Perry issues challenge to "Battleground Texas" swing state effort


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 8:39 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 26 at 9:10 PM

AUSTIN -- Of the 150 members of Texas House of Representatives, 95 are Republicans. 

Texans have elected a Republican governor in every election since 1994, including the nation's second-longest serving current governor, Rick Perry. The state has voted for a Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1980. In the 2012 general election, Texas voters handed Republican nominee Mitt Romney the state's 38 electoral votes by a margin of 15.8 percent.
Some believe changing demographics, particularly a booming Hispanic community that has statically voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, put reliably Republican Texas on the inevitable path towards becoming a swing state. Formally launched Tuesday, a group called "Battleground Texas" aims to deliver the Lone Star State to Democrats through fund-raising, voter outreach and grassroots campaigning.    
"If you look at the electorate there's 1.5 million Latino citizens in the state of Texas who are currently not registered to vote. There's 500,000 African-Americans, there's 200,000 Asian-Americans," former Obama campaign field director and Battleground Texas leader Jeremy Bird told MSNBC host Chuck Todd in a televised interview Tuesday.
Democratic political consultant Jason Stanford says Texas Democrats have long fought a lopsided political battle against the state's dominant party, and veteran political experience such as that brought by Bird could help turn the tide.
"There are a lot of problems we have. One of them is this pathological pessimism of feeling like losers," said Stanford. "They're like the Baltimore Orioles before last year. Jeremy Bird could be our Buck Showalter who could come in and say, 'This is how you win.'"
Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak says the shift is a very real possibility, and one to which Republicans are paying close attention.
"If things are in the future as they are today, then that would lead you to believe that Democrats can be competitive in Texas," said Mackowiak. "I don't believe that the Hispanic vote is static, and I also would also say that in Texas, Republicans do a better job of communication with the Hispanic vote than they do in other places, nationally in particular."
With 38 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win the presidency, Texas could have a major influence on presidential elections. Solidly Republican for the last 30 years of presidential elections, there has been little reason to campaign in Texas past the primary. Both Mackowiak and Stanford say if Texas were in play, the political ramifications couldn't be overstated.
"If we turn Texas into a battleground state, and that's what's going to happen here, then Republicans are going to have a hard time getting elected president ever again in the next two generations," said Stanford.
"Democrats understand that if they're able to flip Texas, they will win national elections as long as that's the case," said Mackowiak. "If you have Texas, California and New York, you're starting with an enormous advantage in terms of electoral votes. That said, the challenge in Texas is significant."
Mackowiak suggests Battleground Texas could put lessons learned during two Obama presidential campaigns in practice in Texas, but says Democrats are severely hamstrung by a lack of funds and candidates ready to make a competitive run for statewide office. He says any goal of moving the state further from Republican red and closer to swing-state purple isn't likely to be realized in the near future.
"I think that's a twelve or sixteen year prospect, not a four year prospect, but again it depends all on the Hispanic vote," said Mackowiak. "If Republicans can grow their share of the Hispanic vote, which I believe they will once we solve this comprehensive immigration problem, that's going to change the entire dynamic of where we are today."
Stanford points to San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and twin brother U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) as the future faces of the Texas Democratic Party. In addition, he lists state Reps. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) and Mark Strama (D-Austin), along with state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) as potential Democratic standard-bearers moving forward.
"What battleground Texas is going to do is set up the infrastructure. They're going to give us something to play with," said Stanford. "Any other state, we've got those people, they're all competing to run for governor next year. We need to build the infrastructure to make their time productive."
While Texas' Hispanic population is undoubtedly on the rise, the battle to win over the state's most rapidly expanding demographic is well underway. Governor Perry was roundly criticized by fellow Republican contenders during his presidential campaign over a nearly decade-old state law allowing certain children brought to the state illegally to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. In 2012, a proposal for a guest worker program dubbed the "Texas Solution" was adopted as part of the Republican Party of Texas' official platform.
Mackowiak suggests Republicans in Texas must continue to lead national Republicans in the dialog over immigration reform, an issue which he says Texas is particularly suited to address. If the state and national GOP can successfully remove immigration reform as a partisan issue, Mackowiak contends Republicans will be better able to win over socially and fiscally conservative Hispanic voters.
"One of the things that they've done well is we've recruited Hispanic candidates," Mackowiak said of state Republicans, pointing in part to the efforts of groups such as Hispanic Republicans of Texas led by George P. Bush. "Republicans in Texas have talked differently than they have in other places and have enacted policies, whether it be in-state tuition or other things, in a way in Texas that has been different from anywhere else."
"For every moderate Republican there are about 15 'Ted Cruzes' who insist that we need border security and we don't need to deal with the 11 million undocumented workers who are here," argued Stanford. "We have a big problem in this country with radical Republicans stopping reform, and most of them are here. Texas is the Vatican for Republicans being stupid, so it's not going to be that hard for us to marginalize them. We just need to organize the majority. It's a pretty simple job."
Perhaps the biggest critic of the idea that Texas could become a swing state in the not-so-distant future is Perry himself.
"Give me the time table, are we talking 50 years?" Perry responded Tuesday to reports of the group's Texas-centered campaign. "This state was a conservative state when it was a Democrat state. When I grew up as a young man who had never even met a Republican that I knew of, it was a conservative state."
Crediting the state's well-known conservative reputation for its economic well-being, Perry offered what amounted to a challenge.
"I welcome them to come to this state and spend lots of money, but Texas will continue to be a conservative, traditional value state that continues to lead the nation in job creation and freedom and happiness," Perry told KVUE. 
"Hopefully a little bit of our traditional, conservative values will rub off on them," he added. "And they'll understand that what we're doing in this state is working well, and that more blue or purple states could learn from Texas."
With both sides drawing down over the state's political future, the battle for Texas is well underway.