You Can't Go Home Again

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. Mike McCaul's decision not to run for the U.S. Senate means he won't be testing one of the truisms of Texas politics: A seat in the Texas congressional delegation is a lousy launching pad for statewide office.

Members of Congress who come home to Texas to run for statewide office almost always fail. Each of the autopsies includes this line: "It's a big state."

They're known, usually, in only one little district of Texas. They don't usually have strong organizations or statewide fundraising networks. The political party infrastructure has been privatized over the years, with politicians and their committees — and outside political action committees — controlling most of that machinery in the state.

And they have to survive party primaries before they become part of statewide tickets — many don't survive that round.

McCaul, R-Austin, would have faced another obstacle this year. "Congress" is a dirty word and his opponents in a Senate race would have wrapped it around his neck. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison found that out last year, challenging Rick Perry in GOP primary that turned into a referendum on Washington. Washington, and Hutchison, lost.

Jim Mattox left Congress and successfully won statewide election as Texas Attorney General in 1982 and again in 1986. He lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1990 to Ann Richards, who went on to become governor later that year. He lost a bid for U.S. Senate in 1994 and a run for attorney general in 1998.

Phil Gramm broke through, and he's the Republican people like to point to when they're suiting up for a big race. But he was a national figure, in a national fight, with Ronald Reagan's arm around his shoulder. He staged his party switch from the Democrats to the Republicans. He quit office early and forced a special election, which he won as a member of the GOP. And he brawled his way through a primary in 1984 (against Ron Paul, among others) and then a general election and into the Senate seat he held from 1985 to 2002.

Kent Hance, whose national profile was, for a few short moments, as bright as Gramm's, lost in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate that year. He and Gramm could have been on opposite sides of the ballot. But Hance lost to Lloyd Doggett, who lost to Gramm. Hance came back, as a Republican. He lost the 1986 GOP primary for governor, got appointed to the Texas Railroad Commission, won a term there and then for governor again in 1990, falling short again. Now he's the chancellor of the Texas Tech University System.

Those are exceptions. A gaggle of prominent and non-prominent members of the congressional delegation went to Washington and found they couldn't come home again. The rolls of congressmen who tried and failed in the last 30 years includes Mike Andrews, Joe Barton, Chris Bell, Ken Bentsen, John Bryant, Jim Chapman, Jack Fields, Bob Krueger and Tom Loeffler.

Texans are happy to send people to Washington, but it's been a long time since they let one come back for anything but retirement or a change of careers.