Munisteri’s parting shots: Battleground Texas had the right target but the wrong ammo

Good morning Austin:

I did not watch President Obama’s speech at foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Saturday on the 50th anniversary of the marches that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I was over at 1108 Lavaca Street at a meeting of the State Republican Executive Committee as it chose Tom Mechler of Amarillo as the state party’s new chairman to replace Steve Munisteri.

Steve Munisteri and his successor as state GOP chairman, Tom Mechler.
Steve Munisteri and his successor as state GOP chairman, Tom Mechler.

On the first ballot, Mechler received 31 votes, one vote shy of the 32 needed for an absolute majority of the 63 votes cast — the 62 members of the executive committee plus the party’s vice chair. Dallas County Republican chairman Wade Emmert and Jared Woodfill, former chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, were tied for second, with 14 votes each, and Republican National Committeeman Robin Armstrong received four votes.


On the second ballot, Mechler received 36 votes, Emmert, 14, Woodfill, 13, and Armstrong, none.

Very exciting, and I was there, live and in person.

Munisteri and Mechler
Munisteri and Mechler

On Friday night, I had wanted to go see the four candidates debate at the Austin Club, but was told by the party that, because of space limitations, the forum wasn’t open to reporters, but I could watch the live stream.

Tried that for a little while, but that didn’t work out too well. The live stream was balky and the only thing that seemed to arrive intact were the frequent interruptions for Fritos and Pringles ads. There is apparently an exciting new Frito product with ridges.

I could have paid a few dollars for a premium live stream sans ads, but I refused to do that. I resent the fact that we are everywhere being nickled-and-dimed into two Americas – one for the masses and another for premium subscribers.

In this case, I was being required to pay a fee to cover what ought to have been a public event.

Munisteri and Mechler
Munisteri and Mechler

I had originally been told when I called the party office Friday, that I would also have to watch the SREC meeting on Saturday via live stream, but when I called the party’s communication director, Spencer Yeldell, on Saturday, he said it was fine to attend in person, and that was much more satisfying.

When I arrived, a young man named Matt Pinnell, a former Oklahoma Republican Party chairman, who is national state party director at the Republican National Committee, was praising Munisteri for being a model who other state party chairmen across the nation emulate.

He also offered a variation on the classic Woody Allen dictum that, “80 percent of success is showing up.”

“The world is controlled by those who show up,” Pinnell said.

Made me feel very good about showing up.

After the vote, I talked with Munisteri, who calculated that he had served as chairman for 1,718 days.

He had a board in his office, indicating the number of days he had served, and how many he had left to serve.

Munisteri and Mechler
Munisteri and Mechler

The 1,718th day was marked, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last. MLK.”

It might seem a sacrilege that Munisteri was using Martin Luther King’s closing line from his I Have a Dream speech to mark on his calendar the end of his tenure as head of the Texas Republican Party even as President Obama was honoring King’s legacy in Selma.

But, in fact, Munisteri’s admiration for King is genuine and longstanding.

In his speech class as a student at Memorial Senior High School in Houston, Munisteri had been required to recite a couple of famous speeches from history, and he had chosen King’s Dream speech along with another by Winston Churchill.

Munisteri and Mechler
Munisteri and Mechler

“I think the two most influential leaders in my lifetime were Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King and arguably Martin Luther King is the greatest orator that I have ever watched speak,” said Munisteri.

“Although I don’t agree with all of this politics, I think he is arguably the greatest leader of our generation because he was able to effect social change relative to an unbelievable social injustice, using non-violence. That could never, never ever be underestimated and I think even to this day, is not fully appreciated  I don’t know if somebody was blowing fire hoses at me and shooting at me if I could stay non-violent.”

By high school, Munisteri was already a committed conservative.

“I remember watching Reagan on the Tarmac at the 1968 Republican convention, a few months shy of my 11th birthday, and liking him.”

By the time he was 14, in 1972, Munisteri was working the phone banks for Nixon and Tower, and blockwalking for the Republican Party. He formed at conservative club at the high school. As soon as he was old enough to vote in 1976, he was elected an alternate to the 1976 state Republican Convention. At 26, he was a member of the SREC and at 28, he ran for vice chairman of the party.

Munisteri and Mechler
Munisteri and Mechler

On being elected, Mechler, who had run against Munisteri for chairman when he was first elected in 2010, and subsequently served as the party’s treasurer, thanked the SREC, and then told them of his commitment to continue Munisteri’s work to expand the party’s minority outreach.

“Texas is a majority minority state, I guess we probably all knew that. In 2019, the majority-minority situation moves to the electorate. Minority engagement is absolutely essential,” Mechler told the 62 members of the State Republican Executive Committee — two from each state Senate district — immediately after they elected him chairman on the second ballot.

Of minority outreach, Mechler said, “Chairman Munisteri started us down that road in such a huge and powerful way. I’ve been involved for 30 years. For all those years we’ve been talking about how we have to get more minorities and more young people involved in the party and we’ve said it and we’ve said it and we’ve said it for decades, but Chairman Munisteri, Steve was the one who actually let us see that begin.”

Said Munsteri of Mechler’s election: “He presents continuity with the promise not to be satisfied with just where we are  now.”

Changing of the guard.
Changing of the guard.

“I didn’t want to stay any more time but had I stayed more time, I would have recognized that we are far from finishing the job,” Munisteri continued. “This state is incredibly diverse and getting more diverse all the time and the party has to recognize it needs to look like the outside world. We’ve had a problem of skewing older and skewing Anglo and, long term, we have to get younger voters and (do better) particularly in the Hispanic community. You cannot hold this state Republican unless you have a very, very sizable and strong base in the Hispanic community, and there are other communities that are important too, but the state will turn Democratic if Republicans don’t hold their gains among Hispanic voters. It just will.”

“Battleground Texas had the right target. Texas is a state that, if the Republican Party is not more diverse, would be a logical target to turn Democratic. They just used the wrong tactics.”

“Battleground Texas’ target made sense. We’ve lost 18 states and the District of Columbia in six out of the last six elections. That’s 242 electoral votes. If I’m them and I’m looking at the map, I am thinking, we can checkmate the Republican Party in the near future if you get Texas in the column. And we had declining totals – in 2008, our average ticket only won by 52.94 percent statewide and we only had the Legislature (the Texas House) by 76 to 74.”

“They had the right target but they had the wrong ammunition and used the wrong message, and it wasn’t a smart idea to nominate Wendy Davis if you’re trying to prevent Republicans from expanding their base in the Hispanic community, because she did not play well relative to other Democrats among Hispanic voters. All you have to do is look at the primary” where Reynaldo “Ray” Madrigal won 22 percent of the vote  against Davis simply on the strength of an Hispanic surname.

I asked Munisteri – who as of April 1 will be a senior adviser to Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign – if he had read Robert Draper’s recent piece in Texas Monthly on The Future of Battleground Texas: As the organization marks its second anniversary, the real question is: does it have a future?

Draper had written the important February 2014 cover piece in the New York Times Magazine,  Can Wendy Davis Have it All?

Draper’s new piece was in some ways a rejoinder to Christopher Hooks’ own post-mortem on Battleground Texas and the 2014 election in December in the Texas Observer: Losing Ground: After getting crushed in November, Battleground Texas is fighting for survival and relevance—against other Democrats.

The two articles were not entirely at odds, but while Hooks’ concentrated on the complaints about how Battleground Texas had acquitted itself, Draper’s piece offered a more sympathetic take on what they were up against, especially including the flaws of the Davis campaign.

Munisteri said he had not read the Texas Monthly article, though, he said, he high regard for Draper. They went to the same junior high school in Houston, Munisteri said, and had once debated.

Small world.

Draper’s article begins:

A few days after Democratic candidate for governor Wendy Davis suffered a 20-point blowout loss last November, one of the state’s top Democratic donors met with Jenn Brown, the executive director of Battleground Texas. Brown’s much-heralded field organization had been set up to do for Texas Democrats what its parent, Organizing For America, had done in Ohio and elsewhere for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Instead, the party had gone backward: Davis’s margin of defeat was seven points worse than that of former Houston mayor Bill White, who had been shellacked in the 2010 gubernatorial election by Rick Perry, 55%-42%. Obvious questions were therefore begged, and the donor pointedly asked them.

“Why are you still here?” he recalls saying to Brown. “Convince me that you’re still relevant. What’s the rate of return here?”

Brown maintained that Battleground’s fight had only just begun. “We still have to do this,” she said.

“Well, I don’t,” the donor warned.

Last month Brown, Battleground founder (and former Obama field wunderkind) Jeremy Bird, and field director Danny Lucio sought to mollify this financial backer and others with a succession of meetings in Houston, Dallas and Austin. In all, about 80 donors were treated to a 35-slide Power Point examination of Battleground’s labors. Brown’s presentation was decidedly peppy. Battleground had registered nearly 100,000 new voters. It had recruited nearly 35,000 volunteers, almost half of whom had never volunteered before. These unpaid organizers had knocked on 7.5 million doors and talked with 1.4 million people—and those with whom the volunteers spoke were 6 percent more likely to vote than those who hadn’t been contacted. In other words, the Battleground model had been validated. It just wasn’t enough to counter a horrific year for Democrats across the United States, a three-to-one financial advantage on the part of the Greg Abbott campaign, a lackluster “fighting for all hard-working Texans” Democratic message and (though Brown herself did not say so) an astoundingly error-prone campaign waged by Davis and her brain trust.

The skeptical donor with whom I spoke was won over by the end of the meeting—though not so much by Brown and Bird’s data as “the enthusiasm in the room, which surprised me, after a beating like the one we took.” Still, not everyone was buying it. “People wanted explanations, absolutely,” recalls another big contributor who was privy to the conversations. “The more sophisticated the donor, the less they needed. Some of the newer donors wanted to hear a full explanation of everything that went wrong from day one in Wendy’s campaign that Jenn was not in a position to provide. For some people, that was probably frustrating. On the other hand, people came away from it as, ‘Okay, we did do something good here and it was worthwhile, even though we didn’t get the outcome we’d hoped.’ One of the big takeaways is, we’re a long way from running a [competitive] statewide race again.”

In other words, for the foreseeable future, “Battleground Texas” is an oxymoron.

But, I told Munisteri, the line from Draper’s story that lingered with me was found between parentheses in the following paragraph:

The two Texas Democratic donors with whom I spoke both told me that from the outset Bird had urged them to think of 2020 as a reasonable goal for converting Texas into a swing state. When the filibuster staged by Wendy Davis in 2013 brought her overnight celebrity and convinced her that she should strike while the iron was hot, the timetable changed but the hard realities did not. Neither Bird nor Battleground’s biggest early donor, Steve Mostyn, thought Davis could win (something Bird stated explicitly to me and Texas Monthly writer Erica Grieder at a DC fundraising event just after the filibuster). That said, Davis’s sudden popularity was good business for Battleground, which raised money and enjoyed an exponential spike in volunteer recruiting. Davis herself didn’t see anything particularly wrong with that; as one of the big donors told me, “Wendy wouldn’t even have run without Battleground being there to run a field network—and I was there for all of those conversations.”

Well, there you have it.

In other words, while I and other proletarian reporters were being told one thing, premium reporters  (Draper and Grieder) were being clued in on background on the real deal.

Neither Bird nor Battleground’s biggest early donor, Steve Mostyn, thought Davis could win (something Bird stated explicitly to me and Texas Monthly writer Erica Grieder at a DC fundraising event just after the filibuster)

It is not as if the unlikelihood of Davis’ election was not always readily apparent.

But, Munisteri said, “That’s not what they told people. (Byrd) was predicting the week before the election” that Democrats were closing in.

Munisteri recalled an apt old political adage: “Are you lying to me now or were you lying to me before?”

“I take a great deal of pride that in that 1,728 days, any person from the press, I told them exactly what I thought, and if I didn’t want to say anything, I just said, `I’m not saying anything.’ I think that’s why was I was treated exceptionally fairly by the media. I took all the press calls myself, I didn’t avoid any issues and I answered them all as honestly as I could.”

Of Bird’s confiding in Draper and Grieder that 2014 was not going to be the Democrats’ year in Texas, “I have an alternative reading on it,” Munisteri said.

“I know how people’s minds work in politics and you go up and down in campaigns, and some days you think you can do it and some days you can’t, and an alternative version for this is they really did believe they had a chance but they also wanted to set the alibi way in advance, so they could say, `You know, I told Draper back in June …’ and actually, that’s what I think they were doing.”–

It wasn’t as if Draper or Grieder were going to lose interest in the race because Bird had told them it was unwinnable. The Times Magazine piece was more than half a year away.

And if Davis won and Draper came back to him and said, “I thought you were going to lose,” all Bird would have to do would be to modestly admit that, “We came on so strong at the end that we did better than we thought.”

No harm done.

But that still doesn’t quite explain Bird’s election eve memo.

From Draper’s story:

Jeremy Bird was widely mocked for releasing a statement shortly before the election that relied on inaccurate data to make the case that early voting turnout was better than had been reported. The snafu—which occurred because the Battleground staff failed to fact-check the data that had been supplied by a normally reliable associate—fed the narrative of Battleground as a gang that couldn’t shoot straight and, according to one close associate of Bird, constituted the darkest day of his career. That blunder aside, the failure to turn the Hispanic demographic to the Democrats’ advantage has a number of root causes. Wendy Davis polled very low with Hispanic males. Inexplicably, the Davis campaign dragged the touchy issue of abortion onto center-stage with the midsummer release of her book and its disclosure of her late-term pregnancy termination. And though the Battleground staff was reluctant to point fingers, even off the record, it’s evident that their field volunteers struggled to convey to Latinos and African-Americans how Davis would address their needs when her campaign gave the organizers nothing coherent to work with. Carefully measuring her words, Brown said on this subject, “I definitely have a different appreciation for how message affects the field after this election. In setting up this whole structure again, I would have different conversations about what a field program can do if you run a positive message versus a negative message–and really, the need to do both.”

Here is some of the memo:


From: Jeremy Bird, Battleground Texas Senior Advisor
To: Interested Parties
Re: Early vote turnout in Texas
Date: October 31, 2014

With 4 days to go in the 2014 election cycle – and the last day of the early vote period ending today – there has been a significant amount of misinformation about what early vote turnout could mean for Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and other Democrats around the state on November 4.

What the early vote numbers actually show is a race that is steadily moving in favor of the Democratic slate – and an electorate that is clearly shifting toward Team Wendy thanks to the continued hard work of the more than 33,000 grassroots volunteers who have already made nearly 7 million calls and door knocks to engage voters about the stakes this election and motivate them to cast their ballots between now and Tuesday.



The early vote numbers this year are very encouraging for Wendy Davis and the Democratic ticket – and all signs point to this being a fight to the finish.

Ultimately, in a race this important – with candidates as compelling and inspiring as Wendy, Leticia, and so many others in key statewide and legislative fights this year – the winners next week will come down to grassroots Texans making their voices heard in the only poll that matters.


In his recent book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, the Obama campaign’s top strategist, David Axelrod writes:

One of the enduring mysteries of the 2012 election is how the Romney crew so thoroughly missed the reality of what was happening on the ground. Even on Election Day, the Romney team was still preparing its victory party – complete with a barge loaded with fireworks to light up Boston Harbor. It wasn’t that Romney and his team weren’t smart people, but that they seemed so detached from minority communities and younger generations that they wholly underestimated their to the country and its election process. That is why Team Romney was so shocked when the numbers rolled in.

So far, there is no evidence that Battleground Texas and the Davis campaign were stockpiling fireworks for their victory celebration, but it would appear that, based on Bird’s memo, he was equally and oppositely out of touch, or, at any rate, willing to risk looking foolish only days later.

As for this:

Inexplicably, the Davis campaign dragged the touchy issue of abortion onto center-stage with the midsummer release of her book and its disclosure of her late-term pregnancy termination.

Release of the book was odd but I think it was explicable. (Here from her appearance at BookPeople.) The campaign was all part of Wendy Davis’ journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. In that context, the book made sense. She may not have been elected governor, but she has, now and forever, a memoir, which would never have been published had she not run for governor.

From the book jacket:

She is now the first Democrat to make a serious run for governor in Texas in two decades, and her personal story is a testament to the enduring power of the American dream and an inspiration to countless women looking for a way out of desperate circumstances. Told in her refreshingly forthright voice, Forgetting to be Afraid is the exhilarating and deeply moving story behind one of the nation’s brightest young political stars.

A last word from Draper’s piece:

Still, the Battleground team fault themselves for not recognizing how difficult it had been for the previous Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Houston Mayor Bill White, to lose by a mere 13 points in 2010. “Where I made the biggest mistake was, I underestimated Bill White’s number,” Bird told me. “I think his 42% seemed like, ‘Alright, let’s start from there.’ I overestimated that 42% as a floor and underestimated his performance.” Until Battleground can help a Democrat improve over Davis’s paltry 39%, no one can take seriously the prospects of Texas as a swing state, Bird acknowledged: “Your floor basically has to be in the 40’s. We’ve gotta get our floor out of the 30’s.”

Meanwhile, here is another, newer memo, this one Friday to Texas reporters from Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project in advance of the Selma anniversary:

 As you know, tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama where citizens taking part in a peaceful civil rights demonstration were stopped after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and beaten – some very badly – and tear gassed by local law enforcement.

It’s important to acknowledge the overt intentional discrimination by Texas leaders not 50 or 25 or even ten years ago, but over just the last few years.

Our current state leaders – Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, AG Paxton and Speaker Straus – have all participated directly or indirectly in actions ruled to be intentionally discriminatory against African American and Hispanic Texans. What’s more, they are currently defending these discriminatory actions in federal court.

As stories are written and comments are made here in Texas about the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, I hope the most recent actions of Texas leaders on civil and voting rights can be noted and put into context.

– Since just 2011, Federal Courts have ruled that Texas leaders engaged in intentional discrimination against African American and Hispanic Texans three separate times – Texas Senate Redistricting, Texas Congressional Redistricting and Texas Voter Photo ID.

· While the orders accompanying these findings may have been headed off by later court action, the substantive findings of intentional discrimination by Texas leaders against their own citizens have never been vacated, overturned or altered.

· Leaders in no other state in the nation – not even the old south states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi or South Carolina – have been found by a court to have intentionally discriminated against their own minority citizens during even the last ten years, much less the last 3 and a half years.

· Texas leaders are currently expending Texas taxpayer funds to defend the process they used to intentionally discriminate (the congressional case in Federal District Court in San Antonio and before the 5th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in the Voter ID case).


From Saturday night.

And from Friday night at Gruene Hall, after I gave up on the Republican livestream.

Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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