This is good, too.
Some of Democrats’ biggest regrets about the 2020 election in Texas had to do with organizing. It was not consistent throughout the cycle — and usually isn’t in any cycle. It was supplanted by TV ads at the end. And it was hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, with the backing of the state’s most prominent Democrats, two former congressional candidates are trying to turn those regrets into action.
The candidates, Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel, are launching a new nonprofit called Ground Game Texas that will focus on year-round organizing on progressive issues, aiming to fill what they see as a statewide void for their party. The group starts off with a $1 million investment from Register2Vote, a national nonprofit that the two already help lead.
“There’s no off years and there’s no off cycles, and folks need to stay engaged year-round,” Siegel said in an interview, adding there is “kind of a tendency among Democratic activists” to get involved only in presidential-election years or high-profile down-ballot contests like the 2018 U.S. Senate race. “The Republican Party doesn’t do that. They never stop.”
Ground Game Texas will organize Texans around issues rather than candidates, with a focus on what Siegel and Oliver are calling “workers, wages and weed” — issues like raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana that poll well but are not reflected by Republican policymakers in the state. A February University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that 60% of registered voters in Texas support legalizing some amount of marijuana for any use. A similar number in April expressed support for increasing the federal minimum wage.
The group expects to throw its weight behind local ballot initiatives, which often involve a lot of ground work such as collecting signatures for petitions to put the issues on a ballot. Siegel said he has already had conversations about proposals in 10 cities — places like Mission, Bedford and Elgin. The leading ideas there, he said, are decriminalizing marijuana and creating funding for climate jobs.
Ground Game Texas is launching with the support of three of the best-known Texas Democrats: Julián Castro, Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke, who said in a statement that the new group “is going to meet Texans where they are at to listen to them about the issues that matter most.” And it starts with an advisory board that includes Davis; rising-star state Reps. James Talarico of Round Rock and Jasmine Crockett of Dallas; and longtime party stalwarts such as former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and Texas AFL-CIO president Rick Levy.
The advisory board additionally features Democrats who ran in nationally targeted districts last year and suffered some of the toughest losses, like Candace Valenzuela, who narrowly lost to now-U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving.
Both Oliver and Siegel have firsthand experience with the challenges Democrats faced last election cycle. They both performed surprisingly well when they ran against Republican incumbents in 2018 — Oliver against U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin and Siegel against Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin. In 2020, both ran again, only to lose by larger margins.
In 2020, both gained the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which named them to its Red to Blue program for promising challengers. But they remain skeptical of the committee’s priorities.
“[The DCCC] doesn’t really invest in this sort of infrastructure building that Mike and I did in our campaigns,” Oliver said. “That strategy is so different between the DC strategy and the Texas strategy. … The DC strategy doesn’t really work here in Texas, so we want to do year-round organizing.”
The DCCC announced Monday that it was including Texas in an initial seven-figure investment nationally in on-the-ground organizing, calling it the “earliest ever organizing investment of this scale and scope in DCCC’s history.” The committee said it would target areas in Texas such as Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, where Democrats notably underperformed last year.
As I’m sure you can guess, I approve of the issues they are focusing on. I very much think there’s ground to be gained by pushing real marijuana reform, and by “reform” I mean decriminalization, if not legalization. People across the board want it, and the single biggest impediment to it is Dan Patrick. I’m more skeptical of raising the minimum wage as a winning issue – note that the polling question is about whether one supports raising the federal minimum wage, not whether one supports raising the minimum wage in Texas – but am happy to push the idea. I trust that the focus on local ballot initiatives is a starting point, because that’s not going to get very far and any success they have is certain to wind up in court, if not in legislative pushback.
Putting emphasis on organizing when three’s not an actual election going on is a good and long-needed idea as well. Lots of people complain that no one talks to them about issues and what’s important to them outside of a “please vote for me” context, so this addresses that gap. We may find out that a lot of these people prefer being left alone most of the time, but there’s no way to know until you try. The bigger point here is that by having this kind of campaign infrastructure be year-round, you’re not having to rebuild from scratch every other year.
We’ve certainly seen various initiatives, promising various kinds of new engagement, come and go over the years. I’m sure that no matter what happens in 2022, in two years’ time I’ll be reading about yet another new effort to organize and engage and register. That’s fine, and it doesn’t mean that what came (and possibly went) before now was wasted or useless. We’ve had to try a lot of things, and to see what works and what doesn’t, we’ve learned from past experiences, and we have made a lot of progress even if the statewide breakthrough hasn’t happened yet. It would be much more concerning to me if we weren’t seeing new efforts like this, spearheaded in part by new additions to the political team, popping up and making news. We all have options for how we want to get involved now. Find the one that works best for you and get into it.