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Engage Texas

RIP, Engage Texas

We hardly knew ye.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Engage Texas, the massive Republican super PAC focused on voter registration, is shutting down, citing challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The group began last year with the support of some of the biggest Texas GOP donors and raised $12.7 million while building a staff in the hundreds. Yet the group says that the months-long pandemic has made clear that “person-to-person contact voter registration is going to be challenging for an indeterminate amount of time.”

“Leadership has determined that the highest and best use of supporter and donor energies at this point is to phase out person-to-person voter registration, close Engage Texas and encourage our supporters to engage with candidate and party activities ahead of the November election,” Engage Texas said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Friday. “Engage Texas is proud of our highly successful voter registration efforts and believes that conservative voter registration will successfully continue through the Republican Party of Texas Volunteer Engagement Project.”

Engage Texas, which had $6 million cash on hand at the end of March, is in the process of redistributing its remaining funds to other GOP groups with similar goals. The reallocations are expected to be detailed on its next quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, which is due July 15.

The shuttering of Engage Texas leaves the Texas GOP’s Volunteer Engagement Project as Republicans’ chief registration effort this election cycle at the state level. The project is aiming to register 100,000 likely Republicans by Oct. 5, the registration deadline for the November election. Party chairman James Dickey said Thursday the project has surpassed 85,000 registrations.

“Republicans are finally paying major attention again to voter registration,” Dickey said during a tele-town hall about the party’s 2020 convention. “It’s back in our DNA, and we are ceding no turf.”

Still, the shutdown of Engage Texas is a major blow to one of the lessons that state Republicans took from their setbacks in the 2018 election — that they needed to grow their pool of voters and hone in on registration after years of neglect.

[…]

In shutting down, Engage Texas pointed to data that it said showed that for the first time in a decade, “Republican registrations have outpaced Democrat registrations in Texas, and have done so for nine consecutive months.” As of today, the group said, Republicans have registered 18,677 more new voters this year in Texas than Democrats have.

I would not take their claims very seriously. I’m sure they registered some voters, but without knowing their exact metrics it’s hard to take any such claims, especially such specific claims, as anything more than self-aggrandizement. (How would they know how many voters Democratic-aligned organizations have registered, for example?) I would also note that if this mission was that critical, this would be a funny time to abandon it. I’m sure the rest of that money will go to only the most deserving consultants and operatives. See you on the other side, Engage Texas.

Coronavirus and voter registration

Time for Plan B.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas was making record gains getting voters on the rolls. Now the coronavirus threatens to grind that progress to a halt, throwing up major hurdles to Democratic efforts to make the state’s November elections competitive for a change.

Texas’ emergence as a battleground in 2020 depends largely on new voters, and both Democrats and Republicans have poured millions into efforts to register them — massive campaigns that have already added two million voters since the 2016 election.

But the coronavirus countermeasures — particularly limits on public gatherings — threaten to seriously hamper those efforts.

Because Texas is one of 11 states that do not allow voters to register online, much of the work depends on face-to-face interaction — going door to door and setting up booths on college campuses, at concerts, naturalization ceremonies, graduations and other big events that are prohibited in the time of COVID-19.

“Crises like this really expose the failures in our system — the fact that we don’t have online voter registration, the fact that we are a state currently that doesn’t allow vote by mail,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a former Democratic U.S. senate candidate who launched Jolt, a group focused on mobilizing Texas voters, where she is now a consultant.

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party, meanwhile, says it is reworking everything, launching a fully digital organizing project that will include a new Nextdoor.com-style website where people can post about everything from politics to what’s happening in their communities during the pandemic. They say they’re doing aggressive outreach to get people on it. And the party says it is starting weekly calls with groups in all 254 Texas counties.

“Obviously the challenges are not insignificant,” said Cliff Walker, Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party. “But it helped us reorient and take our organization program that was going to be focused on voter registration at the doors — and we had great plans to ramp up a lot of that type of face-to-face interaction — and to do something that’s different and could be a silver lining on a really big dark gray cloud.”

The party says its most effective registration efforts in 2018 were reaching out to people who were new to Texas — and that effort won’t change now.

But the virus makes other outreach efforts impossible.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s a democratic tragedy,” said Drew Galloway, executive director of Mobilize Organize Vote Empower, a group that registered 7,500 voters on college campuses in three weeks in before the pre-primary deadline in February.

See here and here for some context. The story notes that Republicans are trying to register voters now too, and once again I muse about how they probably wish there was an online option available to them. Not gonna happen as long as they’re in charge, that much is for sure. As with everything else, how much of an effect this has is directly proportional to how long we’re all under some form of restricted movement. If things have more or less returned to normal by, say, the end of April, then this will be a blip in the trend. The longer it takes, the bigger the blip. If nothing else, it’s a extra point of emphasis for why we need to revamp our crappy existing system.

The Democrats’ voter registration strategy

From the Texas Signal:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

[Last] Monday, the Texas Democratic Party announced the largest voter registration program in the history of the state. This massive effort will be done in conjunction with Fair Fight, a voting rights organization started by Stacey Abrams.

“Fair Fight is proud to partner with the Texas Democratic Party to fund, train and support a robust voter protection initiative through our Fair Fight 2020 initiative,” Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for Fair Fight, told ABC News. “Republicans in Texas have, for a long time, sought to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color, and it takes a dedicated voter protection team on the ground well before Election Day to make sure all Texans’ voices can be heard.”

[…]

To get Texans voting, the Texas Democratic Party and Fair Fight will seek to register 2.6 million potential new Democrats through machine-learning-based models, a year-round voter assistance hotline, hundreds of thousands of registration applications sent by mail, and 1,000 organizers and canvassers on the ground.

That’s a lot of voters, and this is a very ambitious project. It’s worth putting some numbers on all this, so let’s hit the highlights from the TDP press release:

More highlights from the programs include:

  • We are going to have 1,000 field organizers and canvassers on the ground in 2020.

  • The Texas Democratic Party is gearing up to mail hundreds of thousands of voter registration applications to unregistered voters across the state.

  • We’re launching a year-round voter assistance hotline.

  • We are building machine-learning-based models to quickly identify the partisanship-leaning of new and low propensity voters so that campaigns can mobilize Democratic voters.

  • We are hiring dedicated staff to engage every part of our Democratic coalition — including our AAPI, African-American, Latinx, LGBTQ+, youth, and Disability communities — and to narrow the gap in rural committees.

  • The Texas Democratic Party is working alongside fellow Democratic organizations to ensure these young voters are pinpointed for voter registration and mobilization.

By the numbers:

  • We anticipate the voter rolls will swell to upwards of 18,000,000 registered voters in 2020.

  • The Texas Democratic Party is focused on registering the estimated 2,600,000 Texans who are likely to vote Democratic if they register to vote.

  • At the congressional level, we estimate there are 495,000 potential new Democrats in the eight DCCC-targeted districts.

  • We estimate 210,000 potential new Democrats in the 12 state house districts that flipped in 2018. Additionally, there are 315,000 potential new Democrats in 18 targeted State House districts for 2020.

This accompanying document goes into more detail, and it’s worth reading through. One useful tidbit noted was that a smaller version of this registered 133,000 new voters in the 2018 cycle, and 120,000 of them turned out. That’s pretty good. There’s a bunch of charts in that last link, one of which shows voter registration totals over time, but to reiterate:

November 2008 = 13,575,062
November 2010 = 13,269,233
November 2012 = 13,646,226
November 2014 = 14,025,441
November 2016 = 15,101,087
November 2018 = 15,793,257
January 2020 = 16,106,984

Lot more growth in the last six years than in the first, but we’re still a long way from 18 million. Republicans of course are also seeking to register voters, which is rather a departure from past behavior on their part. I’d like to see some journalism about this effort in proportion to what I’ve seen about Engage Texas, and I’d very much like to see some followup reporting as the year goes along – we will see official registration numbers for March, at least – to see how this is proceeding. In the meantime, if you want to Do Something about 2020, helping out this effort would be an excellent place to start.

News flash: Republicans still like Trump

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

As in any sports bar in Texas when the Dallas Cowboys are playing on Monday night, most of the TVs at a British pub in northwest San Antonio were tuned to the game.

But on one side of The Lion and Rose, the sights and sounds were just a little off. None of the fans wore silver or blue. Instead, about 50 people, predominately wearing red, gathered around a bank of big-screen TVs playing C-SPAN as they ate bar food and cheered with each applause line that President Donald Trump delivered on a stage in Kentucky.

Trump’s re-election campaign organized the watch party to connect with more potential volunteers as it seeks an army of campaign workers to help extract more votes, even out of Democratic-leaning areas like San Antonio. The event was part of the Trump campaign’s National Week of Action, essentially a dry run to “activate” thousands of volunteers needed next November to get out the vote.

It was the second San Antonio event in just three weeks — on Oct. 15 the president’s son Donald Trump Jr headlined a rally downtown aimed at firing up the party faithful as well as collecting names, emails and phone numbers of volunteers who can be deployed next fall. And President Trump himself was in San Antonio seven months earlier meeting with business leaders and holding a fundraiser.

“We’re not giving up on one single voter,” said Toni Anne Dashiell, the Texas Republican National Committeewoman from nearby Kerr County who was at the watch party last week.

Dashiell said the strategy is to mobilize while the Democrats are locked in a potentially long primary battle to determine their nominee. While the opposition is working on Iowa and New Hampshire, the Trump campaign is pouring resources into states such as Texas to shore up support.

The Democrats are convinced Texas is more in play that it has been in a generation, but by the time they get their presidential nominee, Dashiell said Trump will be way ahead in building the kind of ground game needed to hold the state.

Still, GOP optimism can be a tall order in Bexar County, which wasn’t kind to Trump in 2016. While Trump won Texas by 9 percentage points, his defeat in Bexar County wasn’t just bad — it was historically bad.

In winning just 40.7 percent of the vote, Trump did worse in the San Antonio area than any Republican Party candidate in nearly 50 years. Hillary Clinton won Bexar County by more than 79,000 votes — the biggest vote margin of victory for a Democrat in the county’s history.

Trump campaign officials say the 2016 returns are a symptom of “having left votes on the table.” They are convinced that if they can begin working now in Republican pockets in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, they can far exceed their 2016 showing.

On the bright side, Trump did do slightly better in Bexar County than Ted Cruz did in 2018. I mean, we know that Republicans are going to work for the 2020 election. They’re trying to register voters, they’ll spend a bunch of money, that sort of thing. What makes that newsworthy, of course, is that they feel they have to do that. It’s not just that Republicans came close to losing several statewide races last year, it’s also that they got annihilated in urban areas, lost numerous suburban counties that had long been their strongholds, and saw Democrats at every level set turnout records. All of that was driven by Donald Trump, and the strong need so many people felt to put the brakes on his destructive reign. Polling data we have so far suggests none of that has abated.

Now having said all that, Republicans should expect to get more votes statewide in 2020 than they did in 2018. I say that because they got more votes in 2016 than they did in 2018. Some number of Presidential year Republicans did stay home in 2018. That’s true of Democrats as well, even with the record-setting turnout, but it’s fair to say that Republicans start with a deeper well to dig into. Not that much deeper – we know that a lot of people with Republican voting history went Democratic in 2018, again as a response to Trump. I don’t see any evidence to suggest that has changed. But there are voters out there for the Republicans to reach, likely more in the rural and exurban areas than the urban areas, and I expect they will mostly succeed in reaching them. Democrats have the harder task, which is not only reaching their 2016-but-not-2018 voters but also finding the new voters, and they have more ground to make up. That’s the challenge we have to meet.

By the way, in regards Engage Texas, the right wing-funded voter registration project: Tiffany and I each received a mailer from them last week, urging us to get registered. Which is hilarious, because we are the very definition of vote-in-every-election people, and we are not the people that Engage Texas is looking for. I mean, even a third-rate data processing operation would have figured that out. Maybe the ROI for this extreme blanketing approach is worth the presumably high cost per new registration that they manage to generate. It’s fine by me if they want to waste their money like that, though. Send us more mail, Engage Texas!

Our first look at how Engage Texas will operate

Interesting move.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As people filed in and out of the massive driver license office in Southwest Houston on Tuesday morning, two workers at a tent affiliated with a conservative advocacy group asked if the passersby would sign a petition or register to vote.

A follow-up question as two women filled out the forms: Are you conservative or liberal?

“Conservative means you believe in less government and less taxes,” one of the workers – wearing a lime green T-shirt with the group’s name, Engage Texas — asked them. “Liberal means you believe in more government and more taxes.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, who leads the Democratic Caucus in the Texas House, said he witnessed something similar Monday outside Department of Public Safety driver license offices in Fort Worth and in Hurst, a suburb of Dallas, where people who signed a petition to ‘ban late-term abortion’ were asked to register to vote.

“The taxpayers of Texas have a right to expect that their hard-earned dollars are not subsidizing political activity, as is the case here,” Turner wrote Tuesday in a letter to DPS. “And Texans who are trying to renew their driver licenses, already forced to wait hours – sometimes outside in the heat – are enduring enough already without having to deal with political operatives while stuck in line.”

But DPS said in a statement that public spaces outside driver license offices are available for “political speech,” and it appears that Engage Texas is just beginning to ramp up its efforts to register voters ahead of the 2020 elections in which the GOP faces more competitive races than it has in over a decade.

[…]

Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said the difference between Engage Texas’ voter drive and those organized by Democratic and other groups is the use of a petition or other questions to gauge a person’s political interests.

“If you’re going to be there and register voters, that’s fine,” Rahman said. “But if you’re only registering conservative voters and you’re making them do a political test … that’s where the problem is.”

Chris Davis, elections administrator in Williamson County — where Turner said Engage Texas representatives told him the group was also posted — said he wasn’t aware of any part of the law that explicitly prohibits deputy voter registrars from screening for political affiliation before registering a voter.

But Davis said he believes they have an obligation to register anyone who would like to be registered.

“Their primary charge, as I see it, is to register folks, regardless of stripe, race, creed,” Davis said. “And I wouldn’t look kindly on anyone that is trying to determine a potential voter’s leanings or proclivities as it relates to their politics or stances or beliefs before they issue out an application.”

See here and here for the background. This appears to be legal, though apparently something no one had known would be allowed by DPS before now. Let’s be honest, if any Democratic-aligned group had tried something like this – not just operating on state property, but also overtly excluding people they don’t want to register – as recently as last year, Republicans everywhere would have had a capital-F freakout. I’m trying to come up with non-hyperbolic examples of reactions they would have had, and I can’t. Everything up to and including calling out the National Guard to arrest the registrars and defend DPS parking lots from them would have been possible. Now? Desperate times, I guess. But if that’s what they want

Legislation can’t be filed to stop what Engage Texas is doing until the Texas House and Senate’s 2021 session. In the meantime, Turner says, he expects a bevy of groups to take advantage of DPS’ hospitality.

“If this is DPS’ policy, and they say it is, I think it’s going to be a free-for-all out there now that this is well-known,” Turner says.

I approve that message. The DMN and the Texas Signal have more.

Raising money to register Republicans

Just keeping an eye on things.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A new super PAC focused on registering new Republican voters in Texas has raised nearly $10 million from some of the state’s biggest GOP donors, according to its first report to the Federal Election Commission.

Filed early Wednesday morning, the disclosure shows that the political action committee, Engage Texas, took in $9.6 million between when it registered with the FEC in mid-April and when the reporting period ended June 30. It spent $336,000 and has $9.3 million in the bank.

“This significant investment in resources will help us reach Texans in every corner of the state to educate them about Texas’ successful, conservative principles and engage them in the political process,” Engage Texas Chairman Mano de Ayala said in a statement.

Engage Texas launched in mid-June with the promise of signing up and turning out hundreds of thousands of new GOP voters to help keep the state red in 2020. The super PAC is led by Chris Young, a former top staffer at the Republican National Committee.

[…]

It appears Engage Texas has wasted little time getting to work, reporting 17 people on payroll through June in addition to Young. One of them is Kristy Wilkinson, who was deputy campaign manager for Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection bid last year and previously the Republican National Committee’s Texas state director.

The group says it has already opened offices in Austin, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It also has dispatched organizers to begin work in Bell, Blanco, Collin, Dallas, Denton, Fort Bend, Harris, Hays, Lampasas, Tarrant, Travis and Williamson counties.

See here for the background. This to me falls somewhere in between “legitimate threat to Democratic efforts in 2020” and “awesome get-rich-quick scheme for Republican consultants”, I just don’t know exactly where yet. I don’t think a lack of registered voters has been the issue for Republicans in the last couple of elections, but if this is more of a turnout effort then I think they could have a real effect. It would have been a much bigger disaster for them in 2018 if they hadn’t had near-Presidential levels of turnout on their side. Like I said, worth keeping an eye on but to be determined how big a deal this is.

Republicans are worried about Texas, part 583

When was the last time you head about a Republican-oriented mass voter registration effort?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Wealthy Republican donors are preparing a multimillion-dollar effort to register more than 1 million new GOP voters in Texas for 2020 amid anxiety that President Trump could be in more trouble in this reliably red state than some in the party realize.

Richard Weekley, a Houston real estate developer and veteran Republican campaign contributor, is spearheading the new group, dubbed Engage Texas. According to GOP sources, the organization was set up as a 501(c)4, political nonprofit organization and plans to raise and spend $25 million by Election Day next year.

Engage Texas has garnered the support of top Republicans in the state and appears to have the support of party insiders in Washington. They believe the group could be critical to compensating for demographic trends that favor the Democrats — and to holding Texas for Trump and GOP Sen. John Cornyn.

“In 2018, we got hammered not only in the urban areas but in the suburbs, too,” Cornyn, 67, told the Washington Examiner. The third-term senator, who has sounded the alarm about the dangers of taking Texas for granted, described with a sense of relief the “substantial focus and investment, now, that will be made on voter registration.”

[…]

Some Republicans have attributed the outcome last fall, in which the GOP also suffered losses in state legislative races, to Cruz’s unpopularity and the resources invested by O’Rourke and his allies, a feat Democrats are unlikely to repeat in a national presidential contest. Senior Republican strategists in Texas are warning against that line of thinking.

“Everybody thinks it was a Cruz-Beto thing. But it’s a mess,” a GOP adviser said, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. “Independents are behaving like Democrats — like they did in 2018.”

I wonder if they’ll come to regret supporting politicians who are dedicated to making it hard to register voters. Sure would be nice if y’all could do this electronically, am I right? We should keep an eye on this, but someone with more knowledge of the demography of not-registered voting-age citizens will have to answer the question of whether there are enough likely Republicans (i.e., white people) out there for this to be worth the effort. Link via Political Animal.