Losing Ground

After getting crushed in November, Battleground Texas is fighting for survival and relevance—against other Democrats.

Jen Reel

Among the many questions Texas Democrats are asking each other in the aftermath of 2014’s electoral slaughter, few are more pointed than this one: What’s going to happen to Battleground Texas?

The group blew into Texas in February 2013 on a wave of hype and hope. Some who pined for a Democratic revival in the state saw in the group a kind of deus ex machina, a savior who’d spirit progressives to victory after years in the wilderness.

Battleground’s founder, Jeremy Bird, a high-level veteran of Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, fed those dreams. He pledged to do what the Texas Democratic Party couldn’t and earnestly begin the project of “turning Texas blue.” Armed with technology and tactics derived from the Obama campaign, Battleground promised to succeed where others had faltered. But doubts about Battleground’s approach and its intentions began immediately as well. Could an operation run largely by folks from outside Texas understand the state’s complicated electoral landscape? Did it make sense to build a sort of shadow party alongside the traditional Democratic apparatus?

When Battleground joined its efforts to Wendy Davis’ campaign last year, the group suddenly had a chance to put its theories to a very public test. If the group helped Davis win, or at least get close, Battleground—and perhaps Texas Democrats—would have a bright future. Instead, Davis lost to Greg Abbott so badly that the high-stakes bid backfired. The loss—along with the fact that Texas had, yet again, the lowest voter participation rate in the nation—has left some Democrats calling Battleground’s future into question.

Like a plane crash or an industrial accident, many things small and large had to go wrong to produce the dismal results on Nov. 4. The Davis campaign’s effort was bungled from the get-go, and it was certainly a bad year for Democrats nationally. But neither of these fully explain the scale of 2014’s loss. The most serious failing of the Democratic coalition this year was its inability to mobilize and turn out voters, a responsibility that fell largely to Battleground.

As dozens of conversations with individuals associated with the party, local Democratic groups, campaigns and other progressive organizations make clear, Battleground Texas had a major part—though definitely not the only one—in contributing to Democrats’ terrible showing in November. The group, they argue, made critical and avoidable mistakes that cost candidates up and down the ticket.

Many were reluctant to talk on the record, for fear of poisoning relationships and discouraging the Democratic base. Some are still hopeful that Battleground can find a way to contribute to the coalition’s efforts in 2016 and 2018.

The picture the sources paint is more or less the same: Apart from a few counties and local races, rancor and dysfunction overtook relationships among organizations that should have been working together. Battleground was opaque in its dealings, shied from making firm commitments, negotiated with a heavy hand and was coy about its long-term goals.

One word crops up in conversations over and over: “arrogance.” A senior Texas Democrat, characterizing Battleground’s ability to manage relationships with organizations inside the Democratic coalition, put it more forcefully: “The Obama guys were never any good at politics.”

Local organizers offer diverse and specific critiques of the group’s strategy on the ground: In big cities like Dallas and Houston, Battleground used turnout models that were far too optimistic about the number of Democratic voters that would come to the polls with little prodding. In South Texas, they say, an unfamiliarity with Hispanic communities frequently tripped up the group’s organizers. In other large cities and counties, Battleground often ended up competing with well-established local parties for control of resources, such as money and volunteers.

In public statements, the Battleground’s leaders talk about the 2014 election as a speed bump—an opportunity to learn lessons before they move forward with the long-term mission. In private, the organization’s representatives have been in an apologetic mode. Time to reset, they say. But many Democrats are not swayed by conciliatory talk. Even though both sides publicly sing a song of unity, in private Battleground finds itself in a power struggle with other Democrats, many of whom want to see the party strengthened internally and fear the influence and leverage of outside groups.

Some observers wonder if Battleground’s days are numbered.

“It was doomed from the very beginning,” says one senior Democratic consultant. “It was a machine that could never have succeeded, and cannot, I think, succeed going forward.”

Others think Battleground is preparing to attach itself to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign apparatus. The bad blood and differing opinions have set off a behind-the-scenes competition for the three things that make modern campaigns tick: volunteers, money and data.

When Battleground landed in Texas, and before it really had a chance to prove itself, there was loud and immediate grumbling from some corners of the party. Why in the hell did these out-of-staters think they know better than we do? Some of that cantankerousness sounded hollow coming from Democratic figures who’d not seen much success over many elections—but Battleground’s swagger did alienate a lot of Texans.

The group’s ethos descends from Organizing for America, the Obama campaign’s organizing engine. OFA was a powerful national organization, attached to a juggernaut presidential campaign and was able to more or less dictate terms to the locals. Some of that attitude made it to Texas, and it went over about as well as you’d expect.

Battleground seemed to disregard institutional knowledge about the state’s political landscape, arguably to the detriment of the Democratic ticket. For example, the combined Battleground/Davis campaign effort tapped BlueLabs, a Washington D.C.-based consulting firm run by yet more Obama whiz kids, to conduct an analysis of the Texas electorate and figure out where to find votes. BlueLabs, the firm’s site says, “specializes in persuasion modeling”—targeting crossover and moderate voters.

The models developed for the Davis campaign by BlueLabs and implemented by Battleground contained assumptions that seemed shaky, according to party staffers and local organizers familiar with the effort. BlueLabs assumed that much less work would be required to get Democratic voters to the polls than what the Texans on the Davis campaign said would be needed. (Getting Democrats to vote in midterm years has been a long-term problem.)

The models, the party staffers say, seemed to treat Bill White’s performance in 2010 as a floor, beyond which Davis could improve—failing to recognize that it had taken a lot of money and effort to reach White’s level.

So in some parts of the state, Battleground volunteers spent time combing white suburban neighborhoods for “crossover” voters—soft Republicans and independents—while neighborhoods rich with potential Democratic votes went underworked.

Although most of Battleground’s missteps were made in private, others were unforced errors made in full public view. Perhaps the best example came when the group’s founder, Bird, whose D.C. consulting firm received some $382,000 from Battleground over the course of the election, released a memo under his byline several days before the election.

The abysmal early voting turnout numbers the media had been scrutinizing were dead wrong, he claimed. Battleground had helped perform miracles: Turnout was actually good, the right voters were coming out, and Democrats were on track for a respectable performance. But it was Bird who was wrong. He had compared 2014 turnout to a set of incomplete data from 2010. That the group’s highly paid chief data maven would make such a critical error right before an election remains perplexing.

More than a few Texas Democrats speculate that Battleground leaders were less than forthcoming about their plans and goals with allied organizations because they believed their strategy would be vindicated on election night. After Democrats won a “good” loss, the idea goes, Battleground would have proof of its core concept, and a lot of the bickering would quiet down. If that was the plan, it failed spectacularly.

Battleground had a peculiarly fraught relationship with many county parties around the state. A huge number of Democratic voters live in the state’s 15 largest counties, so local parties are major footsoldiers of the Democratic effort, representing the permanent party infrastructure in Texas’ largest cities. Forging close cooperative relationships with them should have been a no-brainer, but Battleground wanted to dictate the terms of the relationship.

Battleground tried to get county parties to sign formal working agreements, according to four individuals familiar with the negotiations, which included policies regarding data and sharing of volunteer resources. The common perception was that Battleground asked for far too much, and didn’t offer enough in return.

The Travis County Democratic Party signed a contract, which worked more or less acceptably, according to both sides. It’s unknown how many others did. The fact that Travis County had signed such an agreement with Battleground was well known in other parts of the state, according to three local party officials, but Battleground refused to share details of the agreement with other county parties—presumably under the belief that it would weaken their negotiating position. One county party leader describes it as a “divide-and-conquer” approach: another, as an attempt to “annex” local party groups.

Another point of contention: Battleground accumulated an enormous amount of information on the state’s voters, but that information was shared unequally with allied organizations. According to the sources familiar with the negotiations, groups that cooperated closely with Battleground got more information—and groups that didn’t got less.

In largely Hispanic Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi, Republicans swept every contested race in an area that should be fertile ground for Democrats. One of the problems, local organizers say, was that the coalition didn’t spend enough time mobilizing Democratic base voters early on.

The Nueces County Democratic Party struggled to build a relationship with Battleground, which didn’t know how to talk to Hispanic voters and was reluctant to use volunteers to support Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Leticia Van de Putte, says former Corpus Christi state Rep. Solomon “Solly” Ortiz Jr. When Battleground and the state party tried to compensate late in the game by running their own voter canvasses, they ended up unnecessarily duplicating each other’s efforts. “It was just a clusterfuck, man,” Ortiz says.

Nueces County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Ramirez heaps praises on the volunteers who came from across the state and put in “hard work and long hours.” But, he says, Battleground’s leadership in Fort Worth misstepped, especially when it came to data sharing. Battleground volunteers—making calls and walking blocks—were collecting information on the state’s voters that in the past might have been collected by a campaign or local party group. Several county party leaders say they weren’t getting all of the information they needed to effectively turn out voters.

The partitioning of voter data had “never been a problem before,” Ramirez says, “and it shouldn’t be a problem now.” Not having complete, up-to-date information about contacts that had been made with area voters meant the county party’s own voter contact efforts were hobbled. “We still did what we could. But there needs to be more openness and willingness to share data.”

J.D. Gins, the executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party, agrees with Ramirez. “Not prioritizing the sharing of data directly with all campaigns and county parties is a fundamental mistake,” he says. “The division of winners and losers before Election Day creates a serious level of resentment. In the end, when we are not all coordinating and working together, we all lose.”

In reply to questions about the organization’s data policy, Battleground’s spokesperson Erica Sackin says that “arrangements for how it would all work were made well before the election and we’re making sure the work we did in this election will benefit Democrats across the state. Like all our allies who are participating, we’re happy to be a part of this smart, strategic collaboration.”

Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Will Hailer, who stepped down from his post in December, says that “a big chunk” of Battleground’s voter information would be “coming over” to the state party after the New Year, as had been previously agreed. “We’ve had several productive discussions with Battleground,” Hailer says.

Another ongoing dispute involves what may be Battleground’s greatest asset: the 34,000 Texans who have volunteered for the group since its inception. Even critics acknowledge that the scale of Battleground’s volunteer operation was impressive, and could prove helpful to future Democratic campaigns. Many who critique the group emphasize their appreciation and respect for the volunteers.

But some Texas Democrats were operating under the belief that the list of volunteers would be shared with the party after the election. Their thinking is that the volunteer base should be a sort of communal property. Volunteers are the lifeblood of campaigns: Money can make campaigns viable, and data can inform strategy, but it’s volunteers who go out to walk blocks, make calls and keep people excited.

Senior staffers with Battleground say that was never in the cards, that it would be virtually unprecedented to give away that kind of asset. The volunteers help give Battleground continued influence in the state—they are the group’s future.

A growing number of Texas Democrats are worried that Battleground is getting ready to use its Texas volunteer base to help Hillary Clinton’s campaign nationally. Top Texas Democrats say Jenn Brown, Battleground’s executive director, has privately admitted that she sees Texas as an “export” state in 2016—meaning that the state’s money and volunteers would be best put to work elsewhere. Attempts to contact Brown through the group were unsuccessful. Sackin, Battleground’s spokesperson, told the Observer that “Battleground Texas was created specifically to keep resources in Texas—so that people didn’t feel like they have to leave Texas to volunteer or donate to make a difference. We’ve been saying that since we were founded, that’s why we were founded, and that hasn’t changed.”

Bird, the group’s founder, and wealthy Houston attorney Steve Mostyn, the group’s most important financial backer, are prominent members of the leadership team of the Ready for Hillary Super PAC. If Battleground involves itself in a contested Democratic presidential primary, it could arouse indignation here, where not everyone has jumped on the Clinton bandwagon.

Jeremy Bird
Photo courtesy Jeremy Bird
Jeremy Bird

But if Battleground Texas uses its volunteers to support Clinton’s campaign in other states during the general election, a lot of Texas Democrats would be downright furious. Exporting Texas’ money and volunteers isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Texas Democrats have long complained that the national party uses Texas as a piggy bank. In 2012, Texas volunteers made 400,000 calls on behalf of Obama’s campaign in Florida. Bird told The American Prospect last year that his interest in Texas began with those phone banks.

But in 2012, it was Obama’s Organizing for America group that was responsible for getting Texas volunteers to help the campaign win Florida. Texas Democrats may not have been thrilled about it, but there was a clarity about the transaction. Battleground Texas, unlike OFA, has a stated aim of organizing in Texas. Plus, Texas Democrats tend to make gains in the Legislature in presidential election years, and many would like to see that effort stay front-and-center as planning starts for 2016.

In 2013, Bird told Politico that Battleground would “make Texas a battleground state by treating it like one,” a proclamation that would seem to be at odds with the group’s possible new focus on national priorities.

At a late November meeting of the State Democratic Executive Committee, Battleground Texas Political Director Cliff Walker appeared as the group’s sole representative before a sometimes irate crowd, according to a number of Democrats present. Asked directly if he would rule out using Battleground’s resources to support Clinton in other states, Walker offered a non-committal answer. It would be up to Battleground’s volunteers, he said, what they wanted to do.

The next day, Hailer, the party’s executive director, appeared at a conference convened by the Texas chapter of the youth civic group Junior State of America and told several hundred high school students, many of whom had been volunteers in the Democratic effort, that Democrats had to make sure volunteers and money stayed in Texas.

Manny Garcia, then the Texas Democratic Party spokesman, echoed the sentiment, without explicitly naming Battleground. “It’s important for the development of the Texas Democratic infrastructure that Texans work in Texas,” he told the Observer at the time.

In effect, Battleground aims to become a sort of shadow party. The Texas Democratic Party has precinct chairs; Battleground has “neighborhood team leaders.”As happened in Corpus Christi, the group and the state party sometimes found themselves duplicating each other’s efforts this cycle, while competing for some of the same volunteers and donors. But where the party elects its leaders, Battleground is essentially a for-profit organization. Chris Young, the political director of the Harris County Democratic Party, told the Houston Chronicle after the election that Battleground’s approach represented a “privatization of the political system.”

Many people associated with the Texas Democratic Party want to build up the party’s capabilities, not create a whole new one. “If we want to get serious about party building, infrastructure investment belongs in the party itself,” says Gins.

Gins led one of the few Democratic groups to have a relatively successful working relationship with Battleground this cycle, but still argues that strengthening the party should be the coalition’s first goal. “If we want Democratic candidates to be viable in the long term, then the Democratic Party needs to be strong and responsible for building the base.”

But Battleground’s backers say campaign finance laws make it impossible for the party to do the kind of infrastructure building that needs to be done. The Democratic coalition here is stuck with organizations outside the party, they say, because only groups like Battleground are unrestrained in their ability to land big checks from many different kinds of donors.

In the end, whether the group stays or folds comes down to one factor: money. Battleground’s operation, when in full gear, is extraordinarily expensive to run. The group’s most important financial backer is Steve Mostyn, the Houston lawyer. He has, according to those who know him, a great antipathy toward the Democratic Party itself. After the election, he pledged that he’d stick with Battleground.

“I’m the guy who’s got the most money in it and I’m the one writing the checks,” Mostyn told the Houston Chronicle, “and I’m telling you I think it’s working.” But with little to show to other donors, most think the group’s ability to sustain itself over the long term has diminished.

Battleground may be able to regroup and find a future for itself in Texas. But the post-election reckoning is bound to continue for a while. After decades of losses, some Democrats are eager to fix problems now—before the next election rolls around and the party faithful decide to circle the wagons.

“We have to be honest about why we failed. We can’t keep sugar-coating everything and saying, ‘Well, it was a bad national year.’ That’s unacceptable,” says Ortiz, the former Corpus Christi state representative. “Unless we’re going to be honest and do an actual post-mortem, and see where the mistakes were made, where things could’ve been done better, we’re doomed to repeat the same failures again.”

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

Published at 10:48 am CST