The instructions seemed simple enough: Knock on your neighbors’ doors and tell them to vote for Wendy Davis in Texas’ election for governor.
Bryan Bejarano, 21, a political science student and volunteer activist, soon realized the task was not as easy as it sounded. He wandered around a nearby neighborhood with a list of likely Democratic voters, culled using the same algorithms as President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
The first house on his list was overgrown with foliage and had no doorbell. The second home had stacks of empty boxes on the front porch. No one answered at his third stop. “If Wendy Davis wins, we keep going,” Bejarano said. “If she loses, we keep going.”
Texas, with its 38 electoral votes and its changing demographics, offers a tantalizing opportunity for Democrats to flip the state that is the bulwark of any Republican presidential campaign.
That is why after Obama’s re-election, Jeremy Bird, the campaign’s national field director, started Battleground Texas, a grass-roots political organization whose goal was to make Texas competitive, a long-term effort intended to take root perhaps by the 2020 presidential election.
Then, Davis declared her candidacy.
With the task of door-knocking in a state larger than France, Davis’ campaign has essentially tried to absorb Battleground Texas as her field operation in a race against Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican attorney general. That has put added scrutiny on the group and has created a sometimes awkward dynamic. And now that their fates are intertwined, Battleground Texas may shed some momentum should Davis, a state senator, lose.
“Frankly, what’s complicated the Battleground situation is the emergence of Wendy Davis,” said James R. Henson, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the school’s Texas Politics Project.
Battleground Texas volunteers like Bejarano must recruit voters by explaining that the cause is bigger than Davis’ race. “The tension is there, and it’s inevitable,” Henson added. “But,” he said of the Davis campaign, which trails Abbott’s by double digits in most polls, “if you’re bleeding to death and you get a blood transfusion, you tend not to argue too much with where the blood is coming from.”
Davis delivered a pep talk to the small gathering of volunteers here before they were sent throughout the city. She said in an interview that Battleground Texas’ get-out-the-vote efforts would make a difference for her campaign. “Texas is not a deep-red state,” she said. “Texas is a state where people have been staying home.”
Bird said that Davis, who became a national figure after her 11-hour filibuster against legislation that would make it more difficult to obtain a legal abortion, had helped Battleground Texas by energizing state Democrats. “Everything we do in every election cycle helps our goal,” Bird added.
But Battleground Texas has learned that registering voters in the state is not quite like anywhere else. Like other southern states, Texas was a Democratic stronghold until the 1970s, but Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last Democrat to carry the state. For at least a generation, Democrats have made only marginal efforts to campaign in the state. Republicans have dominated for so long that much of the data that Obama-style organizing relies on is out of date.
On one volunteer’s list, nearly 75 percent of phone and address records were inaccurate. Much of the group’s work is cleaning up voter rolls. The group’s nearly 17,000 volunteers have made 1,021,863 phone calls.
The work Battleground Texas is doing in 2014 is helping in “building an infrastructure that will exist in 2016, 2018, 2020,” said Jenn Brown, the group’s executive director. “You’re not going to win every election.”
Central to that goal will be persuading the more than 2 million Hispanics who are eligible to vote but did not in 2012. In 2010, about 1 million voting-age Hispanics cast ballots for a turnout rate of about 23 percent, compared with about 44 percent turnout among white voters.
At a Battleground Texas house party, Hispanic volunteers gathered over homemade guacamole and a piÃ±ata in a backyard to discuss knocking on doors in a heavily Spanish-speaking area of East Austin. They discussed data showing that potential new voters needed to be reminded seven to 12 times before they will actually vote. Davis’ name hardly came up.
“It’s not about any particular candidate right now,” said Ana Jordan, a volunteer. “It’s about changing behavior and getting them to vote.”
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Battleground Texas’ house parties and canvassing replicates the Obama campaign’s “Neighborhood Team” model in which volunteers go door-to-door. But the sheer size of the state - more than 260,000 square miles - makes that proposition difficult.
Brown, 32, who served as the Ohio field director for the Obama campaign in 2012, has already put more than 34,000 miles on her Chevy Cruze. One Democratic county commissioner drove five hours, to Uvalde, at the foot of the Hill Country, from Pecos on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, to attend a Battleground Texas training session.
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Brown said Battleground Texas’ efforts were statewide but were mostly focused on the 12 of the state’s 254 counties in which 70 percent of the population lives. She said the state was becoming less rural and less white, with an influx of out-of-state residents to cities like Austin and San Antonio.
“A couple years ago, I said Republicans should enjoy it because it’s not going to get any better for them and it’s only getting better for Democrats moving forward,” said Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, a Democrat.
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Texans are famously averse to doing things like the rest of the country, and many are skeptical about the army of Obama organizers. “I don’t think the Ohio experience is easily transferable to Texas,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
“We start off with lower participation across the board, so it’s not just an issue of targeting voters, it’s motivating them to turn out,” he added. Even with Battleground Texas’ efforts, Democratic turnout in the 2014 primary fell nearly 20 percent to about 546,000. Republican turnout also dropped.
“There are major donors who are sitting on the sideline trying to figure out what to do,” said Arthur L. Schechter, a lawyer based in Houston. “Nobody wants to write checks and see their money disappear.”
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Steve Mostyn, a trial lawyer based in Houston and one of Battleground Texas’ biggest donors, said data showed that the prospects of turning Texas blue were real in the long run. “There are no fancy parties at the end of this deal, no candidate to get your picture with,” Mostyn said. “The day after Election Day in November, Battleground will still be working in the field.”