There are three points of interest in this Statesman story about Battleground Texas. Point One: They’ve convinced the people who most needed convincing, the money people and the dedicated volunteers.
Battleground Texas quickly won the allegiance of Steve Mostyn and Mary Patrick.
Mostyn is a Houston trial lawyer who, with his wife, Amber, is the foremost contributor to Democratic and liberal causes in Texas. He was among Obama’s top donors nationally. Big, bald and bold, Mostyn has emerged as the Daddy Warbucks of Texas Democratic politics.
Mary Patrick, slight, gray and indefatigably determined, is the epitome of the long-suffering progressive Austin uber-volunteer, on whom Battleground Texas’ success will depend every bit as much as on Mostyn’s money.
It was Patrick signing people in at the Battleground Texas organizing event at the AFL-CIO hall in Austin in early April. It was Patrick, an active volunteer with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, who has opened the doors of its fellowship hall every Saturday morning since mid-April so that Battleground Texas can train its recruits and have them sworn in as volunteer deputy voter registrars, phase two of their battle plan.
“I’ve been real pleasantly surprised,” said Mostyn over a bowl of gumbo at Shoal Creek Saloon on Lamar Boulevard. “When they came and met with me, the question we had for them was, ‘How do you replicate any enthusiasm when you don’t have a candidate?’”
“They said, ‘We may have to build excitement,’” he said. And, so far, they have.
Persuaded, Mostyn traveled to New York, California, Colorado and D.C., “meeting with people from all over the progressive movement who understand that there are four majority-minority states, and Texas is the only one that’s Republican.”
“We’ve never seen the money commitment that’s coming and the money commitment that I’m going to put in,” said Mostyn. “It’s large, and that’s new and it’s sustaining. All of us are talking – those of us in the donor world – about a long-term plan.”
What kind of money are we talking about?
Mostyn pauses: “Battleground’s budget is millions and millions and millions and millions and millions.” (Battleground Texas doesn’t have to file its first semiannual fundraising report until July 15.)
The Battleground crew likewise impressed Patrick, who has been active in Democratic campaigns and liberal causes in Austin since graduating from the University of Texas in 1968.
“This is a very smart group of people. If they had never done this before, I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ But they’ve done it before, and they know what to do,” said Patrick.
“It’s very exciting, and I’m very eager. I want this to happen before I get too old; please, sometime before I’m 90,” she said. “For those of us who have been slogging it out for years, we want it now.”
Money matters, of course. Battleground Texas needs smart, dedicated people at the helm, crafting strategy and directing resources and crunching data and so on and so forth. People like that – the Jeremy Birds and Jenn Browns and Christina Gomezes – are in demand, and can work on any campaign they want to work on. They need office space and computers and access to data and the people who can make sense of the data, and they need those things now and will continue to need those things after the next election is over. Having the money to pay for those things, and knowing that the money will continue to be there to pay for those things, is critical to this effort. But as important as that money is, the core value of Battleground Texas is people power, neighbors talking to neighbors. If the worker bees don’t buy into the vision, all that money won’t really do very much. We need both. Getting both sides of this equation on board was BT’s first challenge, and they met it. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Point two: Nobody is really sure what to make of all this.
But, those who study political demography, such as Robert Stein and Mark Jones at Rice University, project that Democrats could start winning statewide in the 2020s – a long time from now, but, considering the enormous stakes nationally, well worth a protracted Democratic effort to lay the groundwork.
Still, Richard Murray, director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of Houston, is dubious that national Democrats will pour money into a sustained long-term effort in a state as vast and expensive as Texas when the money could be used to far greater tangible effect elsewhere.
“To my knowledge, there is no precedent nationally of an attempt to change a state that is pretty solidly in the other party’s political base by investing surplus resources that don’t have any immediate payoff,” Murray said.
Texas Democrats have romantic notions about what Hillary Clinton as the potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 could do in Texas, but Murray observes that if Clinton were within striking distance of winning Texas, she would be on her way to an electoral landslide that wouldn’t require Texas.
For now, Brown finds herself having to tamp down the expectations her very presence has excited.
“I’d like to do well in 2014 and convince somebody we are here for them,” she told the Austin organizing meeting at the AFL-CIO hall on Lavaca Street.
But if not, “that’s OK,” she said. And if Democrats don’t carry Texas in 2016, “that’s totally OK too. If 2020 is the year we turn this state blue, that’s OK with me.”
Despite what Steve Mostyn said about BT’s budget, I don’t think it’s going to take a ridiculous amount of money for BT to have an effect. It’s not BT that’s going to be buying TV ads for candidates, which is where the real expenses are – it will be the candidates themselves, and whatever third parties that want to get involved. Frankly, if even half of the money that flows out of Texas to candidates elsewhere in the country stayed here in Texas, that would go a long way towards powering BT. That said, I agree with Dr. Murray that there really isn’t a model for what BT is trying to do. Sure, they’re trying to replicate the Obama campaign in states like Ohio and Florida, but in a state that hasn’t seen a Presidential campaign in the lifetimes of the BT braintrust. But just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t. I don’t see that as a blocker for BT. I do think it will need to show some kind of results beginning next year to help maintain the energy that it has generated so far. I do think BT will need to set some goals – it’s OK if they wait till there are some actual candidates before they do – and I think that an overall turnout goal is a fine place to start. But this is a long-term project, and we have no idea how it will go.
Point three: Republicans say they’ll spend a ton of money if BT is effective. I say “So what?”
“They talk about they’re going to be putting tens of million into Battleground Texas,” said [state GOP Chair Steve] Munisteri. “If there ever were a significant threat because somebody put $20 million in, our business community would probably spend that on Republicans by a factor of several-fold; $75 million was raised just from Texas for Romney. None of that money was spent in the state. Over a six-year period, the RNC raised $41 million in Texas and spent about $400,000. Those dollars can easily flow back the other way if we need them, so if they spend $10 million, we can spend $100 million.”
If so, for a national Democratic donor that would mean for every dollar spent in Texas, Republicans would spend $10, money they wouldn’t be spending elsewhere. That’s not a bad return on investment.
All that money didn’t do much to help Republicans nationally, either. The vast majority of that money, once the consultants and other bottom-feeders like Karl Rove skimmed off their piece, went to TV ads, which were of minimal effectiveness last year. I’ll take engaged volunteers over that, thanks. Be that as it may, doing nothing is not an option. If we’re going to get scared about what the Republicans might do when we try to win, we may as well not try.