At the community center in Killeen, Tex., about 70 miles north of Austin, Alex Steele is trying to persuade a small audience of Democratic activists that the party can wrest control of the state from the Republicans. An organizer for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, Steele is now field director for Battleground Texas, an offspring of the Democrats’ data-driven, get-out-the-vote strategy that helped secure the president a second term. The group was formed last winter by Jeremy Bird, a political operative who headed the Obama campaign’s national field operation and now wants to replicate its success on a smaller scale. He’s targeting a specific group the Democrats see as key to winning in the state: Hispanics. “Our goal is very simple,” Steele tells the audience. “It’s to turn Texas back into a battleground state by treating it like a battleground state.”
Governor Rick Perry has dismissed Battleground Texas as a “pipe dream,” perhaps for good reason. Republican presidential nominees have carried Texas in every election since 1976, and Republicans have won every statewide race since 1994. They’ll win them all in 2014, too, says Mike Baselice, a Republican pollster, “because the state leans 10 points more Republican than Democrat.”
That Republican advantage could dissipate over the next decade if Steele and his group are successful in mobilizing the rapidly growing Hispanic population. In the last decade, Hispanics accounted for 65 percent of Texas’s population increase. Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, forecasts that by 2030 Hispanics will make up 43 percent of the electorate, while the white share will drop from about 50 percent to 39 percent. Nationally, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2012. “It’s just a question of time before the state turns Democrat,” says Lloyd Potter, Texas’s state demographer. He estimates it will happen between 2020 and 2025. “It could even happen before.”
The ultimate goal of Battleground Texas is to build enough Hispanic support for a Democratic presidential candidate to win the state. Without Texas, a Republican nominee would have almost no chance of reaching the White House given the current makeup of the Electoral College. It would be the equivalent of a Democrat trying to win without California.
To flip Texas in their favor, Democrats must first find a way to get millions of Hispanics who’ve never voted to the polls. Hispanics make up about 38 percent of the population in the state but cast only 22 percent of the ballots in 2012, Jones says. An estimated 2.2 million Hispanics who were eligible to vote sat out the election. “It is a problem that Democrats have been talking about for a decade and a half at least,” says James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The burden is on the Democrats to demonstrate that they can do more than talk about the problem.”
During his Killeen speech, Steele shows slides spelling out his group’s plan, which relies on volunteers to sign up family and friends. The idea is to have 250 field organizers each oversee five teams of neighborhood leaders, eventually yielding 500,000 contacts statewide to help with the cause.
Steve Mostyn, a Texas trial lawyer and the state’s top Democratic donor, has agreed to help raise millions for the group. He says he signed on because the same strategy worked in states such as Ohio and Colorado in 2012. “It is a very simple thing that is very hard to execute,” Mostyn says. “You want to turn your football team around, you go find a coach who’s been winning somewhere else.” Joaquín Castro, a freshman Democratic representative from San Antonio, says many Hispanics don’t vote simply because no one’s ever asked for their support. “What I see now,” he says, “is the first serious and earnest effort to climb out of that hole.”