Alex Steele begins his pitch on how to turn Texas into a Democratic state like any good politician, with the story of how he got to this place.
It begins in California’s Central Valley, where he grew up: his father working two jobs to support four boys, his mother disabled by illness. He saw the importance of health care in his mother’s treatments and his father’s hip replacements. Student loans and an athletic scholarship helped make him the first in his family to attend college.
He was inspired to politics by Barack Obama, and left his job and home to work for his campaign in Iowa in 2008 when few people thought the first-term senator from Illinois could win.
It took him to Colorado to work for Obama’s 2012 re-election and now it’s brought him to Texas to try to build something even more lasting. And yes, Steele says to approving nods, he’s always worn cowboy boots.
He is talking to a group of about 50 activists sitting on plastic folding chairs in Room 101 of the Killeen Community Center, about 70 miles north of the state capital in Austin. Steele is the field director for Battleground Texas, a group that is the offspring of the president’s data-driven grassroots organization that many credit with securing his second term. Local Democrats bring a sheet cake that says “Welcome Battleground Texas. Game on Killeen.”
Steele, 31, and others have come to Texas on a mission as large as the state’s 261,000 square miles: to capitalize on the surge in Hispanic population and turn the Lone Star State into a two-party competitive one instead of the place where the Republican nominee has carried every presidential election since 1976.
“Our goal is very simple,” Steele said. “It’s to turn Texas back into a battleground state by treating it like a battleground state.”
Population trends are on his side, even if the history of the last quarter-century is not. The transformation underway in Texas is one of many that exemplify how changing demographics are shifting the nation’s political makeup as well.
In addition to becoming less white, it is also less rural, with 96 of its 254 counties losing population as urban areas grew.
Change won’t come easy to a state rooted in the “Everything is bigger in Texas” ethos of its billboards, where one toll road has a speed limit of 85 miles an hour and business interests in energy, led by Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:US); technology giants, including Texas Instruments Inc. (TXN:US) and Dell Inc. (DELL:US); and health-care companies such as Tenet Healthcare Corp. (THC:US) have strong Republican inclinations and an established network for wielding influence.
Yet there is a sense of inevitability to the effort, if the Democratic voting patterns of Hispanics continue.
“It’s just a question of time before the state turns Democrat,” said Lloyd Potter, the Texas State demographer. “When that happens, 2020 to 2025? It could even happen before.”
Potter said that 65 percent of the population growth in the state from 2000 to 2010 was among Hispanics, a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
Texas is the only one of the four majority-minority states that didn’t vote for Obama in 2012. Its Latino population makes up about 38 percent of the population, yet cast only 22 percent of the votes, according to research by Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston. Jones forecast that by 2030, the Hispanic voting-age population will rise to 43 percent of the electorate, while the white share will drop to 39 percent from about 50 percent.
In 2008, if Hispanics in Texas had voted at the same rate as those in California, Jones found, Republican nominee John McCain would have defeated Obama by 6 percentage points instead of 12. In addition, if the 700,000 eligible, lawful permanent residents were granted a path to citizenship under immigration legislation being considered in Congress, the margin would have been even smaller.
One fact is a near certainty: The Texas population, its 25 million residents second only to California, will continue to grow, having outpaced the national average in every census since 1850.
Steele and others have come to solve an electoral riddle that has vexed his party -- how to persuade the estimated 2.2 million Hispanics who are eligible to vote and didn’t in 2012 to cast Democratic ballots in 2014 and beyond. If they can solve it, and they don’t expect to before 2020, it would be almost a mathematical impossibility for Republicans to win the White House given the nation’s current political makeup.
“It is not a question of if Texas will become a swing state, but when,” Matthew Dowd, an Austin-based political analyst who was a principal strategist for President George W. Bush. “Demography is inexorably pushing Texas from solid Republican state to swing state over time. And it is a serious problem for Republicans in putting together a winning electoral coalition as Texas does move to a swing state.”
Still, Republicans point to at least 102 reasons their partisan adversaries won’t succeed. That’s the number of consecutive victories they’ve had in statewide elections, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, a streak that goes back to 1994. With that record of success, Republican Governor Rick Perry dismissed the Battleground Texas effort as a “pipe dream.”
That string won’t end any time soon, said Mike Baselice a Republican polling expert.
“Republicans are going to win all the statewide races in the next cycle in 2014 because the state leans 10 points more Republican than Democrat,” he said. And, if Republican candidates win about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, at least for the near future, their lock on state offices will continue.
To pull off its organizational effort, Battleground needed money. So one of their first stops was to visit Steve Mostyn, the top Democratic donor in Texas, who was told the program would require an annual budget of about $10 million, Mostyn said. He is confident he can help raise that money, and noted he and his wife, Amber, contributed more than $10 million to party candidates and groups in 2012.
“I am a skeptic whenever anybody comes to me about money,” Mostyn said. He was ultimately convinced because organizers for Battleground Texas had proof the concept works from their success in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Jenn Brown, 31, the executive director of Battleground Texas, led the Obama campaign’s ground operation in Ohio. The campaign turned out 100,000 additional African-American voters in the state, and increased young voters’ participation by using the same techniques they want to deploy in Texas.
“We’ve decided to make a long-term investment,” Mostyn said. “We are going to work on building infrastructure that is missing in Texas. You’ve got to have some discipline. You have got to have a little longer vision. The goal is not to win the 2014 governor’s race, but to do the things they’ve done so effectively in Ohio.”
“You want to turn your football team around, you go find a coach who’s been winning somewhere else,” he said.
Steele uses a small projector to beam a slide show on a pale yellow wall of the community center’s Room 101. He explains how Battleground Texas will use the exponential power of voter contact in the same way that Obama did, enhancing traditional methods with a technological tour de force.
Rather than having 250 paid organizers each make 50 contacts and yield 12,500 voter touches, their goal is to have 250 field organizers overseeing five teams of volunteer neighborhood leaders who use their own Facebook Inc. (FB:US), Twitter Inc. and e-mail accounts to make 500,000 contacts.
On this night, activists filled out contact information on paper and he conducted the session as an old-school community organizer would, trying to get buy-in, encouraging people there to empower others and benefit from a multiplier effect.
What Brown and Steele face, though, are long-standing patterns of behavior. The potential Hispanic vote has been large for longer than they have been alive, and it has never reached its potential.
“The turnout rate is a problem that is much easier to talk about than it is to solve,” said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin. “And it is a problem that Democrats have been talking about for a decade and a half at least.”
Resources have been a fundamental problem for the party, said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. National Democrats, including Obama, come to the state to raise money they spend elsewhere, he said.
“People lovingly refer to it as an ATM state,” Brown said. “The rule of Battleground Texas is that every dollar we raise stays here in Texas.”
Brown, another California native, is mindful of not trying to offer a know-it-all pose to activists who have been working the state for decades. “If you roll out a statewide strategy and say this is how you have to do it, rural or urban, then it won’t work. It has to be more about the community people live in.” Battleground workers will target Latino social clubs and house parties.
“The biggest thing is you ask people to participate and you have people they trust make the ask,” Brown said. “That’s really where the organizing comes in and people talking to their neighbors comes in. You can pretty quickly break down a lot of the barriers.”
Mostyn said the Obama team’s strategy will work with “a little bit of secret sauce. It is a very simple thing that is very hard to execute, effectively and efficiently communicating and organizing and walking in communities. They know how to keep all the trains on time and on track and that’s not easy to do when building a ground game.”
Another problem they must confront has been a form of benign neglect. Representative Joaquin Castro, 38, said the Obama campaign shared research with him that showed 50 percent of all eligible Hispanic voters in Colorado had been contacted while in Texas the number was only 25 percent.
“They have not been approached in a serious way about helping transform the state,” Castro said. “It is easier to do nothing because the task can seem so large and the cost to be competitive so great.”
Republicans aren’t giving Democrats a free shot at the Hispanic community.
They are placing bets that politicians such as U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, an Republican Hispanic elected in 2012, and George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who is running for Texas Land Commissioner, will stem voter defections to Democrats. The younger Bush, born in Houston, educated at Rice, is fluent in Spanish and his mother, Columba, is from Mexico.
They also are counting on incumbents being rewarded by the state’s improving economy, which expanded at a 4.1 percent annual rate in December, according to a March 13 Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report, with signs pointing to continued expansion. It also has recovered all job losses caused by the recession, state data show. The state unemployment rate is 6.4 percent, below the 7.6 rate nationally.
A final challenge for Democrats is getting Hispanics to see why voting should matter to them.
Hinojosa said participation is low in part because, unlike African-Americans, Hispanics had no equivalent of the civil rights movement that emphasized voting as the means to political change. Even though politicians such as President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat who taught Mexican-American students in Cotulla as a young man, have had connections with Hispanics, there hasn’t been a long-term effort to stoke participation.
“Demographics are not destiny, they are opportunity,” Hinojosa said. “Clearly everybody knows the reason why we are not a Democratic state is because there has been a large under-performing Hispanic community at election time.”
Representative Castro, whose district includes San Antonio, the seventh largest city in the U.S., said Democrats finally see the potential that the state’s changing demographics represent.
“What I see now is the first serious and earnest effort to climb out of that hole,” Castro said as he sipped a hot chocolate at a Starbucks in Austin.
Castro and his identical twin brother, Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio and keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, both Harvard Law School graduates, are often mentioned as possible statewide candidates who could accelerate the partisan shift.
“They fit the bill for the thinking of the moment and are obviously not without skills and represent a certain model of Democratic leader that Barack Obama has ratified, upwardly mobile, Ivy League educated, very capable,” Henson said. “There is a real temptation among Democrats to seize on a person or two who is going to deliver them from the wilderness and I am not sure that is the most effective long-term model.”
Steele doesn’t talk to the activists in Killeen about specific candidates or specific races. His is a longer game.
“What we say to anybody who says we can’t do this, we say game on,” he said.
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