In the first of a series of articles analyzing the Texas political landscape, HPR staff writer David Freed discusses the significance of Battleground Texas
Not long after Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, his national field director Jeremy Bird was out of a job. Bird, whose big data approach revolutionized political campaigning, needed a new target. Bird was barely out of graduate school when he delivered the South Carolina primary to Obama as the state’s field director, a feat that impressed the candidate so much he promoted Bird to the biggest battleground state: Ohio. Not eight months later, Bird delivered another crucial victory by five points, relying on strong turnout from the Democratic strongholds of Cleveland and Cincinnati. Four years later, Bird was responsible for helping Obama take Virginia—using consumer research to identify eligible unregistered voters and getting a high registration and turnout rate in key demographics (blacks, Latinos, college-age voters, etc.). Bird’s new project, a Texas nonprofit called Battleground Texas, has a much more ambitious goal: turning the GOP into the Whigs, a goal that should make partisans on both sides quake in their boots.
“The fight to make Texas count starts now,” the homepage of Battleground Texas says. It continues, “Are you with us?” The message is directly in line with Bird’s fundraising history, and the Kennedy School grad has done his best to tap into the state’s Democratic fundraising bases. Trying to rally a base accustomed to sending money to PACs in other states, Bird is painting this as the dawning of a new era in Texas history. Battleground Texas’ logo is heavy with symbolism: a sun rising in the middle of the Texas star reiterates the “it’s a new day” message that Bird and director Jenn Brown have been pitching to prospective fundraisers. The group has already raised more than a million dollars and has turned the national prominence of Wendy Davis and Julian Castro into a message of long-term hope.
According to Bird’s February op-ed in The Huffington Post, changing the state’s 38 electoral votes “could virtually remake the presidential campaign map.” The state’s ever-expanding population has seen its electoral college votes nearly double in the last century, and Texas serves as a crucial GOP stronghold. Giving Texas to the Democrats is a 76-point swing. Consider that California (55 electoral votes), New York (29), Pennsylvania (20), and Illinois (20) have voted blue in the last six elections, and a Democratic candidate is already starting up 172-0. In a race to 270, turning Texas blue would do away with competitive election cycles.
It is no surprise, then, that many Republican legislators are treating the issue with all due seriousness. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said that Battleground Texas was a bigger danger to the state than the leader of North Korea, calling the 38 electoral votes a last line of defense. Texas senator Ted Cruz remarked in a Ryan Lizza New Yorker profile that “If Texas is bright blue, you can’t get to two-seventy electoral votes. The Republican Party would cease to exist.”
However, it is not only Republicans who should be concerned about the demise of the GOP. Later in the Lizza interview, Cruz argued that if Bird is successful, “we would become like the Whig Party. Our kids and grandkids would study how [the GOP] used to be a national political party.” Fittingly, the Whigs are actually the ancestors of the modern-day Republican Party. Moreover, the Whigs served an important purpose in American history: during a time of a single dominant national party, they provided the “loyal opposition” the country needed. The Whigs existed for only a couple of decades, beginning in 1832 as a counterweight to Andrew Jackson’s dominant Democratic Party. They were last (barely) competitive in the 1852 election, and by 1860, they had disappeared from the ballot completely.
Republicans can learn much from the Whig Party, which splintered over the (then) progressive issue of slavery. The issue caused former Whig Abraham Lincoln to temporarily quit politics and eventually destroyed the Whigs’ holdings in the South. The remnants of the party reformed in the North and became the modern-day Republican Party. The Whigs’ power eroded when two very separate sides of the party were unable to reconcile their visions for the future of the party, a quandary that the Republicans face now. Republicans are not divided by any single issue as profound as slavery, but they do face a similar challenge in defining their central message. Already the party fights changing public opinion on immigration reform and gay marriage, and outliers (led by Cruz) advocate doubling down on the GOP’s 2012 election cycle message.
Even partisans on the other side of the aisle should grow concerned about what could happen in a one-party state, something that the United States has not seen since Reconstruction. The excesses of the Republican-dominated Congress during Reconstruction illustrate the perils of one-party rule. The severe penalties Congress imposed on the South only exacerbated the struggles of the Southern agricultural economy, setting half the country back fifty years. Moreover, liberals should not assume that a single-party regime would be a progressive halcyon. Most fundamentally, though, single-party rule poses a challenge to the American conception of democracy, which depends upon a system of checks and balances to foster debate and compromise.
Bird certainly faces an uphill battle if he wants to strike this blow against the Republican Party. Democratic state hero Wendy Davis was barely able to defend her state Senate seat last year, and Republicans are practically begging her to run for governor, convinced Abbott’s war chest will ensure Republican victories both in the mansion and in Davis’ Senate district (Texas law precludes her from running for both seats). Much has been made about the rising Latino vote in Texas—the state is one of four where the majority of the inhabitants are non-white—but 40 percent of them are not registered to vote. Furthermore, 62 percent of the Texas Hispanics who voted in the 2012 election described themselves as pro-life. For Davis, whose claim to fame is a staunch pro-choice position but who would need Hispanic Democrats to turn out in force, this is close to a death sentence.
Davis is, however, only the first in a line of candidates flush with Battleground Texas funding that Texas Democrats will throw at the conservative garrison in the governor’s mansion. With changing demographics in their favor, Battleground Texas can focus on the long term. Bird’s success would mean a fundamental change in American politics and a possibility that both parties should regard with some trepidation. To prevent democracy from devolving into tyranny of the majority, a nation needs a strong minority.
Photo Credit: The Butler Bros.