Blue Texas? Democratic group hopes to pump millions into state’s neglected party infrastructure

Democratic signage, mugs, stickers and buttons on display at the Travis County Democratic Party office in Austin on Oct. 8, 2019. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

A team of Democratic strategists unveiled a new group Thursday that aims to turn Texas blue by building up the party’s campaign infrastructure over multiple elections — offering a more practical outlet, in the eyes of the group’s architect, for liberal donors who have spent recent cycles showering cash on losing candidates.

The new outfit, a political action committee dubbed the Agave Democratic Infrastructure Fund, will focus on training campaign staff, recruiting down-ballot candidates and gauging public opinion to help Texas Democrats sharpen their message. The goal is to build a “long-term ecosystem of support, resources, and talent” that “won’t dissolve into thin air after Election Day,” said PAC founder Luke Warford.

“We’ve seen clearly that demographics are not destiny in Texas; that we need to do more to make Texas Democrats sustainably competitive and move past the boom-and-bust cycle of excitement and momentum that centers around specific candidates,” Warford, the Texas Democratic Party’s former chief strategy officer, said in a statement.

The PAC’s launch coincides with the start of the three-day Texas Democratic Convention in downtown El Paso, where delegates are convening to fine tune the party platform, elect the party’s governing executive committee and rally behind a slate of November candidates led by U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, the Dallas Democrat challenging GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

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Notably, Warford’s group overlaps with many of the same functions historically performed by the state party, from recruiting candidates to defining the party’s message. The rollout comes as Texas Democratic leaders continue to face scrutiny for a series of disappointing elections, led by the party’s failure to flip virtually any of the seats it targeted in 2020. The years since have seen major staff turnover, a factious 2022 convention marked by frustrations over the party’s performance, and a round of blowout losses later that year for every statewide candidate — including Beto O’Rourke, who spent more than $80 million in a failed bid to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott. The Texas Democratic Party leaned on donations from O’Rourke, county parties and down-ballot candidates for more than 80% of the $4.4 million hauled into its state fundraising account in 2022 — with more than half coming from O’Rourke alone, according to the TDP’s public filings.

Party leaders, for their part, have touted their earlier-than-ever launch of a 2024 coordinated campaign that aims to unite county parties and allied groups on strategy. They also ran a candidate recruitment push that helped ensure Democrats had someone running for every statewide office on the ballot, along with each State Board of Education and Texas Senate contest and 85% of state House races, according to the party.

At the start of the year, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said the party had “a growing team of professional political operatives and a grassroots coalition that’s dedicated to strengthening party infrastructure and innovating voter mobilization strategies.”

Warford did not single out the party directly, referring only to the need to address “gaps that no other organizations are filling.” A press release announcing Agave’s launch contends that Democratic candidates in Texas often “have had to build the plane as they fly it, struggling to hire qualified staff, identify supporters, and develop effective messaging.”

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The Agave PAC is helping pay for three staffers on the Texas Democratic Party’s data team — arguably the party’s most important function, as it maintains a statewide voter database that candidates and activists rely on to target and turn out voters across Texas.

In an interview, Warford, who ran as a Democrat for the statewide Railroad Commission in 2022, said he is “incredibly thrilled about our partnership with the Texas Democratic Party and the direction that the party is moving.” The rollout was timed with the convention, he said, to emphasize that Agave plans to be “one of the biggest funders to TDP this cycle.”

Still, Warford pointed to two major gaps that are “holding Democrats back.” He said candidates throughout Texas are facing a persistent shortage of “qualified and well-trained” political staff — and struggling to keep the ones they find from leaving the state.

Most Democrats also lack the money to pay for polling and public opinion research, Warford said, leading to situations where candidates shape their campaign message around anecdotal conversations with voters or what they’re hearing from national Democrats. Warford said he faced this frustration himself when he ran for the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas in the state, and could not afford to conduct polling or research early in his campaign.

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“We’re going to be doing extensive opinion research to understand what Texas voters care about and what issues are most important to them, and then working with elected officials across the state … to push out coordinated messaging,” Warford said of his PAC.

Texas Democrats openly acknowledged their candidates’ weak response to the GOP’s united messaging around immigration and the economy in 2022, pinpointing it as a key reason the party lost so decisively in statewide contests.

Agave has raised upwards of $1.25 million so far and plans to hit $3 million by the November election, with a goal of spending $10 to $12 million in election cycles after this, according to the PAC’s press release. The group has filed only one campaign finance report to date, disclosing a single donation from last December: a $150,000 contribution from Simone Otus Coxe, a former public relations executive and nonprofit media leader. Coxe and her husband — who live in Austin after relocating a few years ago from Palo Alto, California — donated $2 million to O’Rourke’s 2022 campaign, collectively making them his biggest donor of the cycle.

Warford declined to say who else is backing Agave, though he said its supporters include “many of the largest Democratic donors in Texas — some of whom, historically, have given primarily to candidates and now are investing in infrastructure.”

The PAC is also helping recruit and pay for Democratic campaign managers in five battleground state House districts, including two GOP-controlled seats in the San Antonio area and at least one in the Dallas suburbs, Warford said. The lower chamber elections will be closely watched in November as most House Republicans look to preserve a new tentative majority that favors private school vouchers.

Two other Democratic operatives are working for Agave as advisers: Logan Davidson, a veteran of various legislative and statewide campaigns who most recently served as legislative director for state Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston; and Victoria Williams, the former New Hampshire state director for Democrat Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.

Warford, a 34-year-old Rhode Island native, moved to Texas in 2019 after stints with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Facebook and various consulting gigs. He ran the Texas Democratic Party’s voter expansion efforts in 2020, when the party made an ambitious push to register new voters. He was then elevated to the chief strategy role during the party’s post-2020 shakeup, serving for nearly a year until he launched his Railroad Commission bid.

In his uphill statewide campaign, Warford focused heavily on the 2021 winter storm and ensuing grid failure, trying to seize on bipartisan voter outrage over how lawmakers responded. He won the Democratic nomination before getting trounced in November.

Agave’s pitch resembles that of an earlier Democratic group, Battleground Texas, that launched more than a decade ago with a defining ethos of reshaping the electorate over time, building grassroots strength and resisting the temptation to view generational candidates as a panacea.

But the group hired leaders from outside Texas, reportedly kept the state and county Democratic parties at arm’s length and became an integral part of 2014 gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis’ campaign — seeming to clash with its declared long-term focus and calls to eschew top-of-the-ticket sensations. Battleground Texas immediately lost much of its sheen when Davis was routed in November.

A group with “the space to not be constrained by short-term incentives,” paired with meaningful donor buy-in, “has been missing for Texas Democrats for a long time,” Warford said. The long-term goal, he added, is building “a Democratic brand that is the Texas version of what it means to be a Democrat.”

“Not ‘what does it mean to be a national Democrat?’” Warford said. “What does it mean to be a Texas Democrat?”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.