AUSTIN, Texas — Wendy Davis may well lose the Texas governor's race, but that could still be a win for the Democrats.
The state senator from Fort Worth has shattered Texas Democratic fundraising records and breathed new life into a state party mired in the nation's longest political losing streak. Her underdog campaign has also given Democrats the impetus and opportunity to assemble a political bench that could face future elections with greater ease.
"We initially thought it would take years for Texas to become a battleground, but thanks to Senator Davis' candidacy and the grassroots movement we've been building on the ground, we have catapulted into being a competitive state," said Jenn Brown, executive director of Battleground Texas and the former field director for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign in the swing state of Ohio.
Battleground Texas is a multi-million dollar group not officially affiliated, but still closely aligned, with Texas and national Democratic Party efforts. It's seeking to turn one of America's most-conservative red states blue.
Texas' demographics may help.
Since 2000, roughly two out of every three new Texans is Hispanic, a voting bloc typically friendly to Democrats. Obama carried 71 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide in 2012, and without Texas' 38 electoral votes, future presidential races get very tough for GOP White House nominees.
Independent polls show Davis trailing her opponent, Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, by double-digits. Davis scoffs at the notion her odds are too long; She has raised $27 million, exceeding all other Democratic candidates in state history. But her campaign reports having barely a third of the $36 million that Abbott had left to spend as of July.
Battleground Texas, meanwhile, has raised nearly $6 million since its founding last year and collected nearly $10 million for Davis' joint victory committee, which is counted as part of her total campaign haul. It says it has enlisted a little more than 30,000 active volunteers and offers training for voter registration drives, block-walks and phone banks.
The Democratic National Committee also reports giving the Texas state party more than any other state this election cycle, except Virginia, Iowa and Ohio — around $430,000 since August 2013. That's already nearly as much as the $600,000 the Texas Democratic Party got from its national counterpart in the last gubernatorial election in 2010. Because much of that goes to fixed and logistical costs, the spending could have long-term benefits.
Meanwhile, the Texas Democratic Party has increased its staff to around 115 and plans to hire around 300 people to canvass neighborhoods before Election Day. Party officials also say they've compiled voter data that's consistent across all Texas counties to make community organizing easier. And, for the first time in at least 12 years, there's at least one Democrat running in each of Texas' 254 counties.
"We got our act together in a way that wasn't there in 2010," said JD Gins, Texas Democratic Party executive director for Travis County, which includes Austin. Gins helped run the campaign of Bill White, who lost to Gov. Rick Perry that year.
Only 38 percent of registered Texas voters cast ballots during the 2010 governor's race. So, if Democratic outreach efforts can increase future participation from sympathetic voters by just 5 percent in non-presidential years, races that long looked like Republican slam-dunks could get closer.
"We're not shooting for the moon here," Gins added.
Democrats have lost all of Texas' 29 statewide offices for the last 20 years. While that streak looks likely to endure this November, the state Democratic bench is growing.
Stars include former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who Obama tapped as the nation's housing secretary and who is frequently mentioned as a possible Democratic vice presidential hopeful in 2016 or a gubernatorial candidate two years later. Castro's twin brother Joaquin is a congressman who may eventually run for U.S. Senate. They are joined by Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Freshman U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, El Paso's Beto O'Rourke and Pete Gallego, though he could be in for a November dogfight in his district stretching from San Antonio to the El Paso outskirts.
"It's a deep bench," said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams, the granddaughter of Ann Richards, the last Democrat to win the Texas governorship in 1990.
Republicans, however, aren't ready to give up America's largest conservative state. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, while seeking re-election, has budgeted $500,000 since last year for a campaign called "Keep It Red."
Brendan Steinhauser, Cornyn's campaign manager, said that initiative has helped with fundraising, neighborhood canvassing and social media training for 11 GOP Texas Legislature and congressional candidates. It's also targeting 2 million registered Hispanic voters statewide with digital, radio and television advertising in Spanish.
Hispanic Republicans of Texas, a group co-founded by George P. Bush, nephew of former President George W. Bush, has raised more than $600,000. It's also helped recruit and train 41 Hispanic conservatives for state Legislature, judicial, county clerk and justice of the peace candidacies in November.
"We're not going to sit around and just let them take over," said Robert Stovall, Texas Republican Party chairman for Bexar County, which includes San Antonio.