Smells Like Victory

Saddam Hussein, toxic mold, and Texas Democrats' fleeting hopes for November

At least something good can be said about this year's state political campaigns: They're more interesting than they've been in years, because several are actually competitive. That may be more important to political reporters than to the voters; one painful axiom of politics -- especially in Texas -- is that what's good for journalism is not necessarily good for the country.

The electorate numbers -- that is, those people who are not only of voting age, but who actually register and vote -- still demographically favor the GOP. So if the Democrats are going to pull off the statewide upsets they desire, particularly in the governor's race, they have to find a few hundred thousand new voters. But it's worth recalling that in 1998 -- when Gov. George W. Bush buried the woefully underfunded Garry Mauro in a landslide -- the Dem candidates for lieutenant governor (John Sharp) and comptroller (Paul Hobby) each came within a few thousand votes of victory.

They might have won but for turnout -- or rather lack of it -- especially among Hispanic and African-American voters, who too often find no particular reason to come out and vote for a party leadership that looks pretty much as it has for generations. Hence, this year's Democratic "dream team" ticket: Ron Kirk for U.S. senator, Tony Sanchez for governor, and Sharp for lieutenant governor. Especially dreamy are Sanchez's millions, which can underwrite the media blitz and get-out-the-vote efforts that are key to giving the party a fighting chance on Nov. 5.

Based on the uncertain winds of early polls, the governor's race is said to be incumbent Rick Perry's to lose, while both the Senate and lieutenant governor's races appear too close to call. No less an authority than current Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff told The Dallas Morning News last week that he expects Perry will squeeze by, along with GOP Senate candidate John Cornyn. But the race to choose Ratliff's own successor "is a real toss-up, and my guess is right now ... you probably have to give Sharp the edge."

Sharp, the most experienced state politician on the ballot, is widely acknowledged as the architect of the dream team ticket and remains its most likely beneficiary. It doesn't hurt the former comptroller that his opponent, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, has distinguished himself largely by playing a rodeo cowboy in his television commercials, and that the most respected politicians in Dewhurst's own party (Ratliff among them) basically want nothing to do with him. There may be one devil's reason to vote for Dewhurst: It would be amusing to see him ridden, roped, and hog-tied by the state Senate.

Dewhurst aside (God willing), while you weren't paying attention we entered the stretch run of the silly season, the last month of the state political campaigns. That's right, Nov. 5 is only four weeks away -- early voting but two -- and by now Texas voters are supposed to have some notion in our heads about who we're going to hold our noses and vote for. But apparently we don't.

The War Party

Among the reasons those polls remain unusually uncertain is the recent wrenching of the political calculus, nationally and closer to home. The Bush administration's aggressive push for full-scale war on Iraq has caused international consternation, and it has also made unreliable the conventional wisdom about off-year elections in a recession -- normally a bad time to be in the party of the president. More than one Democrat, and not a few cynics of every party, have suggested that the timing of the anti-Hussein crusade is no coincidence. Karl Rove has been counseling the politics of war for months, and Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card recently acknowledged that "from a marketing standpoint, you don't roll out a new product in August." It's a reassuring thought: Like the theatre, the new television season, and football, war plays best when the air is crisp and the scent of burning ballots is in the air.

The Bush/GOP political gambit is unsurprising; the gang that stole Florida won't hesitate to wave the bloody World Trade Center flag. More distressing, at least from a competitive standpoint, has been the initially suicidal response of the Democratic leadership. Until Bush finally goaded Tom Daschle into anger last week by questioning the Democrats' commitment to national security, the donkeys appeared content to surrender en masse to war hysteria -- even if that meant abandoning the fall campaign, let alone the congressional authority to declare war.

One might have thought that at least the threat of losing contested races, and control of both houses of Congress, would have moved the leadership to provide some rhetorical cover for beleaguered Dem candidates. Instead, a few brave backbenchers (Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett among them) had to carry the weight until Daschle, Ted Kennedy, and Al Gore finally spoke out to slow down the juggernaut a bit. It's hardly a groundswell; the White House will still get its war ultimatum, though perhaps not as quickly as planned.

In Texas, this melodrama has played itself out primarily in the U.S. Senate race, where Cornyn and Kirk first engaged in a comic two-step for a couple of weeks over who most despises Saddam Hussein. Sensing that Cornyn held the high cards in that game, Kirk tentatively stuck his neck out by suggesting that the coming conflict would be a rich man's war fought by working stiffs -- and disproportionately by people of color. That simple declaration of the obvious generated such a swift backlash about "the race card" and "class warfare" that a couple of days later Kirk was apologizing for his choice of words and insisting he had "no intention of offending anyone." Cornyn's campaign spent a few days piling on re: Kirk's uncertain "temperament."

Whether Kirk is permanently bruised by the exchange may depend more on what happens in D.C. than in Texas over the next few weeks. But it's difficult to feel much sympathy for the ex-Dallas mayor; his campaign has so fetishized his image as the Businessman's Consensus Black Democrat that when he does stumble away from the extremely straight and narrow it comes as a relief. Both Cornyn and Kirk are conservative Texas politicians, either of whom will carry with them to D.C. the interests of the Texas business class that has indulgently sponsored their political careers. But should Kirk pull off the upset against the GOP establishment and its relentless invocation of the name of Bush -- a real if slim possibility -- he will owe that victory to an energized Democratic base (also disproportionately people of color), who will insist on being heard on education, on health care, on the economy, on immigration, even on war and peace.

Unlike Cornyn, Kirk won't be able entirely to ignore them.

The Do-Nothing Party

It's not unusual for Texas politics to offer up a Republican to run against a Republican, but the Rick Perry vs. Tony Sanchez campaign seems even more monochrome than most. The same arguments for supporting Kirk can be applied to the Sanchez campaign -- his candidacy directly invites into the process millions of voters who have been ignored in Texas far too long -- but it also essentially maintains the conservative business interests' traditional headlock on public policy. Either candidate will be restricted by the limits of the Texas office and, more particularly this year, a $5 billion to $12 billion budget deficit certain to make progressive legislation even more difficult than usual.

Despite the inevitable talk from both campaigns about "scrubbing the budget" and "cutting waste," only 17% of the budget is discretionary -- and that money is already strained to exhaustion by costs for education, health care, highways, and prisons. But whatever else he doesn't do, a Gov. Sanchez at least won't veto dozens of progressive bills at the close of a legislative session to which he hasn't paid much attention. The current buzz is that the budget meltdown will likely require a special session -- although how an overtime period will make money appear from nowhere is more than a little unclear. This year, the candidates' "No Tax!" pledges look particularly dubious. But there is no political consensus either on the overall budget or on education funding and its impact on property taxes.

Initially, it appeared the gubernatorial race would be fought largely on the turf of education and health care -- until Farmers pulled out of Texas and put the insurance crisis back on the front page. (To conspiracy theorists, it may seem more than coincidental that Farmers has chosen Nov. 11, a week after the election, to take its money and run.) For the moment, homeowners' insurance is Tony Sanchez's Iraq. While Perry is jawboning terrible retribution, the Sanchez campaign is trotting out homeowners who have found themselves at the mercy of insurers (not hard to find), and has proposed a "Victims Compensation Fund" underwritten by "exit penalties" against insurers who leave the state or drop coverage.

If both responses seem a little tepid -- a bit like locking the barn door after the house has burned down -- well, that's how we do public policy in Texas: Wait for a hemorrhage and then bring on the Band-Aids. But our present purpose is to figure out who might win next month. If Sanchez can drive home the impression that Perry sat on his hands while insurance companies abandoned their customers (i.e., the voters), the Dems may have found an issue that could drive a wedge among suburban independents. If that holds -- and if the party does indeed mobilize its base, as it's always threatening to do -- Nov. 5 could be very interesting, indeed. end story

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