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Welcome to the Primaries

By Michael King, February 22, 2002, News


Chapter 1 (Statewide Races)

If you've been living right, you haven't yet spent a moment thinking about the March 12 primary elections. Yet here it is, only three weeks away. Early voting starts Saturday, and you still don't know a Deffenbaugh from a Wainwright, a WorldPeace from a Whittier.

That's why you pick up the Chronicle.

This is the first of three weekly installments on the primary elections, designed to simplify the voting process and highlight those races meriting special attention. You can find the contested races for both parties listed on this page. In the other races, candidates are running unopposed, and the real action won't start until the fall campaign. (Check out our Chronicle endorsements)


Democratic Races

Today, we're taking special note of the statewide races. First off, it is not true that oil and gas tycoons Tony Sanchez (Democrat for governor) and David Dewhurst (Republican for lieutenant governor) are the only candidates running. They're both just so loaded with dough that they can afford saturation TV commercials that make their opponents swoon -- or disappear. (To judge from the TV spots, Sanchez is running for elementary school principal and Dewhurst for best-dressed cowboy.) Dewhurst has gone to ground recently, since his GOP opponent, Galveston businessman and political novice Tom Kelly, is apparently content to be a name on the ballot.

Not so Sanchez, the consensus pick of the Dem establishment, who had been expected to coast to the primary nomination and a fall match-up with incumbent Rick Perry. The late, surprise entry of former Attorney General Dan Morales forced Sanchez to spend early (a reported $1 million a week, mostly his own money) to overcome Morales' greater name ID. He has quickly done so, and the most recent polls show Sanchez steadily pulling ahead among likely voters. Morales has counterattacked by calling attention to Sanchez's former support for George W. Bush and the unsavory history of his banking business in Laredo. Morales hopes both to undermine his opponent's successful business reputation and to force the media to give him the kind of headline coverage he can't afford to buy.

Last week ended with the Sanchez camp refusing further discussion of televised debates -- they later changed their minds, agreeing to two debates. They believe they can beat Morales with advertising alone, while Morales must hope he can throw enough mud to overcome Sanchez's money. Sanchez is now the frontrunner, but with two minor candidates also in the race -- Houston attorney John WorldPeace and Waxahachie businessman Bill Lyon -- there's an outside chance of a runoff, which could force a tossup if turnout is low.

Whatever it might mean for Sanchez, it's lucky for the voters. Dan Morales didn't declare for U.S. Senate as he originally planned, which would have meant not only six candidates, but two Moraleses. Victor Morales, the 1996 Quixote, has returned, and is currently neck-and-neck with U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston, and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. While Kirk has the heavy party endorsements and the big money, Bentsen has the federal experience and name (he's nephew of former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen). And Victor Morales has the legend and the populist cojones. Right now it's too close to call: In the polls, these three are splitting roughly 60% between them. With two additional longshot candidates -- Austin lawyer Ed Cunningham and the ever-running Gene Kelly of San Antonio -- the Senate race is virtually certain to require a runoff, and at the moment it's anybody's guess which two of the three front-runners will survive.

There are only four contested Democratic statewide races downballot, in what appear to be battles over name ID. For land commissioner, Beaumont Senator David Bernsen faces Corpus Christi small businessman Ray Madrigal, and former Mount Vernon Rep. Tom Ramsay opposes Brownsville rancher Ernesto De Leon. Bernsen and Ramsay have more Capitol experience, but with two Hispanic gubernatorial candidates, ethnic balance of the turnout may determine the outcome here. Paul C. Looney and Sherry Boyles contend for railroad commissioner, with the better-known Boyles bearing the big party endorsements and a proposal to merge the RRC with the utility commission. Looney says he's running because he wants to use Texas salt domes for oil storage, although he acknowledges that such a notion poses "environmental questions."

Only one state court race is contested: Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 2, where Dallas defense attorney Julius Whittier faces San Antonio defense attorney Pat Montgomery.


Republican Races

On the Republican ballot, Attorney General John Cornyn has a handful of token opponents (Lang, Deffenbaugh, Cranberg, Mooney: excellent names for a law firm, no chance for election) for U.S. Senate. The ballot doesn't get interesting until you get down to land commissioner, where former Dallas Rep. Kenn George and former Brazoria Senator Jerry Patterson have been getting down and nasty. George made his millions as a loyal servant of the hospital industry, while Patterson is best known for liberating concealed handguns. (Those are the kinds of tough choices the Republicans like to give themselves.) Patterson has been getting in the best shots, but George's money, and the generally far-right Republican primary voters, make this race tough to call.

Unlike the Dem ballot, where only one state court race is contested, the GOP candidates bunch up for Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals -- reflecting the recent Republican control of the courts. Most of the candidates are unremarkable conservative lawyers who will continue the courts' recent lean to the petrified right, but a couple of the Supreme contests have drawn early interest. Wallace B. Jefferson (Place 3) and Xavier Rodriguez (Place 4) have drawn opponents (Sam Lee and Steven Wayne Smith, respectively) who have suggested loudly that they're only on the ballot because they're black (Jefferson) and brown (Rodriguez). It's the kind of embarrassment that makes Big Tent Republicans wince (as did Texas GOP chair Susan Weddington), but Smith at least is not likely to retreat: He's the Hopwood lawyer who zestfully and successfully attacked affirmative action at the UT law school . Next week: U.S. Congressional and state Legislative races.

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