Obama fundraiser sets sights on Texas House races
Democrats say woman is bringing younger donors, more money in bid to take back majority.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Alexa Wesner caught Obamania before it became fashionable.
The West Lake Hills woman, who’s known Barack Obama since he ran for the U.S. Senate four years ago, has slogged through the snows of Iowa, exceeded her goal of raising $250,000 for his presidential campaign (she’s got a similar target for the fall election), hosted a couple of local Obama fundraisers and dined with the candidate’s wife last fall on a trip to London.
Now Wesner, 36, has turned her sights on what Texas Democrats hope will become the next big thing: winning back the Texas House of Representatives.
Today Wesner is hosting a high-dollar fundraiser in Wimberley for her new political action committee, Blue Texas, dedicated to spending money on state legislative campaigns. (Tickets are $5,000 a couple to $50,000 for a host committee for an event headlined by Jerry Jeff Walker and Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.)
As of Friday, Wesner said, she had raised $1 million in tickets for the event. To put that in perspective, Texas Republicans, with Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. John Cornyn headlining an event in Weatherford this weekend, expect to raise $600,000 for statewide get-out-the-vote efforts this fall, according to Roger Williams, who leads the GOP’s Texas Victory ’08 effort.
Texas Democrats spent $21.5 million, from all sources, on Texas House races in 2006, when Republicans outspent them with $38 million.
State Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat who heads the House Democratic Campaign Committee, says he has no illusions that Democrats will outspend Republicans in Texas this year. But he welcomes Wesner’s help: “We never had a million-dollar event before.”
Ask Wesner why she’s set her sights on the Texas House as well as the White House, and her answer shows how new to politics she is.
“It was amazing to me how close we are. We just need five seats,” Wesner said of the Democrats’ chances of winning a legislative majority in the Texas House, where Republicans hold a 79-71 majority. “I’m talking to a lot of people who don’t realize how close it is.”
Wesner’s enthusiasm and a younger network of high-dollar donors has the Texas Democratic establishment excited.
“She’s so refreshing,” said Jack Martin, founder of Public Strategies, an international business consulting firm. “Not only does she not know who’s been mad at one another (in the Democratic Party), she doesn’t care.”
Martin said Wesner called him last fall to attend an Obama fundraiser.
“She didn’t know big shots like me are supposed to be wooed to attend,” Martin quipped. At the event, Wesner was “taking Obama around the crowd like he’s running for the school board,” Martin said.
Martin, a political wunderkind when he worked for U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen a quarter-century ago, said he didn’t recognize anyone at the fundraiser except biker and cancer-fighter Lance Armstrong.
“Everyone was 20 years younger,” said Martin, who is 54.
Martin asked Wesner to organize an event this year for the U.S. Senate campaign for former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. Wesner delivered in about a week.
“By the time he left town,” Martin said, “he had $130,000 in his pocket.”
Wesner, whose maiden name was Lange, is a first-generation American whose parents are Latvian and German. Wesner grew up in Virginia, where she was a state champion runner. She studied biology at Stanford University, graduating in three years, then came to Austin in 1994 to work for Trilogy, then a high-tech startup.
By 1997, she had started a firm to recruit workers to Austin’s expanding high-tech industry. She was frequently quoted in publications, from Fortune magazine to local periodicals, on the lure of Austin.
“There is a pulse here that you do not feel anywhere else, and you can’t describe it,” she told the American-Statesman in 1999. “You cannot sell people on Austin over the phone. You need to get them here, and then they feel it, and they realize what it is all about.”
Today, she is married to Blaine Wesner, a partner at Austin Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in the Southwest.
They have a 3-year-old daughter, Keep, and live in a glass house with a view of Austin’s skyline. Actually, the award-winning residence, the Floating Box House by New York architect Peter Gluck, only has one glass level. An upper floor wrapped in mahogany veneer gives the illusion of a box floating over the Austin skyline.
Before her foray into politics, Wesner also has helped the Austin Film Society, the Austin Museum of Arts and Ballet Austin, among others.
Wesner said she met Obama when he came to Austin to raise money for his U.S. Senate campaign in 2004.
“Our early support has given us a front-row seat for what has become a remarkable groundswell of enthusiasm for changing the course we’re on and an optimism among voters, particularly young voters,” Wesner said.
Martin, whom Wesner calls a mentor, credits this spring’s Obama-Clinton primary showdown for a new enthusiasm for Democratic politics in a state dominated by Republicans.
“There’s an explosion coming out from that primary,” Martin said. “It’s almost like an incubator” for young people who are now asking, “What’s next?”
Martin introduced Wesner to Matt Angle, a longtime Democratic activist, a former aide to ex-U.S. Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas and a linchpin between the state Democratic Party and several independent efforts.
Angle’s name is on the paperwork creating Blue Texas with Wesner, who’s the group’s campaign treasurer, and remains a member of Obama’s 300-plus-member national finance committee.
“The idea is to bring in new donors,” Angle said of Blue Texas. “Once they see who’s participating, it will have peer reinforcement.”
Wesner said she sees her role — and the role for Blue Texas — as focusing newly-energized voters in Texas.
“This is not about an office or a single position. It’s about laying the groundwork for ideas and initiatives that will get Texas off the bottom of most lists: particularly around children’s issues, health and education.”
The effort dovetails with this week’s announcement by the Obama campaign that it will station staff and spend money in a rare 50-state campaign instead of just focusing on a few swing states. Texas Democrats are likely to benefit from that effort.
Wesner, who says she’s in this for the long haul, intends to raise more than the $1 million from the initial event.
Although Republicans outspent Democrats by more than $16 million in 2006, according to a Texans for Public Justice study, Democrats showed a net gain of six seats that year.
“We’ve been able to show that just money doesn’t win elections,” Dunnam said.
Whatever money Blue Texas raises will be focused on a handful of crucial swing districts, Wesner said.
The 2008 election cycle may still be a high hurdle for Democrats.
On one hand, Democrats cite the unprecedented turnout of their voters in the March primaries. On the other hand, Republicans drew the House districts to favor their candidates, and Democrats already may have plucked the easiest victories. Democrats also have more seats to defend this year because of their success in 2006.
Still, Williams, who leads the GOP statewide get-out-the-vote effort, says it won’t be easy for Republicans.
“It is a challenge being a Republican right now,” he said. “The mood of our party is that we’re a little nicked and bruised.”
At the end of the day, however, Texas remains Republican territory, Williams said: “If Republicans vote, we’ll win.”
Williams declined to say how much money Texas Victory ’08 is trying to raise but noted, “Money is not the problem.”
It might be an uphill battle money-wise for Democrats, but Wesner is undeterred.
On Election Day, she said, she’s expecting three joys: Obama’s election, a Democratic majority in the Texas House and the birth of her son. Actually, she said, she hopes he comes a couple of days early.
“I want to be toasting with Champagne,” she said.