As Hillary Clinton seeks to fulfill a goal that eluded her nearly eight years ago, she is gearing up for the delegate-rich Democratic primary in Texas with more than $2 million in fundraising and a reinvigorated network of supporters, campaign donors and political talent drawn heavily from her first primary battle here in 2008.
The former first lady boasts a deep reservoir of Texas connections that date to her days as a Yale law student registering black and Hispanic voters in South Texas in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
When Clinton traveled to McAllen just over a week ago for a fundraiser and a meeting with Democratic political leaders, the border-area visit felt like a homecoming as she reflected on those early days in Texas, according to participants at the closed events.
The March 1 primary, some six months away, constitutes her second act as a Texas political candidate. And barring an entry by Vice President Joe Biden, it’s shaping up to be more predictable than Clinton’s 2008 slugfest with future President Barack Obama — one of the most contentious Democratic primaries in state history.
In what was known as the Texas Two-Step, Clinton came from behind to win the primary, but Obama prevailed in post-primary caucuses en route to securing the nomination and the presidency.
The two-step combination of primary and caucuses, which was created in 1976 to enhance the presidential ambitions of then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, has been disallowed by national party officials. So for the first time in four decades, Texas Democrats will pick their presidential choices based solely on the results of the primary.
The earlier-than-normal date of March 1 gives the state unaccustomed influence in deciding the nominees of both parties. In the Democratic race, Texas has the third-highest batch of delegates in the nation — 252 — and is the linchpin of the Super Tuesday contests being held in a dozen states.
Although Clinton is widely expected to clinch the nomination after Super Tuesday, if not before, she faces a spirited insurgency from Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who has appealed to the party’s liberal and progressive wing.
“I think it’ll be a highly contested primary,” state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said.
Fort Worth ties
Fort Worth attorney Jason C.N. Smith, a leader of Clinton’s efforts in Tarrant County, said the campaign is leaving nothing to chance and has stepped out far earlier than in 2008 in fundraising and grassroots organizing.
Smith said Team Clinton’s early start this cycle was aimed at avoiding a repeat of 2008, when Clinton supporters found Obama ahead in Texas just weeks from the primary.
“While I don’t think that Bernie Sanders or [Maryland] Gov. [Martin] O’Malley are near the competition Obama was, I just don’t think Hillary is taking anything for granted,” he said.
Another major Tarrant County player is Fort Worth investor Bobby Patton, a co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who hosted a Clinton fundraiser in 2008 and donated $25,000 to the Ready for Hillary PAC that paved the way for Clinton’s official entry into the race, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Patton was co-chairman of the PAC’s national finance council and has expressed his intention to raise money for Clinton’s campaign, Smith said.
Recent reports that Biden, a former Delaware senator, is considering entering the race have clouded the picture, threatening Clinton with the prospect of a formidable contender who is popular within the party and who could cut into her hold on establishment Democrats.
In Texas, Democratic leaders and political experts offer differing views on how Biden’s candidacy would affect Clinton’s Lone Star bid. “Right now, he’s well-liked because he’s been a great vice president and he’s right on all the issues,” Hinojosa said. “Whether he could pull support away from Hillary is a big question.”
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville, who was among the elected officials to attend Clinton’s McAllen events, said he would still support Clinton but acknowledged that Biden’s entry could cause soul-searching within the party.
“I’ve been on record supporting Hillary for over a year and would continue to support her. But that would put many of us in a pickle.”
Biden in the wings?
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said a Biden entry could alter the Texas race “in some minor way around the edges” but isn’t likely to upset Clinton’s trajectory toward a primary victory.
“It’s hard to imagine … Hillary Clinton’s sizable advantage being eroded significantly,” Henson said. “She’s been the prohibitive leader in all the polling that we’ve done.”
Rumors also surfaced last week that former Vice President Al Gore was considering a comeback. But associates of the 2000 Democratic nominee dismissed the reports.
Clinton’s appearances at fundraisers in several Texas cities have helped the campaign pull in more than $2 million, according to the Federal Election Commission, compared with $93,640 for Sanders.
“Hillary and the Clintons have made very strong relationships with the traditional Democratic Party leadership … ” said state Rep. Rene O. Oliveira, D-Brownsville. “I would be very surprised if there is even a handful of my [Democratic] colleagues in the House who would not be with her. When it gets down to Super Tuesday, I imagine she’s going to be pretty much by herself after that night.”
Other announced Democratic candidates are O’Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, none of whom appears to have more than a nominal Texas following.
The exception is Sanders, whose campaign says it has more than 5,000 volunteers signed up in Texas. “Bernie’s message is clearly resonating in Texas,” said Michael Briggs, the candidate’s national spokesman.
Sanders volunteers have organized grassroots efforts in Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and other cities, and they participated in a national day of campaigning in late July. Former state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, who was considered one of the Legislature’s more liberal members during his 18 years in the House, said he supports Sanders and considers Clinton too much of a hawk.
The latest survey by The Texas Tribune and the University of Texas, released in June before Biden’s prospective candidacy surfaced, showed Clinton with 53 percent, Sanders with 15 percent, Biden with 8 percent, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who disavows any interest in running, with 8 percent. The other announced candidates had about 1 percent each, and 12 percent of those surveyed had no opinion.
Former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, who has been friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton since all three worked on McGovern’s ill-fated presidential campaign, is resuming his role as a principal architect of Hillary Clinton’s Texas campaign effort.
This year’s Texas offensive, he said, began well over a year ago when he received a call from Craig Smith, former political director in the Clinton White House and a senior adviser in the Ready for Hillary PAC. Houston attorneys and megadonors Steve and Amber Mostyn were founding members of the PAC’s national finance council.
Mauro combed through his email list of more than 6,000 people and joined others in pulling together a base of more than 300,000 Texas volunteers that was in place when Clinton officially announced her candidacy in April.
The Clinton team also relied heavily on social media to arrange more than 1,000 “meet-ups,” aimed at younger voters, to expand the volunteer base.
Mauro said the roster of Clinton backers includes those who effectively started gearing up for this year’s race at the end of the last Texas campaign nearly eight years ago. Many, he said, were women driven by the belief that “it’s time for a woman president.”
“There were people who were blogging and emailing about Hillary running for president since the day the Texas primary ended in 2008,” Mauro said.
Houston attorney Carrin Patman, one of Clinton’s major fundraisers in Texas, said she began honing her contact and fundraising lists last summer. She has since been engaged in pulling together fundraisers in Austin, Dallas and Houston and raising “well over” $100,000.
“For me, it’s been unfinished business,” she said. “I wanted to be ready when she jumped in. We need to shatter this glass ceiling.”
Smith, the Fort Worth attorney who headed Clinton’s Tarrant County campaign in 2008 and served as a national delegate for Clinton, said the campaign plans a “weekend of action” on Aug. 21-23 to intensify support in Tarrant County and has more than 300 followers on the Tarrant for Hillary Facebook page.
The activity is geared toward building a launchpad for the primary, but supporters also say it could help create an infrastructure for a competitive general election race despite Texas’ reputation as a perennially Republican state.
Democratic operatives say Clinton’s chances of carrying Texas, if she becomes the nominee, depend heavily on whom Republicans choose as their standard-bearer.
Democratic strategist Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, said a Democratic victory next year “may not be something to bet the kid’s tuition on.” But, he added, Clinton’s aggressive campaigning will at least “push the needle” toward a two-party state.
Clinton’s strong support among Hispanics was on display during her Aug. 7 trip to McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.
“We feel like we’ve got somebody who can be our champion, that we know is genuinely committed to us,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo. “I talked to several people there, and they just felt like if she won, she would be the best friend South Texas ever had in the White House.”