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Surge Of Candidates Leaves Texas Democrats Struggling To Recruit Qualified Staffers

Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune
Campaign volunteers for Sri Kulkarni, a Democrat vying to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, work the phones before a primary runoff in May.

The uptick in the number of Democrats running across Texas this election cycle has exposed a weakness in the party’s statewide apparatus: a shortage of experienced operatives equipped to run so many campaigns.

For instance, Jana Lynne Sanchez had a surprise waiting for her when she returned home from a business trip last July.

Sitting in her office were boxes filled with supplies for her campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives: 5,000 push cards, 5,000 door hangers and a banner — all with her name misspelled. A staffer working for the fledgling campaign in Texas’ 6th District, which covers areas south of Dallas, had spent $1,500 — around 15 percent of the campaign’s monthly budget — on unusable merchandise that added an extra “n” to Sanchez’s first name.

The staffer who made the mistake had no experience working on a congressional campaign, said Sanchez, a first-time candidate herself. She hired that employee and another inexperienced staffer — both of whom she declined to name — out of desperation, she said, unable to find anyone more qualified to run her campaign.

"One of the most shocking situations that I had not expected was how difficult it would be to find qualified campaign staff," Sanchez said last week. "If you have no one applying for the jobs, you’re begging people to apply. I had to stretch my imagination to believe that people could do the job I was hiring them to do."

With the 2018 midterms on the horizon, Democrats have more candidates competing in congressional and state legislative races in Texas than the party has seen in years, as a wave of liberal enthusiasm fueled largely by opposition to President Donald Trump sweeps across the country. But the uptick in Democratic candidates has exposed a weakness in the party’s statewide apparatus, according to interviews with more than a dozen candidates, consultants and political experts: a shortage of experienced operatives equipped to run so many campaigns.

The origins of the problem date back to the 1990s, when Republicans swept Democrats out of the state's major offices, making it harder for many Democratic campaign staffers to find work between elections.

"It’s a problem that has been around for a while," said Colin Strother, a longtime Democratic strategist in Texas. "It’s just more pronounced this cycle because we have more competitive Democratic races than we have had in a generation."

At the time of the misspelling fiasco, Sanchez was one of several candidates running to challenge longtime U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis. Later that year, Barton decided not to run for re-election after a graphic photograph of him appeared on social media.

By the March primaries, Sanchez had recruited a new team of staffers through connections at her alma mater, Rice University, and went on to win her party's nomination in a runoff, setting up a showdown with Republican Ronald Wright, whom she has narrowly outraised in recent months. But for many Democrats competing in lower-profile races — particularly legislative contests in districts typically dominated by Republicans — recruiting qualified campaign staff has proved nearly impossible.

Without dedicated staffers, these Democrats — many of whom are first-time candidates — are forced to spend valuable time writing their own press releases, drawing up fundraising plans and cobbling together lists of street addresses for volunteers to target during neighborhood block walks. The problem is partly financial. Candidates in low-profile races often have trouble matching the salaries offered by better-funded campaigns in districts widely viewed as more competitive. But this cycle, even Democrats who can afford to hire staffers say they have struggled to find people qualified to lead their campaigns.

"I’ve had a terrible time hiring. I just don’t get that many applicants," said Allison Lami Sawyer, a Democrat challenging state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the state Legislature. "All the ones with experience are going to federal and statewide races. And it's not even a salary difference. Even if you're matching salary, they're going to the federal races."

In Texas, political experts say, a competitive state House campaign should generally have three full-time staffers: a campaign manager, a fundraising director and an official who oversees volunteers working in the field. Sawyer has one part-time staffer on her team.

In less competitive races, many Democrats rely entirely on volunteers. Meghan Scoggins, a Democrat vying to unseat Republican state Rep. John Zerwas in a Fort Bend County district that has not seen a Democratic challenger in three election cycles, said she has had to "build an infrastructure from the ground up."

“A lot of the time that we’d normally be able to focus on voter contact, we’re having to focus on training volunteers,” Scoggins said.

A range of factors — from decades-long political trends to quirks of the current election cycle — are responsible for the dearth of Democratic campaign staffers in Texas.

Since Republicans took control of every statewide office in 1998, a number of experienced Democratic operatives left Texas after struggling to find consistent employment between elections.

“Finding them a gig after a campaign is not always easy,” said Jeff Crosby, a Democratic consultant in Texas. “Back in the day, when we had a bunch of statewide offices, those folks could flow into jobs over there.”

In 2010, when a wave of Republican victories cut the number of Democratic seats in the 150-member Texas House by a third, Dallas native Kirk McPike managed the state House campaign of Democrat Loretta Haldenwang, who lost to the Republican incumbent, Linda Harper-Brown of Irving. The election result left McPike with a difficult choice, he said: “Either go down to Austin and compete with my 20 best friends for the five jobs that were left working for Democrats in the Texas House, or look for employment out of state.”

McPike chose the second option and now works in Washington, D.C., as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat who McPike helped elect to office in 2012.

In recent years, other Democratic operatives in Texas have left the campaign circuit to work for progressive advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood Texas Votes and the Workers Defense Project. “There’s a lot of really quality staff who are working in those organizations, which just reduces the overall pool for campaigns,” said Jeff Rotkoff, the campaigns director for the Texas branch of the AFL-CIO, another organization that has attracted experienced political operatives.

On top of those long-term trends, the unusually high number of competitive congressional races this cycle has exacerbated the staffing shortages faced by Democrats running for seats in the Texas Legislature.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said only one Texas Democrat challenging a Republican congressman in 2016 – Pete Gallego, who failed in a bid to reclaim his old seat from U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes – ran a professional, competitive campaign, compared to four such candidates this year.

“The real difference this cycle is that the congressional candidates are sucking up all the talent that wasn’t all that deep to begin with," Jones said.

By contrast, he added, Republicans generally have a surplus of campaign talent for the general election, as staffers who worked for losing primary candidates look for new jobs in the run-up to November.

The shortage of Democratic staffers has put strain on volunteers working for legislative candidates in Texas. Nancy Bean, a Democrat challenging state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said her volunteers have struggled to master the intricacies of the Voter Activation Network, an online database that the Texas Democratic Party maintains to help campaigns target individual voters.

“It’s been a real uphill battle,” she said. “Because my volunteers are volunteers, it takes a long time to get people to be trained. Learning to do the VAN and all the ups and downs of the VAN is quite a steep learning curve.”

Bean appears to have little chance of defeating Krause, whose district is solidly Republican. But even in historically uncompetitive districts, staffing shortages could hinder the party's broader efforts to foster collaboration between local candidates and better-funded statewide campaigns, said Strother, the Democratic strategist.

"We can’t get better unless we have these coordinated efforts, and we can’t have these coordinated efforts if we don't have good staff," he said.

Crystal Perkins, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, acknowledged that the sheer number of Democrats running for office in Texas has made it "a little bit harder for folks to find staff." But she brushed off concerns that the staffing problems might hurt the party’s chances this year, praising the work that local advocacy groups like Battleground Texas have done to improve Democratic turnout.

And Perkins emphasized that the state party provides online training modules designed for candidates and volunteers, as well as in-person workshops to help campaigns make the most of the voter database.

“We’ve really gone to a more training-focused organization,” she said. “We’ve tried to figure out how we could meet that challenge.”

For some inexperienced candidates, however, webinars and occasional training sessions can only help so much.

“If you’ve never run a campaign and you’re maybe not top of the class, then going to a training that’s offered by the party is probably not enough,” said Sanchez, the Democrat running for an open congressional seat in North Texas.

“My initial impression was that it’s not rocket science,” she added. “Well, I changed my mind about that.”

Gwenn Burud, a Democrat challenging state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said she tried to hire staffers but found that most qualified operatives had already agreed to join higher-profile campaigns. Over time, however, that setback has become one of her campaign’s strengths, she said, because the volunteers she has recruited are talented and enthusiastic.

In addition to developing volunteer networks, many female candidates in Texas have also made use of another resource: each other. In group chats and Facebook exchanges, Democratic women running for office this year share tips and anecdotes, turning to their fellow candidates for advice on everything from raising money and recruiting staff to deflecting sexist comments on the campaign trail. Scoggins, the state House candidate in Fort Bend County, said she got to know other female candidates earlier this year, when they were interviewed for a documentary about women seeking elected office across the country.

“We talk policy, we talk strategy,” she said. “We talk all of the things that you might normally be paying staff to bring to the table.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

Disclosure: Rice University and Planned Parenthood have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.