-by Zack Lyke
“You will not win.” Well, that's awfully nice of you to say the day after the primary (in March). “It can't be done.” Again, thanks for the encouragement. “You're wasting your time.” Thanks, I needed that. “Do you even know what you're up against?”
I was the campaign manager for Tom Wakely's bid against Lamar Smith, and as one of the congressman's constituents for nearly two-thirds of my life, yeah. I knew damn well what I was up against. We all knew what we were up against. Howie and Blue America did, too, but they lent us an ear and believed in our campaign. I thought I'd take the time to not just say thanks or spit out a campaign eulogy, but to really give some insight as to what this year has meant to me.
I had a great conversation about the race with the one full-time staffer / volunteer Tom had in the primary, a fantastic retired letter carrier by the name of Dan Torres, during a Bernie Sanders watch party on the night of the Texas primary (March 1st). I'd always followed the TX-21 race and told Dan should they win I'd be happy to help, despite having very little campaign experience. I voted for Tom since he was the true progressive in the race, but I also knew Tom had been outspent by a factor of sixteen. I wasn't planning on an empty promise, but figured he'd have a tough go of it that Tuesday. Within minutes of the polls closing they called the TX-21 Democratic primary for the man who would get the next eight months of my life.
In the first month I wound up re-designing the logo, literature, website, and wrote the copy for our policy platform. Somewhere in the middle of that Tom asked me to be his campaign manager. Like most progressive campaigns in Texas there was hardly any cash to go around. That wasn't going to put me off, though. I'd long thought since South Austin was lumped into the district in 2012 that if a campaign could exhibit any amount of polish, the people would join the fight. I was in it for the long haul.
From the first week of the general election, there were a few wonderfully insane people who worked with me until the very end and never took a day off. If you'll indulge me for a moment, it's important you know their names because this was far from a solitary effort. Allison Pope became easily one of the best digital directors of the cycle. The campaign social media accounts garnered re-posts from the likes of Jon Cryer and Judd Apatow, we accrued more Twitter followers than Lamar Smith's campaign account, and had an active engagement ratio across all of our platforms that far exceeded many of the DCCC-funded campaigns. She also won a writing contest mid-cycle hosted by Progress Texas and was awarded with a trip to Netroots Nation. She's amazingly talented. Colt Osburn was our field wizard. A former Bernie staffer, he spent all of his downtime making calls into the district along with our volunteers. When he wasn't cutting turfs or learning a new piece of software, he was always on the phone. Given our limited resources, he mounted a GOTV effort that resulted in the most Democratic votes cast against Lamar Smith. Ever. We spent far less than a dollar per vote. He was seemingly always in three places at once, and I'm still not entirely convinced there isn't something supernatural about him. Bryan Naylor was our hitman. Tables and chairs needed setting up at an event? He'd get there early and do it alone. Did a gathering or event need flyers? He'd print them and drive hours across the district to establish a presence. Before you could point him in a direction he'd already be there, working himself to the bone. When large 4×8 signs weren't in our budget, he painted them himself. He was in every space before the rest of the campaign arrived to make sure we'd be good to go. We also had one incredibly gifted summer intern, Emma Eatman, who's already back in D.C. at Howard and interning with the ACLU. She probably regretted at times reaching out to our crazy staff but she was absolutely integral to our team and has remained in touch every day since going back to school. None of these people joined the campaign as political experts, yet before the campaign ended they were already receiving job offers. They trusted me to lead the staff, and it was a true privilege to fight alongside them. I figured you should know a little bit about them, too.
Endorsements were hard-fought. People like winners or at the very least campaigns with full coffers. It's understandable and natural. Labor organizations were on board early given Tom's history, but I wanted the climate groups to know we had their back. Eventually we broke through, earning endorsements from Clean Water Action and Climate Hawks Vote. It was soon after that I was introduced to Howie Klein. I didn't know it when we first spoke, but he'd wind up being an inspirational and driving force for our campaign. The first post I wrote for DownWithTyranny was simply a state of the race. I meant every word. I thought we could win then, and I really do believe there's hope in the future for a progressive to retire Smith. DownWithTyranny gave us our first bit of coverage. People across the country tuned into our race. They began to cheer for us.
Although we never had much monetary support as far as typical congressional campaigns go, the money we did have pouring in from DownWithTyranny posts gave us the opportunity to push our message. We soon had signs, buttons, postcards, flyers, you name it. There was some money for the staff to eat, to pay some bills, to stay in the race. Morale was lifted, and progressive groups across the country began to take a good look at our campaign. We had the resources to travel everywhere and put our retail politics strategy into every corner of the district. Lloyd Doggett was giving us shout outs. We went from the little campaign that shouldn't to the little campaign that could.
Fast forward to later in the fall. Blue America had endorsed us and Howie went dark (as is the law of the land with outside groups and campaigns). I wasn't sure what to expect. With the exception of a check every six weeks from a different labor union, our campaign had little experience with support from outside groups. It wasn't long after that I saw a DownWithTyranny post that had a picture of the mobile billboard truck featuring our campaign. I read that it would be in the district for over two weeks. I was floored. Beyond validation and vindication, there was now physical proof that someone had our back. I recognized the street corner in the photo and realized it was maybe 5 minutes from my home. By the time I got on the road, I encountered the truck driving in the opposite direction. It was right by my old elementary school. I don't use the word surreal very often, but, there it is. I probably followed that truck for a good fifteen minutes. When the truck unexpectedly showed up to a rally we were having with the local AFL-CIO, everyone had to take their picture with it. The staff wouldn't stop smiling. Tom was politely forcing every guest to go look at it. The guests made multiple visits back to where the truck was parked to just stare at it. I don't think I'll forget that day.
Soon thereafter we heard Howie on local talk radio supporting our campaign. The host mentioned the truck and that it was everywhere. The Wakely campaign was finally getting coverage. Texas Public Radio called to do a segment with Tom and block walked in Tom's neighborhood with the campaign. Time Warner Cable News did an interview with Tom in Austin. A poll was released that showed Lamar Smith could be vulnerable due to his obstructionism. Texas Climate News block walked with us. ClimateWire covered our race. More volunteers started showing up. More local clubs began hosting events for us. There were oftentimes too many emails to answer in a single sitting. The day before the election, the Washington Post ran their interview with Tom and their coverage of our race. Breitbart even ran a piece that day on how we subscribed to the “climate orthodoxy” and had launched a “virulent attack” against Smith. The Breitbart piece might have been my personal favorite simply because who doesn't like making those guys mad?
By the end, nobody was telling us that our efforts were in vain. They wanted badly for us to win because they believed in the work we did. People who initially laughed at us were wearing Wakely shirts and singing our praises. For lack of a better word, it was just incredible.
With just a handful of folks and a fistful of cash, we'd already accomplished the unthinkable. We wanted a victory, but campaigns have expiration dates. We didn't have all the time or resources, but we were an unexpected arrival on the national stage and drove focus to an incumbent who's far overstayed his welcome.
We finished with more Democratic votes than any other candidate's received against Smith. In fact, we had the highest raw vote of all the Texas Democrats running against incumbent Republicans in Congress and we did it on less than a dollar per vote. We finished with the best Democratic percentage of any previous campaign against Smith. This was the first time Lamar Smith had finished with less than 60% of the vote.
I could spend another thousand words spinning the numbers, but I'll spare you. My point in all of this is when progressives band together and when people have the guts to work on a true fight for that progress, it doesn't take much to validate their efforts. Oftentimes we're told that the left can't win, the left can't fight, the left can't possibly articulate their issues in the middle of a red state. All it really takes is someone or some group with the guts to be the first to say “Okay, I'm in.” Howie and Blue America stood with us from day one, and our team will never forget it.
Our campaign is proof that you can do amazing things with the right kind of support. I'm honored to have been involved in this campaign and so grateful for everything it's brought me. I'll leave you with a phrase that's popular here in Texas: “Dance with the one that brung ya.” I'm really looking forward to the next dance.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis