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Can Obama’s Organizing Army Take Texas?

Shortly before the Battleground Texas tour stopped in Austin’s old AFL-CIO building in early April, the sky opened up. Thunder and lightning raged, parts of the city flooded, and traffic came to a standstill. But Democrats kept arriving, some dripping wet, others clutching umbrellas rarely used in the city, and the meeting room soon filled with about 100 folks, some no doubt drawn by curiosity. Launched in February by two of Team Obama’s hotshot organizers, Battleground Texas was promising to inject into the nation’s biggest Republican stronghold the grassroots field tactics—the volunteer-organizing, the phone-banking and door-knocking, the digital savvy—that won the 2012 presidential election. After years of national Democrats seeing Texas as hopelessly red, what made this fledgling group think it could turn the state blue?

Jenn Brown, Battleground Texas’s executive director, was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. But the 31-year-old California native, who projects the energy and enthusiasm of a camp counselor, knew she had some convincing to do. As one attendee put it, “We’re suffering from battered-spouse syndrome. We believe it is impossible to win.” The situation for Texas Democrats has been as gloomy as the day’s weather. The party hasn’t won a single statewide race since 1996—a 100-campaign losing streak. Republicans dominate the state legislature. Mitt Romney carried the state by more than 1.2 million votes. For nearly two decades, the Texas Democratic Party has been the political equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial patsies, the Washington Generals.

But the people leading Battleground Texas are proven winners. Brown headed up Barack Obama’s field operation in Ohio, which turned out 100,000 more African American voters in 2012 than in 2008. Battleground Texas founder and senior advisor Jeremy Bird, a 34-year-old Missouri native, is the wonky wunderkind who, as Obama’s national field director, oversaw the campaign’s state-of-the-art turnout operation. They’ve been joined by young, native Texan organizers such as Christina Gomez, formerly with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and Cliff Walker, who ran the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee. Bird and Brown got interested in Texas, they say, during the 2012 campaign. Bird was wowed by the enthusiasm of Texas volunteers, who made 400,000 calls to Florida voters in the last three days before the election. Brown says that wherever she went during the campaign, Obama staffers from Texas would talk excitedly about the potential for organizing the state, given its rapidly changing demographics.

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