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Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas

Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas
© Greg Nash

Congressional Democrats bet big and early on House campaigns in Texas, but some Democrats are calling for the party to invest more in the Lone Star State.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is bullish on its prospects for Texas, which it considers "ground zero" for its 2020 expansion plans.

"You are going to see this former ruby-red state of Texas turn purple and in the very near future turn blue," said Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Democrats nominate Pelosi to keep Speakership MORE (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the DCCC.

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The DCCC has listed eight Texas districts in its "Red to Blue" campaign — by far its largest statewide effort — which supports top-tier Democratic challengers vying to take over a GOP seat.

The bet on congressional campaigns in the state comes after the party’s significant wins in 2018, including electing the first two Latinas to represent Texas in Congress.

But some Texas Democrats are griping about a lack of investment from other party committees, putting the weight of flipping the state on down-ballot candidates.

"The DCCC are the only ones putting a true effort in the state," said Chuck Rocha, the architect of the presidential primary Latino campaign strategy for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks What's behind the divisions over Biden's secretary of Labor? Young voters set turnout record, aiding Biden win MORE (I-Vt.).

Former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeMexico emerging as foreign policy challenge for Biden Beyoncé sports pro-Biden mask on Instagram Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE (D-Texas), whose 2018 Senate campaign was credited with a massive surge in turnout across the state, on Sunday called for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE to visit Texas.

"Texas could win this for Biden and end the nightmare on election night. Texans are doing their part. We’d sure like to see @JoeBiden visit us and spend more resources here," wrote O'Rourke on Twitter.

Cristobal Alex, a senior advisor for the Biden campaign, said the campaign does not comment on future travel, but touted growing presidential-level investments in the state.

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Monday, for instance, the Biden campaign unveiled its flagship Texas ad during a game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys.

Alex says the ad shows it's serious about competing in Texas this election.

"This isn't necessarily a building year, this is a year where Texas makes a difference and brings the country along with it," he said.

But big money investments from super PACs have not flowed into the state, a sign that the party's donor class is still not convinced Texas is winnable.

"There's been one billion dollars raised and spent by super PACs this cycle to talk to white persuadable voters, with zero of those investments going to Texas," said Rocha, who has worked in Texas politics for more than three decades.

Rocha said he's had trouble funding a $10 million program to reach voters of color in Texas, while Democratic super PACs targeting Pennsylvania will spend that much just this week.

Despite the lack of Super PAC money, Democratic candidates in the state are focusing on grassroots and small-donor strategies, as well as voters of color.

"With all eyes on Texas, we welcome help from anyone who is working to elect Democrats across Texas and it's clear that grassroots enthusiasm here at an all-time high," said Sri Preston Kulkarni, a Houston-area Democrat included in the DCCC's Red to Blue campaign.

"In 2018, we started reaching out to diverse communities that were ignored far too long by our political process. That work continues today and has put us in a strong position to win," added Kulkarni.

Democratic campaign managers on the ground see a very different picture for the presidential race from 2016, when there was scant support from higher party echelons.

"At our district level we're happy with what's going on at the top of the ticket," said Geoffrey Simpson, the campaign manager for Candace Valenzuela, one of the Democrats on the Red to Blue list.

Simpson said the Biden campaign is creating a buzz through national ads, and by sending campaign principals like Jill Biden to the state.

Jill Biden has visited several Texas cities over the past year, including to each end of Texas's border with Mexico in El Paso and Brownsville, where she crossed the border to review conditions at migrant camps.

And Simpson added the extra attention is already changing the way Texans experience an election, after years of getting relatively little attention from national campaigns.

"The average voter in Texas is overwhelmed with how much political communication they're getting because they're not used to it at all," said Simpson.

The media saturation allows candidates like Valenzuela, a former school board member, to prop up candidates below her in the ballot, with a view to redistricting after the 2020 Census.

"Texas has seen unprecedented levels of investment at all levels, and we can feel that contributing to the grassroots energy on the ground and record shattering early vote totals," said Valenzuela.

So far, more than four million Texans have cast their ballots, compared to 576,416 by Oct. 24, 2016, according to the Texas secretary of state.

The participation numbers are especially important for Texas Democrats, who say they're within reach of taking the statehouse ahead of the redistricting process, where Texas is expected to gain one or two seats in the U.S. House.

Bustos said the engagement with Texas voters is set to become a permanent feature for the DCCC, given the demographic and social change in the state, and the potential for competing in dozens of races each cycle.

The current strategy began under former DCCC Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) as the "year of engagement," which was renamed the "cycle of engagement" under Bustos.

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"We've got that foundation built for a full three years now," she said. "This is not something that we're going to stop and start anymore."

Still, attracting big money donors and super PACs will take real gains on the ground, and a strong showing in the presidential election could accelerate that process.

Despite the opportunity that the state's 38 electoral college votes represent, Rocha said it's the state's size that scares away new investors.

"Because it's like eating an elephant," said Rocha. "You walk up to it and you don't know where to start. I've been trying to explain you start by taking one bite at a time, and at least the DCCC has taken the first bite."