HOUSTON — Sick of losing on Election Day, they huddled candidates on their 2014 statewide ticket in a hotel ballroom and bristled at being outspent and outnumbered by political rivals in Texas who they talked up as sophisticated and savvy.
But this was no meeting of hapless Texas Democrats.
They were top Republicans, including George P. Bush and Gov. Rick Perry’s possible successor, bemoaning big cities such as Houston already voting Democrat and sounding alarms about the brains behind President Barack Obama’s re-election now trying to turn Texas entirely blue.
In a sharp pivot from a decade of Republican swagger in Texas — a bravado that comes with controlling every statewide office — conservatives are muffling mocking tones about Democrats and now openly calling them formidable. The worries come through in political ads that urge donors to “Keep Texas Red” and rallies like one in Houston that vowed to “Take Back Harris County.”
Rousing this new conservative unease is Battleground Texas, a new political action committee led by Obama campaign veterans, and its support of a rare jewel for Texas Democrats: a charismatic gubernatorial candidate with national star power in state Sen. Wendy Davis.
“They’ve proven to be effective in some other states. They’ve proven to be well-organized,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who stockpiled more than $20 million over the past several years in his bid to replace Perry next year.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn appears likely to escape a viable Republican or Democratic challenger in 2014, but nonetheless OK’d his campaign beginning a “Keep It Red” message this summer. His aides say nearly 13,000 supporters have signed a pledge and the campaign is coordinating block walks and social media-training — efforts that mirror Battleground Texas.
The dread over a Democratic resurgence discomfits with an opponent that hasn’t won a statewide office since 1994. Conservatives’ grip on Texas has tightened every year since, and peaked only two years ago when Republicans won a rare supermajority in the Legislature and rammed through pet measures such as new voter ID laws.
But Republicans insist the fear is real despite their dominance and the long odds that Davis faces next year, and that their concerns aren’t a feigned ploy to shake down donors. Cornyn’s campaign says 98 percent of its nearly 500 donors to “Keep It Red” have given $100 or less.
FreedomWorks, the deep-pocketed conservative group that funded Ted Cruz’s victory to the Senate in 2012, also has unveiled its own “Come &Take It Texas” drive.
“We said this is something we need to take seriously. Then it became, ‘OK, we need a plan,”’ Cornyn campaign manager Brendan Steinhause said.
At an upscale Houston mall, Abbott and Bush headlined an after-work rally that warned of a possible turning tide. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said it was time “to draw a line in the sand,” starting with the nation’s fourth-largest city and surrounding county, which Obama carried in 2008 and 2012.
Up later was Bush, the nephew of former President George W. Bush who is running for state land commissioner: “If anybody from Battleground Texas tells you they’re about to turn Texas blue, we’re going to say?” The crowd shouted “No way!”
A table outside the entrance hawked $20 T-shirts emblazoned with red-meat messages such as, “God, Guns and Guts Made America — Let’s Keep All Three!” On every chair inside the ballroom, a petition on yellow paper called on lawmakers to defend the Texas Constitution’s definition of marriage and rued the rise of domestic partner benefits in the workplace.
It wasn’t a packed house — and the rank-and-file who came weren’t the younger and Hispanic voters that Republicans acknowledge they need to stay in power. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who said he thinks Davis’ filibuster riled up Democrats enough to cost Republicans seats as soon as next November, reminded the audience that the party’s average age of delegates is 58.
Lauren Martinez, 26, noticed with disappointment that there weren’t many others her age around. She said she’s been surprised to see friends lining up behind Davis.
“As a young person, I see a lot of my friends supporting her,” Martinez said. “People that I would have thought were more conservative.”
Davis, a two-term state senator, is still regarded as a longshot despite a national celebrity propelled by her nearly 13-hour filibuster over abortion restrictions in the Texas Capitol this summer. Battleground Texas is out to give her a fighting chance.
Launched in February, the organization has since made nearly two-dozen hires and expects to eventually have a staff of 100, executive director Jenn Brown said. She said Battleground Texas has signed an additional 10,000 volunteers.
But Democrats need money as much as bodies, and Battleground Texas’ prowess as a fundraising arm remains to be seen. It raised $1 million in its first month, the same amount that Abbott reported receiving in both July and August.
Brown, who wouldn’t reveal the current balance of donation, said Republicans have taken Texas for granted. She said roughly 8 of 10 donors in its first month were in-state but acknowledged party interest beyond Texas borders.
“Obviously, there is national excitement from Democrats about being more competitive in Texas,” Brown said.
George Helber, 66, left the rally saying he only feared Davis because of the money that Obama’s former campaign team can help funnel to her campaign. The Houston small business owner offered a glimpse of what it’s like to be a conservative in one of the few places in Texas that, for now at least, is governed by Democrats.
“I seek other conservatives,” Helber said. “And I argue a lot.”