AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The 40 volunteers crowded into a small, suburban living room in north Austin to get their marching orders for one of democracy's oldest traditions: knocking on doors to ask people for their votes.
Welcoming them was Jeremy Bird, a man credited with helping President Barack Obama win re-election and whose focus now is on implementing a strategy to turn this Republican stronghold blue.
Bird and other Democrats from across the region are using a special election for an open House seat to test how the party's Battleground Texas project plans to support their candidates ahead of the general election.
Bird is one of the founders of Battleground Texas, a group dedicated to making this Republican stronghold competitive for Democrats. Celia Israel's race for an open seat in the state House of Representatives is not expected to be difficult considering the district has historically voted for Democrats.
"It's nice to have a special election and a little bit of a test," Bird said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Identifying, engaging and turning out voters will help the Israel campaign now and (gubernatorial candidate) Wendy Davis, (lieutenant governor candidate) Leticia Van de Putte and other Democrats in November. Not only are people more likely to turn out to vote again, but the results will give us a chance to check our voter model and fine tune it for the election."
The Republican Party of Texas doesn't have a dedicated organization that provides an equivalent amount of hands-on assistance. But in a state where no Democrat has won a statewide election in 20 years, the Republican Party's infrastructure is strong and campaigns are flush with cash, so the need is less.
"I give them credit for doing what a party should be doing, but those are things we've already been doing," said Steve Munisteri, the GOP state party chairman. "We already had 5,000 precinct captains and we've recruited another 200 since September, and this doesn't count the contacts we've made or the names we've added to our list."
He said gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has a large campaign field staff where each organizer is required to make several hundred new contacts a week. Something Bird has plans to match.
For Tuesday's special election, Battleground has had the chance to work through all the phases of a campaign: making the voter lists, raising money, trying to persuade the undecideds and getting out the vote for election day.
On Saturday, Israel's volunteers each had a list of homes to visit where Battleground's research showed a reliably Democratic voter could be found. The volunteers were given a recommended script to follow, including thanking the prospective voter, asking whether the person would be willing to volunteer, and taking down an email address.
The data collected by Battleground staff, combined with publicly available voter records, is critical to the group's strategy to identify, register and recruit the 2 million Democrats they estimate are not voting in Texas elections.
"Data collected from personal conversations is much more effective for predicting who people will support and at what level they'll participate," Bird said.
Israel is running against tea party Republican Mike VanDeWalle, but few voters know about the election, so Battleground's help in getting out the vote is critical. Battleground Texas volunteers have knocked on over 14,000 doors over two weeks, Bird said.
"Battleground Texas is not just a political slogan, it's a political muscle, and we're going to use it in 2014," Israel said.
Bird says the so-called "ground game" is only part of the puzzle. The group also helps with digital strategy and has trained 300 Democratic volunteers already, with more than 2,000 applicants for 600 more fellowships with the group this spring. Battleground is also building an online community to coordinate 10,000 volunteers across the state.
The group also helps train campaigns to diversify their fundraising from email blasts, to medium-dollar events and how to approach major donors.
Munisteri said Republicans don't take Battleground Texas's efforts lightly and have opened their field offices 15 months earlier than normal.
"We recognized early that the Democrats might make a big play for the state, so our goal was to ensure not only that they were defeated in 2014, but defeated by a significant margin," he said.
Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cltomlinson