Oops. Last year, fresh from a presidential reelection campaign in which it was hailed for its 21st-century tactics and organizing prowess, a group of Obama for America veterans descended on Texas with the goal of turning the state purple. They launched a new group, Battleground Texas, raised millions from wealthy donors, and teamed up with a rising Democratic star running for statewide office. What happened next will...probably not shock you.
In the first test-drive for Battleground Texas, Democrats got trounced, losing every statewide race for the 16th consecutive year. In the much-hyped governor's race, state Sen. Wendy Davis lost to Attorney General Greg Abbott by 21 points. She fared only two points better than the sacrificial lamb running for agriculture commissioner, who didn't campaign at all. But Republicans didn't just fend off Davis, or rile up their base against a Democrat whom activists mocked as "abortion Barbie"—they ran up the score, and did so in all the places where Democrats were supposed to take baby steps.
When Battleground Texas first launched, 2014 was considered too much, too soon. But when Davis entered the race, fresh off of an 11-hour filibuster of an anti-abortion bill, the calculus changed. The group merged its offices with Davis' gubernatorial campaign, set about building an army of 34,000 canvassers, lawyers, and voter-registration volunteers, and looked to pick off low-hanging fruit wherever it could.
The idea was that an Obama-style organizing operation could make a real impact in down-ballot races, which are traditionally less sophisticated. It didn't.
"Tonight's decisive victory proves they picked the wrong battleground," boasted GOP state Sen. Dan Patrick.
Battleground invested in a dozen state-legislature races, targeting House and Senate districts that will have to turn purple for anyone at the top of the ticket to have a chance—East Dallas, the Houston suburbs, and a South Texas seat held by a party-switching state represenative. Democrats didn't win a single one, and most of the races weren't even close. In Harris County (Houston), where Democrats talked of tapping into the roughly 800,000 nonregistered potential voters, Davis lost by four points. (The Dem's 2010 nominee, Bill White, won it by two.) In the final indignity, Democrats even lost Davis' state Senate seat to a pro-life tea party Republican.
"Tonight's decisive victory proves they picked the wrong battleground," boasted GOP state Sen. Dan Patrick, who won the race for lieutenant governor by 19 points, despite an almost concerted effort to alienate Hispanic voters. (He warned, at one point, that child migrants might bring Ebola with them across the border.)
Soon-to-be-governor Abbott had a low bar to clear, and he did so easily. Davis hammered him for comparing law enforcement corruption in heavily Hispanic South Texas to that of a "Third-world country," and for refusing to say whether, as attorney general, he would hypothetically defend a hypothetical Texas law banning interracial marriage. (Abbott's wife, Cecilia, is Mexican-American.) His simple response was to show up in South Texas and campaign seriously. It paid off: Abbott won 44 percent of Latino voters, according to exit polling—including a plurality of Latino men.
And, in a sprawling, heavily Hispanic district that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, Republicans unseated Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego. His replacement: Will Hurd, a former CIA agent who will be Texas’ first black Republican congressman since Reconstruction.
One silver lining for Battleground Texas is that no one was even running in some of these races two years ago.
One silver lining for Battleground Texas is that no one was even running in some of these races two years ago. On Wednesday, the organization released a detailed memo from Senior Adviser Jeremy Bird and Executive Director Jenn Brown outlining their accomplishments and vowing to fight on:"We said from the beginning that turning Texas into a battleground will take time and commitment—and we're just getting started." Among their wins: a more potent fundraising operation, a growing voter database, and a nugget from the exit polls: higher percentages of young voters, women voters, and minority voters than in 2010.
But the voters just weren't going for Davis. Even though Battleground boasted of having trained 8,700 new voter-registration volunteers, the overall voter turnout dropped by 300,000 from 2010. Absent any sort of marquee victory to call its own, the fate of Battleground is now outside its control. Texas Democrats won't have another big election for four years—plenty of time to lose interest—and, well, something else might come up in the interim.
When I dropped by the group's Fort Worth headquarters in September, I asked director Brown if she'd consider leaving her post to work for Hillary Clinton's almost certain presidential campaign. She laughed and looked down at the mostly blank paper in front of her.
"The most important thing about Battleground Texas is that it is a Texas-run organization," she said. "It's not about me—I just am lucky to be a part of it, so I actually think no matter who runs it, whether it's me or something else, ultimately, we don't actually run the organization."
So, Battleground took a shellacking in its first test run. Now comes the hard part.
Former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds easily won the South Dakota Senate race on Tuesday, taking advantage of a split field that included progressive Democrat Rick Weiland and an iconoclastic ex-GOP senator, Larry Pressler. Weiland had hoped that American Indian voters, boosted by expanded voting access on reservations, would push him over the top, just as they did with Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) in 2002. That didn't happen.
Shannon County, which includes much of the Pine Ridge Reservation, voted overwhelmingly for Weiland (he took 81 percent of that vote). But turnout dropped from its 2012 level, and the race wasn't close enough for votes on the reservation to matter. There was a silver lining, though: 2,161 residents voted to change the county's name. Shannon County was named for former Dakota Territory Supreme Court Chief Justice Peter Shannon, whose principle accomplishment was to help kick American Indians off their land in the 1890s. The new name: Oglala Lakota County, after the tribe that calls the reservation home.
Four years after losing a Senate special election to Scott Brown, Massachusetts Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley is on the brink of defeat in another race that was hers to lose. Both Fox News and ABC have called the governor's race for Republican Charlie Baker, but Coakley has pledged to fight on—at least until Wednesday morning.
The result, if it holds, is a gut-punch for Democrats in the Bay State, where Coakley once led by 29 points. As the race tightened in the campaign's final month, heavyweight surrogates came to Massachusetts to stump for the nominee. But in the end, not even Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton could save Coakley from another electoral defeat.
The easy takeaway here is that Coakley is a spectacularly bad candidate, woefully out of touch with Massachusetts voters. "You could call her the Bill Buckner of politics, if she even knew who the Red Sox were," as Politico Magazine's Ben Schreckinger put it in October. But if you really know who the Red Sox are, you'd know that Buckner's famous gaffe came only after the rest of the team had already blown the game. And that's sort what happened here—the loss stemmed from a confluence of factors, not a singularly flawed candidate.
Michigan's "foreclosure king" is coming to Washington. Republican David Trott, a Michigan businessman who got rich on the collapse of the state's housing market, easily fended off his Democratic rival in Michigan's 11th congressional district.
A former state finance chair for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, Trott's line of work made him a polarizing figure in Michigan. As I reported in January:
Trott's campaign notes that the candidate has a wide array of business interests, but his financial disclosure forms leave no doubt that foreclosures are where he made his fortune. Through various interconnected concerns, Trott is involved in virtually every aspect of the foreclosure business.
His flagship operation is Trott & Trott, a 500-person law firm founded by his father that is one of the largest foreclosure specialists in the state; its clients are largely lenders, such as Bank of America and Countrywide. Trott & Trott doesn't personally evict homeowners; it handles the paperwork for banks that do. "It's what we do; it's all we've ever done," Trott said in a 2007 TV interview, of his foreclosure work.
He also owns a real estate firm that manages foreclosed properties, as well as a newspaper chain, Michigan Legal News, that banks are required to post foreclosure notices in.
Trott doesn't just benefit from foreclosures; his firm has pushed to change state law to make it easier for banks to kick people out of their homes.
The race was (most likely) the swan song for GOP Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, a Santa-impersonating reindeer rancher who was elected almost by accident in 2012 when the incumbent congressman was disqualified. Trott crushed Bentivolio in the August primary, and Bentivolio appeared finished. But in October, Bentivolio announced he would wage a write-in campaign for the seat on the grounds that it might help drive out turnout for other GOP candidates on the ticket. (The fact that he continued to refer to Trott as "the foreclosure attorney" perhaps pointed to less altruistic motives.)
As of Tuesday night, Bentivolio has received fewer than 1,100 votes.
Texas Democrats started the 2014 election cycle with a dream of turning the state blue for the first time in two decades, buoyed by a progressive hero on the ballot and an influx of outside cash and organizers. Instead, the nation's biggest red state just got even redder. On Tuesday, for the fifth consecutive cycle, Texas Republicans swept statewide offices, including the race for governor, where Republican attorney general Greg Abbott cruised past Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis.
It was Abbott who made the decision to hire now-Sen. Ted Cruz to be the state's first solicitor general, and it was Abbott—more so even than retiring Gov. Rick Perry—who epitomized his state's antagonistic relationship with Washington, suing the Obama administration no fewer than 27 times in his first five years. ("I go into the office, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home," Abbott likes to tell Republican audiences.) Lest he be tempted to move to the center, voters also tapped state Sen. Dan Patrick to be his lieutenant governor, a position that's disproportionately powerful in Texas because it serves a dual legislative and executive function. Patrick has said that God speaks to the world through Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson, and warned that migrants are bringing "third-world diseases" with them across the border.
Winning in the Lone Star State was always supposed to be an uphill battle for Democrats in 2014, a point that Battleground Texas, the field-organizing outfit launched last spring by a group of Obama campaign volunteers, made clear from the get-go. When Davis jumped into the race, the time-frame shifted. As the group's executive director, Jenn Brown, told me in September, Davis' candidacy settled a chicken-and-egg dilemma that had been confounding organizers: "Great people don't want to run unless they feel there's an infrastructure to support them, but it's hard to get great infrastructure without great candidates."
But Davis—and Battleground—also had the effect of throwing a football at a hornet's nest. FreedomWorks, a conservative political outfit, launched an $8-million "Come and Take It" project last year designed to thwart Democratic gains. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who faced minimal Democratic resistance in his re-election bid this year, nonetheless asked for donations to combat "out-of-state organizers"—and "Keep it Red." (That's not to be confused with another group, "Let's Keep it Texas Red," which was formed before Cornyn's group but which per its campaign finance report exists mainly to sell t-shirts.) Even conservative provocateur James O'Keefe—recently seen crossing the border dressed as Osama Bin Laden—got in on the action, publishing a sting video purporting to show Battleground volunteers illegally cribbing phone numbers from voter registration rolls. (The practice is not illegal.)
No one took the threat more seriously than Abbott, who warned that Democratic groups constituted "an assault far more dangerous than what the leader of North Korea threatened when he said he was going to add Austin, Texas, as one of the recipients of his nuclear weapons." He walked the walk, too, making repeated visits to heavily Hispanic, heavily Democratic South Texas in the hopes of offsetting any gains the Davis campaign hoped it could make.