Social Media and the Senator: How Turning Texas Blue Isn't Just a Game

Times have changed. Even in Texas, for as dumb as we may seem to the more civilized parts of America, you can't win elections anymore by merely promising to fill the potholes or time the traffic lights. For one Texas State Senator from Austin, perhaps best known nationally for a bright lights slip-up in 2008 on Hardball that turned into an internet meme, putting a social media spin on Democrats winning back the Texas House of Representatives has gone, well, viral.

In a conference call with Texas progressive bloggers this week, Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) spread out the cards of his Monopoly Buster social media campaign, aimed at fracturing the GOP stronghold over the Texas House in November. Incumbent Democratic candidates facing challengers were invited to participate in a competition to get the most votes, with each vote attached to a name and email address. The five candidates with the most votes after March 26th will move on to the second round where the finalist with the most votes will receive a $10,000 contribution from Watson's campaign and the runner-up will get $1,500. Another prize is also noteworthy: each candidate will receive their own database of their Monopoly Buster voters' information to stay connected with their group through Election Day.

Watson has long been the golden boy of Austin progressive politics, an Ann Richards appointee who was elected as Mayor of Austin in 1997 and again in 2000 with over 84% of the vote. In 2006, Watson was elected to the Texas Senate and over time has garnered a large war chest of campaign funds and an equal amount of hard-earned experience, including his stunning loss of words in 2008 on national television when being interviewed (some might say hammered) by Chris Matthews about Barack Obama's accomplishments. In a new effort for Texas Democrats, Watson put both into play to help incentivize incumbent House members and help salt their fundraising numbers.

But for Watson, the money is secondary to the real task at hand: motivating the Texas House candidates build their networks and organizing on a grassroots level. "I want to help create a bigger universe for some of these candidates," said Watson on his call with bloggers, emphasizing that the online voting process is not just about the email address. Watson spoke of how email has almost become an antiquated form of communication--"We talk about it now like, 'You have a fax machine?'"--and his Monopoly Buster campaign, which prompts voters to tweet who they voted for, seeks to build a network outside of just the email lists that candidates already have.

Like many online efforts, Watson's plan was met with some initial resistance. Watson mentioned that some candidates were concerned about the timing of the campaign--post-primary lethargy had started to set in and families were heading out for spring break. But Watson pressed on with his plan, in part because he saw a strategic advantage: candidates would be forced to activate their efforts earlier than usual and have the opportunity to get their message out at the Senate District conventions which took place over the weekend. And, like many businesses and politicians have already started to realize, the cost of not getting in the social media game is more than the cost of entry. Watson was ready to get Texas House members thinking outside the box in their online strategies and ultimately, Watson said, in a raspy, down-home drawl, his answer to "Why now?" is simple: "If not now, when?"

"The contribution is significant," said State Representative Solomon Ortiz, Jr. (D-Corpus Christi), one of the incumbent House members vying for the win. "But I joined because it gives my supporters something to get excited about online and gets my message out in a community that might not read traditional news sources."

A day of studying social media tells you that one of the first lessons you learn -- if you're good at it, that is -- is how to learn from your mistakes. Senator Watson has a healthy appreciation of the power that online exposure can have. More importantly, he's using his savvy to simultaneously push House members, grow a larger network and, if November goes his way, take back the Texas House of Representatives by retaining all currently held Democratic seats. Until then, Watson seems determined to leave no tweet un-tweeted. "I'm trying to figure out all of the different angles that help make this kind of thing work," said Watson as he wrapped up his call with bloggers Monday night.

"I'm into this pretty deep because I really believe in it."

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