The two richest candidates in Texas—Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez and Republican lieutenant governor candidate David Dewhurst—are using the most expensive kind of advertising to talk to voters in a move that might have less to do with votes than with resources.
Every time they attack their opponents on television, those less-wealthy opponents—Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Lite Guv candidate John Sharp—have to at least think about responding. Even if voters aren't convinced by the early and heavy run of ads, the rich guys potentially gain. They distract their opponents, demoralize the supporters on the other side of the fence while encouraging their own allies, make the opposing money people nervous, and pressure their opposition to use money now instead of later to counterattack.
That could be particularly hard on Sharp. Sanchez, if his commercials are effective, can bleed Perry of resources the governor was holding for the fall, and Dewhurst can do the same to Sharp. If the attacks are influencing voters or supporters, the victims will have to hit back now instead of saving up for later. But if they have to answer now, they'll have to raise that much more money for the fall campaign. Perry, an incumbent governor, will have a much easier time closing that gap than Sharp, who's not in office and doesn't have a president on the other end of his Phone A Friend line.
Less clear is what effect, if any, this will have on voters. We haven't located anyone with decent research on the questions, but at least we know what the questions are: If a voter sees an effective political ad six months before an election, will the favorable impression stay with that voter in the booth in November? Is a voter who hasn't already decided on a candidate—whether because of party affiliation, say, or race, for example—really going to make a decision this early? There is plenty of research that shows swing voters don't make final decisions until the elections are upon them: Do impressions that begin six months earlier have anything to do with the final decisions?
The old political formula went like this: Candidates would use the spring and summer months to recover from primary fights, to firm up support with party insiders and regulars, to raise money and to settle on strategy and tactics for the fall campaign. Sometime around Labor Day, they'd have campaign kickoffs and, if they were well financed, would start running biographical ads to introduce or reintroduce themselves to the general public. Over time, that dateline slid back, along with the start of the school year, until it became more or less customary to start the process in early August.
But Texas probably hasn't seen this level of political activity in the month of May since the days of May primaries. Sanchez went up first, with a $1 million-per-week campaign (that's an estimate made by folks who buy ads for Republican candidates; the Sanchez campaign won't talk about the details of its purchase of television time) talking about how much he liked the good old bipartisan days of George W. Bush and Bob Bullock.
After a week of that, Sanchez uncorked the first attack ads of the general election season (Orwell alert: His campaign is calling them "educational"). At the time we went to press, he had three commercials running in each market in the state, but the mix from a pool of six commercials was slightly different from market to market. Suffice to say most Texans will see a mess of good stuff about Sanchez and a mess of bad stuff about Perry. Dewhurst, meanwhile, went on television with commercials in English and Spanish talking about education and his business record. Like the Sanchez squad, Dewhurst's folks would say only that the ads are running statewide. Details were withheld.
Biopics and 15-Second Wonders
The Sanchez offensive includes three positive spots and three little zingers—15-second ads that take a pop at Perry and then disappear before you have time to figure out where the shots came from. One asks if electric bills are too high, then blames Perry and his "hand-picked PUC chairman" for the rates. It features a shot of Perry winking as the announcer talks. Another features a ticking clock and says "it's been almost two years since Rick Perry became governor. Can you name one thing he's done to actually improve our schools?" The third goes "under Gov. Rick Perry, we now face a $5 billion deficit. And growing." The three ads all end with the same line: "Rick Perry. We didn't elect him. We don't have to keep him." The last one has Sanchez standing in front of the Capitol, noting a $15 billion increase in state spending in two years and saying "Where has all that money gone?"
One of the remaining Sanchez ads is a bio piece much like the ads that ran in the primaries. It touts his family values and business successes. Another is a spot that features Sanchez with a shotgun, saying the state doesn't need any new gun laws: "Instead of going after law-abiding citizens, let's vigorously enforce the laws in the books and go after criminals." The tag on that last set of spots sounds like it came from a beer commercial: "Tony Sanchez. More leadership. Less politics."
Perry's initial response to the first ad was somewhere between frustration and anger. He said the spot wasn't factual (keep reading) and said he was sorry the Democrat had decided to run a negative campaign. His camp hasn't responded with TV ads, but will if need be. They're waiting to see if Sanchez is connecting with voters with the new air war.
Warm, Fuzzy and Bilingual
Dewhurst started with three ads, also running statewide, that contain some biographical information while touching on education and business. He and his folks aren't saying so at this point, but don't be surprised if you see him employing the same formula as Sanchez—running positive ads for a little bit and following with attacks on his opponent.
Dewhurst did three spots, but you'll probably only see two of them. One is in Spanish only, one is in both English and Spanish, and one is in English only. Dewhurst, who speaks Spanish, talks in all three spots, but there are some differences on the screen along with the differences in the language being spoken. The commercial that's done in both English and Spanish has the same spoken message, but the pictures change a bit. The English-language ad includes a shot of three kids—two Anglos and an African-American—working at computers. The Spanish-language spot instead uses a shot of a Hispanic kid eagerly raising his hand in class.
Dewhurst's English-only spot talks briefly about his resume, his mom teaching him faith and integrity and hard work and then says he built an energy business, almost lost it, but fought back and prevailed. He's on camera saying he'll do good stuff—creating jobs, improving education, making health care affordable—if he's elected.
In the Spanish-only spot, he talks instead about his dad's combat missions in World War II, his own service in the Air Force and the fact that a drunk driver killed his dad when Dewhurst was 3. As old family and military photos go by, he talks about his mom and says he lived the American dream. And here, the message is very different: Dewhurst says, in Spanish, that "every Texan should have a shot at their dream... and I'm committed to opening the doors of opportunity for all." The rest of the ads end with the slogan "government we deserve at a cost we can afford." That one's slogan is "Opportunidad." Those Spanish-language ads were put together by the same San Antonio outfit, started by Lionel Sosa, that has worked on the same types of ads for George W. Bush.
Sharp's campaign doesn't have ads on the air yet and doesn't intend to jump in this early. But they say they're watching and will respond if Dewhurst does something that requires them to shoot back.
Big Promises, Little Promises
Sometimes, being a voter is like being a kid with an uncle who talks big but doesn't always come up with what you thought he promised you for your birthday. Tony Sanchez unveiled an education package during the last week, but admitted that the money to do what he's proposing won't necessarily be available. It could take years to phase in part of his proposal, he said, causing one reporter to quip that he sounded like he was already running for his second term. Gov. Rick Perry proposed a set of insurance regulations to combat rapidly rising insurance rates, but when asked if the problem was severe enough to call a special session of the Legislature, he said he and the Legislature don't have enough information yet to make the changes he's proposing.
Start with Sanchez. His education plan includes a move toward universal pre-kindergarten. There's a program that would have business people and college kids working on textbooks and other teaching materials that would eventually replace or at least supplement books. Sanchez wants flexible testing, so that kids taking standardized tests could do their testing in phases instead of all at once.
Sanchez wouldn't put price tags on any of the things he was proposing. He said the proposal would change as new ideas came in, and when pressed about the costs, said he would scrub and "reprioritize" the budget to find ways to pay for his proposals. So we called around to get some estimates of what the programs would run if they were added to the budget now. (The numbers are from state officials who know what they're talking about, but fairness requires us to say they are probably more sympathetic to the incumbent than to the challenger.)
The state spends $250 million annually on pre-kindergarten classes for about 225,000 kids who are eligible now. That's a half-day program, and it's about half the children who would be in the system if you made it universal, as Sanchez is proposing. If you add them in, and make the program a full-day deal, you increase the price by $870 million annually. If you add them in and leave it at a half-day, it would cost $550 million. Add another $90 million to cover teacher pay and retirement costs that would kick in, and there's a one-time charge, for facilities, of about $843 million.
Bringing teachers to the national average pay, without factoring in things like cost of living which would lower the tab, would cost about $4,000 per teacher. Benefits and retirement are attached, too, and the price tag on that proposal comes to $1.2 billion annually for about 275,000 educators.
Class size is a perennial issue in the Legislature, and a bill was introduced last session to lower the sizes of classes in elementary schools. It would have lowered kindergarten through third grade classes to 10 students each and lowered to 15 the number of kids in fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes. The budgeteers put a fiscal note on that one of $186 million.
The total price tag is $4.69 billion, not including that one-time facilities cost.
A Crisis That is Not an Emergency
Perry, meanwhile, held a press conference at a private home in Austin after meeting briefly with a couple of families on the subject of runaway premiums on homeowners insurance. He's got a four-point plan that would undo much of the deregulating done ten years ago when lawmakers decided the market would do a better job than insurance regulators. The governor wants to subject rates to review by regulators, and wants to give regulators the power to freeze rates while they're doing their reviews. He suggested letting the state look at closely guarded underwriting data kept by the industry "if that's what it will take to lower rates." He said insurance companies should stop making underwriting decisions solely on the basis of the insured person's credit rating, and he announced the approval of a new standard policy for homeowners insurance that might give buyers more options.
The governor cited rapidly rising rates and said he'll give the issue emergency designation when the Legislature meets next year. Depending on when their insurance policies renew, that would put some Texans in the position of two rate hikes before the Legislature acts. But Perry said the remedies aren't developed enough to justify a special session of the Legislature and said he won't call one.
For Want of a Fact
The fight over electric rates only works if you don't look at either set of arguments too closely. At the risk of sounding cynical about it, that probably won't be a factor in what voters ultimately think.
Tony Sanchez says Rick Perry's regulators set rates too high, and directs angry utility consumers to blame the governor. Perry's response is that consumers are saving more than $1 billion over what they paid last year. But Sanchez's claim is based largely on the change from spring to summer, and Perry's is based on a rough forecast by regulators that assumes electric rates won't change all year. The political people are smiling while the policy wonks pull their pillows over their ears.
If the Sanchez claim works, it'll be a result of timing. The ads blaming Perry for high electric bills started in the middle of the month of May. To get to the visceral impact of the ad, you need only remember when you turned on your air conditioner. In April 2001, the average Texan's electric bill, according to reports compiled by the Public Utility Commission, was $68.50. Last month, sure enough, the average came in lower, at $65.61. The difference is even better if you were buying power from an investor-owned utility (as opposed to a co-op or a municipally owned utility), dropping from an average of $68.97 in April 2001 to $54.23 last month.
Part of that drop was a rate cut ordered by the Legislature—that so-called Price to Beat that was put into effect at the beginning of the year to try to make it easier for new companies to compete with established outfits. Part of it was because the weather is different every year and you never know how much you'll actually use the A/C. And part was due to changes in the market prices for the fuels used to produce the electricity (in Texas, about half of that fuel is natural gas).
Go back a couple of Aprils and you see what's happened over time to electric customers: In April 1999, the average bill for electricity in a Texas home was $60.07, and in 2000, it was $59.29. That's a $9.21 difference between the apex and the nadir. But April-to-April comparisons aren't necessarily what consumers see—it's the month-to-month change that strikes first. A consumer looks at the new bill, remembers the bill that just got paid. And the April-to-May change is the beginning of bigger bills that typically land in the summertime. The average residential bill in May 2001 was $78.62, and the June bill that followed for that average customer was for $102.88. The year before went the same way: the average April bill was $59.29, May's was $66.51, and June's was $85.45.
Sanchez' spots are landing just as customers get those bills. The bills are probably going to be a little lower than last year's—Perry is right about rates being lower—but they won't be lower than the bills that preceded them by 30 days. The seasonal increases make the Sanchez ad meaningful to a consumer, but only if the consumer isn't paying attention.
Perry's claim of $1 billion in savings is based on a forecast of how much power Texans will use and on the assumption that the rates that were in effect at the beginning of the year will prevail throughout the year. The rates will almost certainly change, but so might the usage. When the final number comes in, he could be right. He might be wrong. But that's why you haven't heard anyone's hoopla departments trumpeting the $1 billion in savings.
'Tis the season of open warfare. Seven Republican Houston-area state representatives—and a notable one from Midland—lent their names to a fundraising invitation for Martha Wong, a former Houston city council member who is challenging Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston. That's becoming more and more normal in Texas politics, although it was considered bad form not long ago for House members to campaign against incumbents of either party. In fact, for several years, groups put together by both Republicans and Democrats to win seats in the Legislature put that no-compete idea right out front. Not so now. Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland, who is running for Speaker of the House, will join Bill Callegari, John Davis, Peggy Hamric, Talmadge Heflin, Kyle Janek, Joe Nixon and Beverly Woolley. All but Janek, who is running for Texas Senate, are trying to get reelected this year. That fundraiser will be at Woolley's home, with price tags raging from $100 to $2,500.
If you look at House District 48 through the lens of statewide races, as we did in a recent issue, you get the impression that the voters in that section of Travis County lean very slightly to the Democrats. The local numbers compiled by the Republican in that race, however, leave you with the opposite impression. Todd Baxter, a Travis County commissioner and former Senate aide, is running against Democrat Ann Kitchen, D-Austin. That's a new district drawn by the redistricting folks: Kitchen had to move into the district to run, and only about 18 percent of the voters in the new district were in the old district she's represented since first winning election two years ago. By comparison, Baxter says about a third of the voters in the House district are also in his county commission district.
Baxter used local races to assess things, and he thinks the district is rosy for a Republican. A case in point: Shane Phelps, who has lost two races against Democratic District Attorney Ronnie Earle, won in the HD-48 area both times, and by significant margins. Republicans who lost statewide races did so while winning in the district. Baxter says he expects a tough race, but also thinks he's got a home field advantage: GOP candidates beat Democrats in contested races in the district 85 percent of the time.
Intriguing, But Fraught with Difficulties
A proposal for a voluntary income tax—an idea presented to lawmakers looking at school finance—has generated a lot of conversation, but there are a couple of huge problems. The idea, put forth by attorney David Thompson, would allow taxpayers to pay a voluntary income tax to the state equal to an estimate of their sales taxes paid plus a state fee. That money would go to the comptroller, who would then issue a sales tax refund to the taxpayer. The state would keep the fee, would benefit from some float between the time the income taxes were paid and the sales taxes were refunded. The taxpayer would replace their non-deductible sales tax with a deductible income tax.
Problems: It would require a constitutional amendment, since the Texas constitution was changed to outlaw income taxes a few years ago. It would require some budget adjustments, since income tax revenues are constitutionally required to go to education spending and sales tax revenues aren't dedicated. It would require the approval of the federal government, in the guise of the IRS, which is typically unamused by tax avoidance schemes like this one. And it would be a regressive addition to an already regressive tax: Only about 20 percent of Texas taxpayers itemize on their federal income taxes, and they tend to be wealthier than the 80 percent who don't itemize. There's nothing in the proposal to benefit that other 80 percent.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The Dallas Bar Association likes Republicans more than Democrats, if you take their bar poll on political races as your guide. But in one race, the lawyers broke ranks and went head over heels for a Democrat: Margaret Mirabal, a candidate for the Texas Supreme Court, got 935 votes to 361 for Steven Wayne Smith. He's the lawyer who beat the favorite of the GOP establishment—Supreme Court Justice Xavier Rodriguez—in March.
Smith is also the lawyer who won the Hopwood decision that prevents colleges from using race as a factor in admissions. But another case on that subject was decided the other way by the appellate courts in Michigan, and the issue appears headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
• Well, he's consistent: U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Clute, says he's returning $120,000 to the U.S. Treasury. That's about 10 percent of his total budget, and he says he's given back money for each of the last five years. Paul said some of the savings resulted from replacing mail with email after the Anthrax scare slowed down the postal system in Washington.
• More people died in boating accidents in Texas in 2000 than in any other state, according to the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. There were 219 boating accidents reported that year, and 45 of them resulted in the deaths of 55 people. Florida had more than five times that many accidents (1204), but fewer deaths (46). California had more than four times as many accidents (900), but fewer deaths (49).
Political People & Their Moves
Leland Beatty, a longtime political hack and community activist who dropped out to work on a masters' degree at the University of Texas, is back in the game: He's signed on as campaign manager for Democrat Tom Ramsay, a state representative who's challenging Republican Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs...Press corps moves: Deon Daugherty is moving to the other side of the table, leaving her job in the Austin bureau of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal to flack for Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan. The paper hasn't named a replacement... U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson hired Cody Lusk as his new chief of staff. Lusk is a former automobile industry lobbyist who most recently worked for the Commerce Department. Johnson's announcement also prominently mentioned that Lusk is a native Texan... Wesley Shackelford moves from the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, where he did intergovernmental relations, to the new Task Force on Indigent Defense, where he'll do some lawyering. That newly created outfit is headed by Jim Bethke. Shackelford will be replaced by Nydia Thomas, an attorney who once served on the city council in Cleveland, Texas... Officially now, in case you haven't been reading your newspaper: Former CIA Director Robert Gates is the president-presumptive at Texas A&M University, having beat U.S. Sen. and former economics professor Phil Gramm in a vote by the board of regents. He's not the president yet: State law requires a lag between the naming of final nominees and the actual hiring. Gates is the only nominee. It's unlikely that anything will change, but there are still a couple of groups inside and outside the school that are asking regents to go with Gramm... John Weaver, former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas who worked for Gramm, for a mess of other Texas politicos and for U.S. Sen. John McCain, has a new gig. He signed on as a consultant to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee... Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry picked Scott Fisher—a church pastor and former communications director of the Texas Christian Coalition—for a spot on the Texas Ethics Commission. Fisher, pastor of the Metroplex Chapel in Euless, will join a board that's 50 percent Republicans and 50 percent Democrats and which oversees state-required reporting on lobby spending, campaign spending and fundraising and the personal finances of officeholders... Secretary of State Gwyn Shea is moving in some of her own folks now that she's been in the chair for a few weeks. She named Shannon Beeding, who was Sen. Gramm's South Texas director, to handle PR for the agency. Beeding isn't new to the Pink Building—she was an aide to Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas. Shea also hired two "colonia ombudsmen" for the agency. Richardo Hernandez of El Paso County and Jorge Negrete of Webb County will be part of a seven-person staff working along the Texas-Mexico Border.
Quotes of the Week
President George W. Bush in an interview with WFAA-TV on the U.S. Senate race in Texas: "I know Ron Kirk. He's a nice fellow. He's not the right man for the United State Senate, as far as I'm concerned. I need a man up here in the Senate that's going to help me get an agenda done. I don't need an obstructionist. I need a positive influence."
Gov. Rick Perry, reacting to a line in his opponent's TV ads that says voters didn't elect Perry to his current post: "I've been elected more times statewide in Texas than Tony Sanchez has probably been to the polls in the last decade."
Crime victims' advocate Dianne Clements, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on the issue of state executions of mentally impaired killers: "Claiming out of the blue to be mentally retarded is now the new life ring for these (Death Row) inmates."
Electric motor repairman Ricardo Castillo of Juarez, Mexico, telling the Dallas Morning News why he's apathetic about the mayoral race there: "Democracy is like the opening of a new supermarket. At first, they're handing out stuff and everything's cheap, but then everything goes back to normal."
Republican consultant turned Democrat John Weaver, on his relationship with his former boss, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, as quoted in Roll Call: "I still give the senator unsolicited advice and his still rejects it, so nothing's changed."
Texas Weekly: Volume 18, Issue 45, 20 May 2002. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2002 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@ texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.