Last week, I introduced you to the Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee (TCDCC), which is focused on recruiting and supporting county-level Democratic candidates outside of our current urban strongholds. It’s an idea and an organization that is long overdue. I wanted to know more about it, so I sent some questions to TCDCC founder Robert Ryland. Here’s our conversation:
1. What made you think of this? Are there organizations like the TCDCC in other states, or is this a first?
Well, for starters, Democrats have lost hundreds of county offices over the last few cycles and not many people seemed to have noticed, but it is crippling us at the grassroots level. I’ve been organizing and working with local candidates in Bastrop County over the last three cycles and seen firsthand their difficulties in trying to be heard over the din of the big media and big money that drives so much of the election narrative – and which has a much bigger impact on turnout than seemingly anything our local party can do for them. It’s like trying to control the tides. Access to resources outside their immediate community is virtually non-existent, and the state party hasn’t had the bandwidth or the funding to really support them in any meaningful way. In a state so dominated by hyper-conservative messaging, local Democrats are at a huge disadvantage in close races, especially in rural & suburban areas like ours. Losing local races also means losing our profile in the community and makes local politics discouraging to activists. We can’t keep hoping that some magical leader will ride to our rescue – Democratic county officials have to unite and work together and fight for themselves and for more progressive and responsible local government.
And we’ve needed something like this for a while. Our caucuses in the legislature and Congress have PACs to protect endangered incumbents and recruit and support candidates for competitive seats; why shouldn’t we have something similar for our elected officials at the level that’s closest to the voters? This is long overdue, in my opinion.
I haven’t come across organizations like this in other states, though I would hope they exist somewhere. I do know that in some states with strong Democratic infrastructure, the party does this kind of work.
2. What are the goals of the TCDCC? Do you intend to contribute directly to candidates, or to provide in-kind assistance (consulting, website, etc)?
The big picture is about rebuilding our bench with capable candidates and rehabilitating the Democratic brand at the neighborhood level. Our immediate goals are bringing our county-level incumbents together as stakeholders in this endeavor; identifying potential pickups, recruiting and training good candidates to run competitive races and supporting incumbents who may be facing serious Republican challenges.
We’ve modeled this somewhat after HDCC. We’ll build this out to be able to provide different services depending on the candidate’s needs. That may be direct contributions, or in-kind work by helping them put together a solid campaign, connecting them with the right vendors, training them to run field programs and work with voter data, etc. It may mean other things directly from the PAC. Moving forward, we want to be able to provide a suite of member services to office-holders to help them serve their constituents more effectively and make the case for more progressive policy and budgeting at the county level.
3. How will you identify the candidates you want to assist? How can a candidate put himself or herself on the TCDCC’s radar?
The best way for prospective candidates to put themselves on our radar right now is to contact us at [email protected] and tell us about themselves.
The big question for any candidate is always “can you win?” But it’s never as simple as the numbers might suggest.
We’ve started by looking closely at precinct-level election data, demographics, and trends as well as local issues and community assets. Several factors can affect a local race. Who has a good profile and background for the office, and the skill set to run a strong race? What kinds of factors might make the Republican incumbent or potential challengers vulnerable? I think that wherever we can find a strong candidate who wants to run, it’s important that we find a way to help them somehow – even if the numbers may not favor them this cycle. This is a long-term project. We have to look at future cycles too, find ways we can make a dent in the Republican machine. We should keep in mind that a lack of opposition implies consent. There’s an old saying: the best time to plant a tree is 40 years ago – the next best time to plant a tree is right now.
4. Do you intend to prioritize certain office types over others, or are all county offices in scope?
We want to start by focusing on the policy and budgeting end of county government – commissioners and county judges, for the most part. Administrative and law enforcement offices are a different animal, and we’ll need more time and study to figure out where those might fit in to our plan. In some counties they carry more authority than others. We don’t want to box ourselves out of anything at this point, so we will certainly examine any opportunity. But the commissioners’ courts are where our focus is for now.
5. You said in your introductory email that the TCDCC seeks to support “county-level Democratic candidates outside of our current urban strongholds”. Are there particular parts of the state that you will be targeting? Are there any races you are looking at already?
We’re looking all over the state, but working outside our urban strongholds is really central to this; it’s where we need it most. The big cities have strong local parties and campaign infrastructure; they’re already developing young candidates and campaign professionals through their ranks, and have a broader base of institutional assets to draw on. Plus, with electorates of their size, much larger financial interests come into play. We want to focus in counties where we don’t have such muscular advantages – but where a little investment could go a long way. Staying out of the biggest counties also stretches our resources because the voter universes are much more manageable, especially for first-time candidates. We can keep these contests on a grassroots level, where you can shake hands with pretty much every person who can cast a ballot for you, and build relationships with voters face-to-face. There are a number of races we’ve already identified as potential pickups and we’ve only scratched the surface. Keep in mind that we lost quite a few seats in 2010 that we shouldn’t have; there’s actually quite a bit of low-hanging fruit, even in some less-than-obvious places.
The fun part about looking at county-level seats is that, while a particular House district or county may be heavily Republican, it may still be possible to find a precinct where Democrats can win. Instead of fretting about our chances to elect a Governor in 2014, let’s drill down and find places where Democratic voters could be propelled to the polls by a local candidate. At that level, the playing field can be pretty broad. Lots of folks are talking about Battleground, and their work is very important, but it only creates a new set of building blocks for us. To make that effort meaningful we need candidates for these newly-registered people to vote for – at every level.
6. The email also mentioned candidate recruitment. What are your plans for that?
Recruitment is the most critical element in this project. There’s a lot of research and profile-building that goes into successful recruitment, but I believe there is a great deal of value to be found in people and places that have historically been overlooked by our party’s establishment. We’ve already met with some folks who are exploring runs for county office, and we’ll be meeting with local officials, community leaders, party activists and others, anywhere and everywhere over the next 6 months. I just came back from the West Texas Conference of the County Judges and Commissioners Association out in Midland, where I met some great local Democrats who are prevailing against a pretty stacked deck. There are more opportunities like that to talk with potential recruits and incumbents – but we certainly won’t limit ourselves to those. All over the state there are Democrats who are community & business leaders, local school board & city council members – lots of talented folks serving right now, or wanting to serve, who could make formidable candidates. It’s important to find people with a good background, who will reflect well on our party, but who also understand the local political landscape and what it will take to connect with voters in their community.
It’s worth noting that some of our existing candidate committees (HDCC, DCCC etc.) have been forced leave some talent off the field for lack of a competitive district, and some folks who would make great candidates have declined to run due to the hefty price tag. Running for the State House is now a half-million-dollar proposition at least. That’s intimidating to anyone, let alone someone who’s pondering their first race. County races are much more affordable and manageable, and the candidate has the added comfort of being able to remain much closer to home and the community they know best, so the learning curve is shorter as well. Those are strong selling points.
7. What has the reaction been from the Democratic establishment?
I’m happy to say that the reaction has been uniformly positive and supportive. Lots of folks had the same reaction you did – “Great idea! Why haven’t we been doing this already?” It’s been a perpetual weakness in our infrastructure, and not working at this level has cost us dearly in terms of our bench and our impact on public policy. There’s been lots of encouragement for the project so far; we need to translate that support into a steady revenue stream to build a strong organization and maintain it over the long haul. This is just the beginning.
8. What can people do to help?
Beyond that, We need help with the number-crunching. We need to build a database of crucial information, down to the voting precinct level, that can be instrumental not only to this project but to other Democratic organizations across the state. We also need current Democratic elected officials at every level to see the big picture and climb on board with this effort.
Of course folks should Like us on Facebook, and spread the word to their friends. And we need eyes and ears. A project of this scope needs to have friends everywhere who can help us identify local assets, potential candidates and funding sources. We’ll have to lean on locals who know their communities and what issues are important to their neighbors. Information is going to be our lifeblood, and in that sense, Democrats in all parts of the state can play a critical role in this effort. Honestly, what better way to rebuild than from the ground up?
Robert can be contacted at [email protected] if you have questions or information to share. I hope you’re inspired to donate to and like the TCDCC as I have been. There are many facets to turning Texas blue, and we need to be engaged in all of them.