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GOP voter registration group shutters amid coronavirus challenges

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Republican Party emblems and signage are seen at the Republican Party of Texas office in downtown Austin. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Engage Texas, the massive Republican super PAC focused on voter registration, is shutting down, citing challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The group began last year with the support of some of the biggest Texas GOP donors and raised $12.7 million while building a staff in the hundreds. Yet the group says that the months-long pandemic has made clear that "person-to-person contact voter registration is going to be challenging for an indeterminate amount of time."

"Leadership has determined that the highest and best use of supporter and donor energies at this point is to phase out person-to-person voter registration, close Engage Texas and encourage our supporters to engage with candidate and party activities ahead of the November election," Engage Texas said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Friday. "Engage Texas is proud of our highly successful voter registration efforts and believes that conservative voter registration will successfully continue through the Republican Party of Texas Volunteer Engagement Project."

Engage Texas, which had $6 million cash on hand at the end of March, is in the process of redistributing its remaining funds to other GOP groups with similar goals. The reallocations are expected to be detailed on its next quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, which is due July 15.

The shuttering of Engage Texas leaves the Texas GOP's Volunteer Engagement Project as Republicans' chief registration effort this election cycle at the state level. The project is aiming to register 100,000 likely Republicans by Oct. 5, the registration deadline for the November election. Party chairman James Dickey said Thursday the project has surpassed 85,000 registrations.

"Republicans are finally paying major attention again to voter registration," Dickey said during a tele-town hall about the party's 2020 convention. "It's back in our DNA, and we are ceding no turf."

Still, the shutdown of Engage Texas is a major blow to one of the lessons that state Republicans took from their setbacks in the 2018 election — that they needed to grow their pool of voters and hone in on registration after years of neglect.

Engage Texas launched in June 2019 with the goal of signing up hundreds of thousands of new voters, led by a former top staffer at the Republican National Committee, Chris Young. The group's board included several GOP bigwigs, like Houston businessman and tort reform advocate Richard Weekley, while the organization collected six- and seven-figure checks from some of the state's leading Republican donors.

In shutting down, Engage Texas pointed to data that it said showed that for the first time in a decade, "Republican registrations have outpaced Democrat registrations in Texas, and have done so for nine consecutive months." As of today, the group said, Republicans have registered 18,677 more new voters this year in Texas than Democrats have.

Texas Democrats are also prioritizing voter registration this election cycle, targeting 2.6 million Texans that are unregistered but it believes are Democrats. Last month, the state Democratic party launched Register Texas, a website where people can submit their registration information for the party to send them a filled-out application with postage paid so all they have to do is put it in the mail to their county clerk.