When it comes to Battleground Texas, many Democrats and political observers weren’t looking forward to 2014, they were looking toward 2018.
After then, the organization would have had two major campaign cycles to work the state – registering voters, building contact lists and recruiting volunteers, all with the ultimate goal of giving the state’s decrepit Democratic Party a ground operation it hasn’t had in decades.
To complement it all, Democrats had their eyes on a potentially promising gubernatorial candidate, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, as the likely top for that year’s ticket.
However, instead of sticking around and preparing to run for governor, Castro is likely headed to run Washington to join President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.
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“This has taken some of the wind out of the sails of Texas Democrats,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “Castro, in part, made a calculated decision that things weren’t looking that great for 2018.”
Battleground Texas declined to comment on how Castro’s expected departure would affect the group.
“Julian Castro is a phenomenal mayor and it is great for the country and Texas to have his leadership in the Cabinet,” said Jenn Brown , the group’s executive director.“Combined with a 2014 governor’s race we will win, raising his national profile puts Texas on the 2016 map, right where we belong.”
Peering four years into the future to try to gauge who will or won’t run for any particular office is always perilous. After all, pundits speculated for years about a presidential run by Colin Powell, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which never happened.
Nothing about Castro’s probable new position automatically prevents him from returning to the state and running for a statewide office after Obama’s term is over, political science professors and Democratic operatives interviewed by the paper pointed out.
After all, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which is the department that Castro is expected to be nominated to run. And Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was a longtime member of Congress.
Nor is there any guarantee that a position in Obama’s Cabinet will help Castro win a statewide race or ensure him a spot on a Democratic presidential ticket come 2016.
“If you think about (former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen) Sebelius or (Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric) Shinseki, it’s far more likely you’re going to be the face of a scandal than the face of a major policy triumph,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.
Jillson has argued it will take longer than 2018 for Battleground Texas, and other factors, to help make Democrats competitive in Texas again.
“Public housing is going to be what public housing is when Castro is done,” he added.“You really are casting your fate to the wind.”
That uncertainty over the fate of a potential, compelling candidate won’t make things easier for Battleground Texas organizers, as they crisscross the state.
“What we’ve seen is that when we have a dynamic candidate it gets donors and voters excited,” said Colin Strother, a longtime Democratic campaign operative.“It would be a loss for the Democratic Party and Battleground Texas if (Castro) went to DC and never came home.”
But that doesn’t mean if Castro doesn’t come back that Democrats are out of business, Strother said. After all, he added, the candidate cupboard was looking pretty bare in 2013 before Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster against a package of abortion restrictions launched her into the national spotlight.
Battleground Texas, which is led by former Obama organizers, aims to put Texas in play for Democrats using roughly the same way they turned Ohio blue in 2008 and 2012 – by registering new voters and turning occasional voters into regular ones.
Regardless of the candidates available, major Democratic donors feel like Battleground Texas is an important part of rebuilding the party’s viability in the state.
“The longer (Battleground Texas) exists, the more (impact they have),” said Jeff Rotkoff , a Democratic strategist who advises Democratic mega-donors Steve and Amber Mostyn on their political activities.
The Mostyns have given more than $1 million Battleground Texas and Texas Victory Committee, a joint account shared by Battleground Texas and Wendy Davis’ campaign.
“It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous,” Rotkoff said, “but the work for Texas to be more competitive in 2018 than it is today, is a lot of people literally sweating ... in Texas streets over course of the next few summers, knocking on their neighbors doors.”