| Matt Perrenod |
Democrats have been talking about flipping Texas for at least a decade. It’s not hard to understand why. Nearly 40% of Texas residents identify as Hispanic, according to the 2020 Census. An additional 20% identify themselves as African-American, Asian-American and other non-whites, meaning that only slightly more than 40% of the state’s residents identify as non-Hispanic white, and that number is shrinking as a percentage of the whole.
Further, the state is large, with a population and electoral strength nearly equal to Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona combined. If Texas were to become electorally competitive statewide, it would completely change the electoral calculus in the U.S. as a whole. And both Dems and progressives have noticed, giving the state increasing attention over the last few years. They have, nevertheless, been disappointed: the GOP continues to hold every statewide office, including both U.S. Senators, and dominate both the Congressional delegation and both houses of the state legislature, with no erosion in 2020. Biden did narrow Trump’s margin in the Presidential race, but still lost by nearly 6%.
With this in mind, I spoke with Mike Siegel, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress from Texas’ 10th Congressional district in both 2018 and 2020. Mike is an attorney and longtime progressive activist in the Austin area. Mike’s campaigns were strongly progressive in content and tone, and he surprised many when in 2018 he came within 4% of beating a well-financed GOP incumbent in 2018 in a Republican-leaning district stretching from east Austin to the western fringes of Houston.
With more support and considerably stronger fundraising in 2020, he actually fared slightly less well in 2020, reflecting a statewide pattern. “We raised a lot more money in 2020, and probably 80% of that went to polling and media,” he says. “I think we need to get a chunk of that fundraising into grassroots organizing.”
In 2021, Mike and Julie Oliver, another progressive Congressional candidate who outperformed expectations in 2018 and 2020, have created a new organization called Ground Game Texas, with an aim “to organize and mobilize voters community-by-community, collaborating with partners on the ground to meet voters at their doors, hear their concerns, and highlight popular issues that are on the ballot.”
“Obviously I think they’re important, but electoral candidacies are a limited form,” Siegel says. “They’re about a specific candidate, in a specific race, and specific location. And to the extent ordinary people have bandwidth for politics, they may be thinking more about Joe Biden versus Donald Trump than about the local race… If we’re going to make real progress, we need a long-term horizon.”
Ground Game Texas is meant to address that, drawing on the lessons in places like Arizona and Georgia, and applying them to the Texas context.
“The folks who successfully fought to roll back SB 1070 (the Arizona anti-immigration laws enacted in 2010) kept working,” Siegel says. “Now Arizona has two Democratic Senators.” The New Georgia Project went door to door for ACA (Obamacare). Organizing for health care led to voter registration, which led to fighting for voter rights, which led finally to some big wins. If the goal is to build a progressive Texas, we can’t rely on shortcuts. But Texas may be even tougher: “We need twenty Stacey Abrams. We’re big, and we’re diverse.”
Siegel believes strongly that a sustained conversation around key issues is central to this long-term thinking. To this end, Ground Game Texas will put money and organization behind a set of issues they characterize as “Workers, Wages & Weed.”
“These are wedge issues that work in our favor,” Siegel says. “And in Texas, a key tactic is to put these issues on city ballots throughout the state, to excite progressive voters and stimulate political conversation, and address the disconnect between Democratic policies (which are often popular), and the Democratic brand (often seen as disconnected from popular concerns).”
Ground Game Texas hopes to promote progressive causes and candidacies throughout several electoral cycles by providing campaign expertise and funding to a combination of candidacies and ballot issues, sustaining an ongoing conversation among voters that will gradually swell to a progressive majority that matches Texas’ perceived potential.
One issue is how to constantly be advancing electoral work that galvanizes voter interest and turnout. “Safe seats are a problem,” Siegel says. “Turnout is reduced, even in strongly progressive communities, when there’s not a closely-contested race. So we’re looking to ballot issues as a key tactic.”
Citizen-initiated ballot issues are not allowed statewide in Texas, nor at the county level. Citizens can petition for ballot measures at the municipal level, and Ground Game Texas hopes to promote these all over the state.
“You could put an initiative on the ballot to require a living wage in city contracts, for example,” Siegel says. “Or you could limit enforcement of marijuana laws for possession of small amounts. These are progressive ideas that majorities support.”
Siegel hopes to take the fundraising capacity demonstrated in progressive candidacies and direct that toward grassroots organizing. He notes that there is already strong grassroots organization in some parts of the state, citing as an example the Texas Organizing Project, which is active in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. In those cases, he says, Ground Game Texas can provide tactical support, including funding and legal help. Progressives are less well organized in many other parts of the state, however.
“For example, there is Grand Prairie, outside of Dallas,” he says. “It has over 100,000 people, and is majority Hispanic, but lacks political organization.” He described how a city that leans Democratic continued to be dominated by white conservative Republicans. “We were able to help two progressive people of color win city council elections for the first time. And you’ve got places like Grand Prairie all over the state.”
Again, Siegel emphasizes a prolonged effort. “It would have been nice if one exciting candidacy could flip the state,” he says, referring to Beto O’Rourke’s unexpectedly strong showing against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. “But that’s not how it’s going to happen. To be real, we need to be thinking about 2028.”
Ground Game Texas starts with $1 million, and a goal of raising another $2 million this year, and funding organizers to knock on a million doors throughout the state. You can find them at www.groundgametexas.org.