McCaul: Game-Changer or Just Another Candidate?

Congressman Michael McCaul at the Texas Capitol on Feb. 23, 2011.
Congressman Michael McCaul at the Texas Capitol on Feb. 23, 2011.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul is considering a race for the United States Senate. So? The Austin Republican is certainly not the first congressman from Texas to consider the leap, and there are more failures in that history than successes.

But a combination of personal wealth and a political straddle between the establishment and dissident factions in the GOP could make him a viable contender for the seat now held by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

It's already a crowded field. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and undertaker Glenn Addison are already among the candidates. State Sen. Dan Patrick was looking, but said this week he's decided to stay out. Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez is the only Democrat in the running so far.

Breaking out of the Republican pack will require some combination of money and fame, and maybe even an idea that distinguishes a candidate from everyone else who is also playing variations on the anti-Washington theme this election cycle.

It's not impossible for a member of Congress to move up. Lloyd Bentsen, a Democrat, made the leap from the House to the Senate, and so did Phil Gramm, a Republican. But the list of failures includes members of both political parties: Kent Hance, Mike Andrews, John Bryant, Joe Barton, Jim Chapman, Jack Fields and Ron Paul.

It's difficult to turn a relatively small base of support into statewide support. McCaul won election to Congress in a district that reaches from Austin to Houston, but he's never appeared before voters in the other 31 congressional districts.

Gramm had national prominence and a president — Ronald Reagan — eager to aid in the success of a Democratic congressman who had converted to the GOP. Gramm was the sponsor of key budget legislation Reagan had promoted, and his switch made him a national figure and gave him name ID in Texas.

Bentsen? He had money. And that's why McCaul's flirtation with the race is interesting. A candidate who's well known can build on that. An unknown candidate can get well known if there's enough money on hand to do enough advertising and promotion.

McCaul, recently named the richest member of Congress by Roll Call, reported a net worth of $287 million (his father-in-law, Lowry Mays, is co-founder of San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications). How much of that he might spend is open to speculation. He recently told potential supporters he'd spend $4 million to $6 million; the political rumors in Austin have run much higher.

Asked about rumors he might run, his office declined to confirm or deny. They offered this line, attributed to the congressman: "My goal remains to ensure that the most qualified person represents Texas in the United States Senate."

As of this week, the word from aides is that he's still thinking about it.  

So is the competition.

"We know we are not going to be able to compete dollar for dollar with a Dewhurst or a McCaul or a Leppert, but we will raise enough to get our message out," said John Drogin, who's running Cruz's campaign for Senate. They've concentrated on winning endorsements from conservative leaders and trying to gin up grassroots support. And that's the strategy with or without McCaul in the hunt; Dewhurst has self-financed campaigns before, and Leppert has already invested more than $2 million of his own to his campaign.

Cruz has been successful at attracting attention and endorsements. That can work in a primary election, as it did when Democrat Victor Morales knocked off a Houston lawyer and two sitting members of Congress in 1996. He went on to lose to Phil Gramm that November. The enthusiasm gap in that race offset his financial disadvantage. And while Morales was financially behind the others, that race lacked wealthy candidates. This one could have three of them.

Leppert is running on a jobs and economic development platform he hopes will capture Texans' interest. Like Cruz and Jones and others, he's been attending candidate forums all over the state. His campaign offered a stock statement when asked about McCaul: "While other candidates may come and go in this race, the challenges facing our nation remain unchanged. This campaign will be focused on which candidate has the best skill set for fixing our economy, ending the status quo in Washington and getting America back to work."

Dewhurst has been running a Rose Garden strategy, waiting until this month to start campaigning, and staying out of debates and forums with the opposition. He's got an advantage no other candidate can match: If he loses this race, he'll still be the lieutenant governor. That means if he loses this race and Gov. Rick Perry wins the presidency, Dewhurst would be governor. Nobody in the political classes wants to risk losing a friend like that. Conversely, every pol who wants to move up and who is depending on an opening in one or both of the state's top jobs is rooting, selfishly, for both Dewhurst and Perry. McCaul, like everybody else, would have to overcome that.

Turnout could make a difference, too. If Perry is on the ballot — especially if the GOP nomination hasn't been decided by the time Texans vote in March — turnout in the Republican primary will be high. If none of the Senate candidates can put the race away in the primary election, two survivors will be in a May runoff. One theory is that a wealthy candidate could dominate a runoff; another is that an ideologically more conservative candidate will have an advantage since hard-core partisans are more likely to show up for a low-interest contest in May. With this particular herd of candidates, it's impossible to say right now which two would finish out front.

All of that's in play whether or not McCaul enters the Senate race. He has to figure out whether he's got enough money to become known, enough ideas to separate himself from the mob and whether he offers anything that the other candidates don't already offer. Is there a hole to run through? And if he loses, does it help or harm his career? Both he and Cruz are on the list when political consultants talk about Republican candidates for Texas attorney general in 2014. A well-run but unsuccessful Senate campaign could position either of them well for that contest.

There's no rush. Candidates don't have to file to get on the ballot until Dec. 12, and since McCaul could run without needing time to raise money, he can wait and see how the other candidates do over the next two months (and with him in the wings, their money could dry up). It's not certain he'll do anything but run for re-election, and here's a bit of evidence: Nobody has publicly surfaced to run for the congressional seat he'd be leaving behind.

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