three times since launching his bid for the White House, starting with a whirlwind tour of Laredo in July. Two months later, he nearly filled the American Airlines Center in Dallas, which has a capacity of more than 20,000. And last month, he turned out an estimated 8,000 people for a rally at Ford Park Arena in Beaumont.
"There never, ever in the history of time has been such a political rally — ever — in Jefferson County," said Billy Oliver, the county chairman of the Republican Party there. "I think the only other person that carried as much excitement in this county was Ted Cruz when he ran for Senate."
Early, scant polling on the GOP field in Texas has shown Cruz and Trump at the top, with Trump usually taking the No. 1 spot. The two have maintained somewhat of an alliance, refusing to attack one another in race that has seen Trump courting controversy on a daily basis.
Cruz's Houston-based campaign is not taking his home state for granted. It has also installed at least one coordinator in every congressional district and last month it hired a state director, Tyler Norris.
Trump's supporters in Texas are confident the businessman can overcome Cruz's home-field advantage.
"What we're hearing from the Cruz supporters who are with us, who are supporting Mr. Trump, is that 'we really want him to continue being our senator in Texas. We feel Mr. Trump's more ready to be president,'" Casteel said.
Moving forward, the Trump campaign is preparing to roll out endorsements in the state, including coalitions. And especially after seeing the crowds in Beaumont and Dallas, campaign officials are planning to put him back in front of Texans long before March 1. "He'll be back soon," Casteel said.