Editor's note: This story has been updated.
Over cheesy pretzels and dark beer, Lon Burnam was putting the band back together.
Two years after losing his Texas House seat, Burnam had decided to kick off a campaign for the Texas Railroad Commission.
“My first impression as I’m traveling around as a candidate is it really is a much bigger state than you all might imagine,” he joked before a crowd of longtime supporters at Austin's Scholz Garten.
If he wins the primary against two other candidates, Burnam would be the most prominent Democrat running for statewide office this year, a position that would likely put him in close talks with a small coalition of groups intent on turning Texas blue.
The most well-known of these groups, Battleground Texas, was founded with much fanfare three years ago by the national field director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. After millions of dollars spent and bold promises of changing the Democrats' ground game, improvements to the party's performance are hard to pinpoint.
So where does Burnam see Battleground Texas in his plan to be the first Texas Democrat elected to a statewide office since 1994?
“No comment,” he said, before adding as he walked away, “In 20 years of public service, that’s the first time I’ve ever said that.”
Burnam's response echoed that of many of the longtime liberal activists in the room and around Texas, underscoring the complicated feelings many Democrats have toward Battleground Texas. Many declined to comment for this story. Others were careful to avoid either actively criticizing the group or offering strong praise of it.
"They're pretty easy to set up as a piñata," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat running for state Senate, at a recent Texas Tribune event. "I mean, at a bare minimum, they're trying, and sometimes that's just half the battle. Whether they're set up for this, whether they are doing this the right way, I don't have any way to judge.”
No change in strategy
Battleground Texas drew intense criticism near the end of 2014 after Democrat Wendy Davis not only lost an open governor's seat to Republican Greg Abbott but also earned fewer votes than when former Houston Mayor Bill White ran against Gov. Rick Perry four years earlier. After all that money and effort, Democrats appeared to have lost ground.
Despite the headline defeat at the top of the ballot, Battleground maintains that its long-term strategy began working as intended during the last election cycle.
“With more than 35,000 volunteers united with Battleground Texas and thousands of voter registration volunteers deputized in counties statewide, we're proud of the progress we've made working alongside so many great partners in our first three years,” Battleground spokesman Drew Godinich said in a statement.
Godinich added that the group is by and large standing by its original strategy as it continues to work to turn the state blue.
“We said from the beginning it would take a long-term, sustained effort to make Texas competitive,” he said.
In September, Battleground's leadership underwent a wide-ranging reorganization as executive director Jenn Brown stepped down and became chairwoman of a new advisory board for the group. The group is still searching for a new permanent executive director five months later.
Though the group maintains it is staying in the state for the long haul, several of Battleground’s earliest backers described themselves as less trusting of the group, in part due to claims its leaders made ahead of the 2014 election that didn't pan out.
Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and former executive director of Be One Texas, which invests in groups working on minority voter participation, said — speaking only for himself — that he felt Battleground misled supporters to raise more funds in the final weeks before the election. He was personally persuaded to give $5,000, he said.
“It was such a big promise that people put a lot of money in it, and they don’t feel like they got a good return on investment,” Li said. “None of us thought Wendy Davis was going to win, but I do think they misrepresented how well they were doing to me towards the end to get me to write a check. And $5,000 was a lot for me.”
Battleground Texas, which declined to comment on Li's comment, raised millions in the 2014 election cycle as it ramped up operations while partnering with the Wendy Davis campaign. Early in the cycle, Davis and Battleground launched the Texas Victory Committee, a joint fundraising venture. Since the election, that committee has been dormant.
Last year, Battleground raised $832,227 and spent more than $900,000, according to campaign finance reports. The group entered 2016 with just $82,066 on hand.
After feeling that the group sought excessive attention in 2014, now many activists see the opposite problem: Battleground Texas seems to be hibernating. The group has scaled down its paid staff operation and will likely only do some field work in a few priority House races this year, according to sources close to the party.
In the meantime, Battleground is ignoring an important opportunity by not being more engaged in the current election cycle, argues Christian Archer, a veteran Texas campaign strategist based in San Antonio.
“We want to be able to harness the energy of right now and use it in future elections," Archer said. "You’re never going to get the level of engagement that you do in a presidential, so there’s no better time to get involved than today. And yet I haven’t even heard the name Battleground in six months.”
A year and a half after the 2014 election, the most frequent concern raised by Democrats about Battleground Texas is that the group has not properly focused on engaging minority communities.
Mary Beth Rogers, the former campaign manager and chief of staff for late Gov. Ann Richards, devoted some of her new book, "Turning Texas Blue,” to that very frustration. She described the group's volunteer recruitment efforts as having “produced mostly white volunteers,” which in turn limited its canvassing of the minority neighborhoods that were widely viewed as essential to improving Democratic turnout.
By example, Rogers wrote that state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, reported that “he saw no signs of Battleground canvasses in black precincts.”
Ellis has since changed his tune.
“Battleground Texas has briefed me, and I am pleased with their work in my part of the state,” Ellis said in a statement to the Tribune. When pressed for more details about what caused him to change his mind, Ellis would only say, "Battleground had not briefed me previously, and they have now." He passed along statistics from Battleground which said the group had contacted over 23,000 voters by door-knocking in Ellis' Senate District.
Rogers also reported that U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said that he too saw no activity in his North Texas district, which has large black and Hispanic communities. His office confirmed that he had that conversation with Rogers, but he declined to go into more detail about his views on Battleground.
Battleground declined to discuss the specifics of their minority outreach strategy, but many strategists and activists across the state appraised its deficiencies in the area similarly. They point to the lack of diversity in Battleground’s volunteer base as a key reason for their stumbles.
“The idea that these wealthy white women, who were perfectly comfortable dialing people on the phone, were somehow going to be able to block walk in south Dallas was just silly,” Li said. “There’s a way that you do things in minority communities. People don’t volunteer, they expect to be paid, so it’s a different model."
Battleground officials say minority outreach will continue to be a focus moving forward. The group has 14 regional councils of volunteers who organize in their own communities, while full-time organizers in places like Houston and Dallas focus on neighborhoods with lower historic engagement. Officials also pointed to Battleground's Executive Latino Leadership Program, which trains potential candidates and campaign workers, as evidence of the impact they are making.
“Battleground Texas came to Texas because we saw that there were favorable demographic shifts that were helping the Democratic coalition over time, so engaging those groups is absolutely core to our mission,” Godinich said. “So in 2015 and 2016, those are programs we really doubled down on."
Ginny Goldman, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, a liberal group that works in minority neighborhoods, said that she “will not cast out any groups who are willing to work hard and excite communities to organize and to vote” but also admitted that Battleground made “some mistakes.” She declined to elaborate on what those mistakes were.
Archer pointed to the January special election for House District 118 in San Antonio, which is largely Hispanic, as a perfect example of frustrations with Battleground among the party's base. Godinich confirmed Battleground did not do any fieldwork in that race, in which Republican John Lujan pulled off an upset victory for a seat long held by Democrats. Voter turnout was 4.12 percent, and the margin of victory was 171 votes.
“Come in and make an actual impact in those elections, then you can rebuild your reputation and prove that you can make a difference,” Archer said. “I’ve got no animosity towards them, and I don’t want their money. I just want them to come spend it in a resourceful way and actually help Democrats win in places like Bexar County.”
Yet others argued that all the troubles of Texas Democrats were being unfairly laid on Battleground.
"Battleground Texas is one piece of the infrastructure that Democrats must build to be competitive in Texas," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who recently joined the group's new advisory board. "It’s not the panacea for curing all of the problems that Democrats face in statewide races."
Battleground is still working to improve relations with other Democratic organizations in the state. The group participates in a weekly conference call with the Texas Democratic Party and several liberal groups, according to people who participate in the calls.
“We’ve turned the page on 2014," said Crystal Perkins, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. "The electoral results were tough for Democrats in Texas and across the country, but we learned much-needed lessons and began the hard work to rebuild our party and engage voters.”
But other activists are still waiting to see proof that those lessons have been internalized.
“Battleground went through the meat grinder of Texas Democratic politics, and they learned how messy and ugly and unpleasant that can be,” Li said. “It’s fortunate for all of us that they are still trying to be in Texas at some level. But unfortunately, you don’t necessarily always get a second chance.”