Five out of five experts agree: They don't have a consensus on how many Texans will vote this year, or on which Texans will make up that total. That makes it difficult to know where to send mail, what shows to buy commercial time on, who to call when it's time to get Joe and Josephine Sixpack off the couches and out to the polls. It's got the smart people scratching their pointy heads.
The political hacks are starting to wonder if voters care about this stuff anymore. A pet theory of ours: taking part in politics, like following baseball and reading newspapers, is of less and less interest to average people every year. The people who are involved are getting older, on average, which is partly attributable to the Baby Boomers getting older. But something else is going on: Pollsters who work in other states as well as in Texas have been noticing low voter turnouts all over the country in this year's primaries. And they're wondering what will happen on Election Day.
There are two prevailing theories on the turnout trends in Texas, and some variant notions about what kind of voters will make up those numbers. We called around and got estimates for the number of voters who'll turn out ranging from 4.3 million to 5.2 million.
Start with the high number. If you think 1998 was a weird year because the Democrats ran Garry Mauro, a weak candidate, against George W. Bush at peak popularity, then you can make the argument that voters didn't show up because the contest didn't inspire them or incite them to do so. The pollsters in that camp look at numbers historically, throw out the 1998 election, and extrapolate. If you do that, you get a chart that says about 5.2 million people will show up for this election. Turnout may be low, but there are more people in the state than there were last time we had an election, and so the overall number of voters rises. In 1990, 3.9 million Texans went to the polls, and 4.4 million voted in 1994. The number slipped to 3.7 four years ago, but you can squint and make an argument that 5.2 million will come out this year.
On the other end of the predictions are pollsters who think voters are getting less and less interested. It's harder to compete for their attention. Republican pollster David Hill says there is a question of whether they're uninterested, or more distracted, but says he's seen people in focus groups get disappointed when they find out they'll be talking about politics instead of beer or something more gripping. He's guessing 4.6 million people will show up, and says it could be lower.
Pollsters are talking about issues, too, and there's not a giant-killer out there. The Democrats, led by gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, are pushing insurance. But most of the surveyors we've talked with say that's an issue, but not with most people. Voters' interests are all over the map and it's hard to find a particular issue that will, by itself, drive the election. Here's evidence: Insurance is a big issue in the governor's race and in the relatively low-key race for attorney general, but is getting almost no play in either the U.S. Senate race or the race for lieutenant governor. The Lite Guv candidates are talking about the state budget, more or less, and the Senate candidates are bickering about a new issue almost every day. It's what they call a flat issue year, and that makes it hard to stampede voters.
Two ideas are driving the last part of the conversation, both revolving around the question of who will vote. Convention wisdom says a bigger turnout is better for Democrats, but if turnout is big in the suburbs, Republicans do well. And what about race? With two minority candidates at the top of the Democratic ballot, Democrats think minorities will show up in force at the polls. If that's right, and if the numbers are big, conventional wisdom and history won't matter.
A New Type of Legislative Continuance
Rep. Ron Clark, R-Sherman, wants to be a federal judge. President George W. Bush nominated him for the job in January and the United States Senate has finally given its consent. But there is one more step on the Washington, D.C., end, and Clark says he's asked for a delay.
The president still has to sign something to make Clark a federal judge. It's not unusual, according to Clark, to hold that signature so that an appointee can finish up projects, close a law practice, or whatever. Clark says he needs to close down his law practice and sell his share of his law firm's building and do some things like that. And he says he'd like to continue his campaign for reelection to the House of Representatives and, possibly, to serve through the next legislative session.
The morning after the Senate consented to his nomination, Clark said he had conveyed those wishes to the White House. In a backhanded way, that request involves the White House in the politics of who will be the next Speaker of the House.
Clark is a supporter of Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who's challenging five-term Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat, for the top job. Unless November produces a political earthquake, Republicans will have the majority of members when the House convenes in January. The halls of the Pink Building are full of Republicans who think that a majority should produce a speaker, but a handful of dissident votes could tip the game back to Laney or to a GOP dark horse like Toby Goodman of Arlington, Edmund Kuempel of Seguin, or Brian McCall of Plano.
If Clark wins in November and is sworn in as a member of the House in January, count him as a vote for Craddick. If he becomes a federal judge before January, it would take a vote away from Craddick. If he loses in November–which seems unlikely unless Bush immediately makes him a judge and takes him off the campaign trail–it would add a Democratic vote to the mix, probably in favor of Laney. If he wins and then drops out, it would set up a special election to fill the seat–probably a January contest–and the winner of that would take office early in the session, but after the vote on who should be the presiding officer.
No matter what happens, Clark's name will be on the ballot in November. He says he asked for a delay that would allow him to take care of electoral and business affairs and let them know he would be happy to serve through the session. "It would be my preference to serve this one last session," he says. The judicial spot with Clark's name on it has been empty since April 2001.
Friends in Washington
October 7 is the due date for campaign finance reports, but U.S. Senate candidate John Cornyn leaked out a big number: The Republican candidate–who's had heaps of fundraising help from the White House–will report he's got $5.1 million cash on hand. No word from the Ron Kirk campaign on how their numbers will compare. Cornyn's report will include $2.1 million from the Republican Party, which got a big contribution from Cornyn. That's a legal form of money laundering, and there's no proof of a deal, so there. The national Republicans are also putting about $2 million in soft money into the Cornyn effort, so you'll basically be seeing him 24/7 for the next month.
Kirk's camp probably won't match that, but they're not dead, either. The Texans are watching New Jersey politics very carefully, because the absence of a tough Democratic race there could free up some national money, and freed national money could find its way to Texas in the form of hard- and soft-money help for Kirk. In the meantime, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has reserved more than $4 million in television time in Texas on the candidate's behalf. They moved their initial barrage back one week, but told the stations that the total amount of money they'd spend would not change. The Cornyn gang spun that changed schedule as a sign of trouble, but that's inside ball: It looks like both candidates will be in your face for the duration.
On the Air
Both of the candidates for lieutenant governor are into their TV budgets and plan to be on the air for the last month of the race. They're warring over what's being said. Republican David Dewhurst is attacking Democrat John Sharp where Sharp's supporters think the Democrat is strongest: on fiscal matters. One Dewhurst ad (he was running four different TV commercials and two radio ads at our deadline) cites a Houston Chronicle story about problems in the first year of the Lone Star card–a food stamp replacement that originated in Sharp's office when he was comptroller. Dewhurst called it a failure. Sharp held a press conference to protest that, and included documentation–a proclamation from Gov. Rick Perry praising the Texas Department of Human Services for the card's success.
Sharp is still running positive spots–or at least he was as this was written–and still giving Nolan Ryan plenty of chances to say he's a Republican who's supporting the Democrat.
The two candidates for attorney general are just coming out of summer hibernation as far as paid media campaigns go. Republican Greg Abbott started a radio buy that appears targeted to Republican voters (as opposed to swing voters), but the campaign wouldn't discuss details.
Neither Abbott nor Democrat Kirk Watson would reveal when they plan to start television; because of the tight races above them on the ballot, they've been running one of the quietest AG races in memory. There has been some newspaper coverage of the contest, but both candidates remain unknown to a vast number of voters. The fifth race on the ballot is usually more prominent at this point in the cycle. Their paid media and the effects of the races above them will probably determine the outcome to a greater extent than usual.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, prodded by the political ghost of former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, started a heavy statewide television campaign even though her opponent doesn't appear ready to match her. Hightower lost to Rick Perry in 1990 in large part because he didn't run a vigorous campaign against what looked like an anemic challenger. He became the object lesson for incumbents with supposedly weak challengers. Rylander's ad touts her as the only thing standing between the state's Rainy Day fund and the people who want to spend it. It starts as a campy, sepia-toned western and morphs into a boast on her record. It's running statewide.
Drop Us a Card
In the whirl of television ads, it's easy to forget all of the direct mail that was pouring into post offices during the primary elections. But that component of the campaign season is beginning. With voter registration ending (and no sign that either party performed as well as it bragged about signing up new voters in Texas) and early voting two weeks off, mail is back.
First out of the box, at least on the state level, is the Tony Sanchez campaign (some regional candidates started mail earlier, and one–Democratic congressional candidate Ron Chapman in Dallas–has already hit voters with seven pieces of mail).
The Democrat running for governor started the fall paper chase with a negative mailer on insurance, echoing Sanchez' television ads about a "Perry premium" on Texas homeowners' insurance. It claims, as did the TV ad before it, that Perry has ignored the problems with insurance in return for campaign contributions from that industry. Perry's campaign has labeled that a false charge, and his spokesman counterattacked Sanchez as "the only candidate in this race who personally profits from selling unregulated homeowners' insurance." That's a reference to the insurance agency in the Sanchez-controlled International Bank of Commerce, which sells but does not underwrite insurance policies. The Democrat's presence on the glossy four-page mailing is minimized.
• At least one person in American politics is having fun. Take a look at www.15orFree.com, the website for Libertarian Matt Beauchamp, who is running for comptroller of Illinois. He's got a simple and appealing message for supporters, an easy-to-explain attack on his opponent, and a ton of attitude. After 20 minutes of negative TV every night in Texas, it's kind of a relief.
Spin the Poison Bottle
You can find people in and around state government who still don't believe there is a budget crisis, but their numbers are dwindling. You can find people in that same arena who don't think the state will need to increase taxes or create new ones, but can solve its problems by slowing expected increases in state spending; they're much more numerous. There are people in the Lege who think there's no way around a tax bill, but they're damned hard to find and will probably remain that way until after the elections. They're hard to count. And then there are those who think there is a budget problem, but that it won't be all that painful to attack.
Put the Texas Chamber of Commerce in that last group. Their remedy–some of which we've previously scribbled about–is a mix of easy and harsh medicine. The easy stuff produces about $1.4 billion. The state could simply delay payments due in the last month of the budget to the first day of the next month. That takes about that much money off the spending total for the budget, thus creating the illusion that everything is hunky-dory. It smells of the kind of accounting you did when you were scraping around for beer money in college, but it's legal and it doesn't upset voters. (At least one of those–a $799 million delay in the money sent to local school districts–could send a ripple to other governments with their own budget problems.)
Next on the list of palliatives: Raid the state's Rainy Day fund for the $1 billion that's expected to be available there when the next budget starts. That takes aim on Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's pet fund, but former lawmaker Bill Hammond, who is the chamber's top exec, says it's easier to get money there than by ending a program or raising a tax. Rylander has sold financial analysts in New York on the idea that she'll block raids on the fund. That's one of the arguments that kept the state's debt ratings high–and the cost of those debts relatively low–when Rylander talked to them about rating the borrowing done by Texas each year to smooth out the state's cash flow.
Flirting with Deficit Spending
The next item on the list is far and away the most controversial, but Hammond isn't the only advocate and even some of the people who would normally line up in opposition are holding back. Hammond said the state should securitize its tobacco settlement, borrowing a lump sum of anywhere from $3 billion to $5.8 billion against the settlement dollars the state expects to collect over the next decade. The first squeals against that proposal come from advocates for programs that are funded by the tobacco settlement money. The biggest program funded by the tobacco money is the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. That's most often mentioned by advocates who want the money left alone. Some of those groups got together a coalition and offered an alternative source of funds–a $1-per pack hike in cigarette taxes–to accomplish their goals and help with the budget.
But some of the candidates, including lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp, seem open to the idea. Sharp's aides say he hasn't come down on one side or the other of the issue, which makes those program advocates nervous. His Republican opponent, David Dewhurst, according to aides, says securitization "endangers the future of the many health programs" that depend on it.
One argument against securitization is that the state will get less money overall, even though a loan would put more money on the table right now. Another is that the state would be funding ongoing programs with money that's only available once, and is simply moving the budget crisis from now to later. Hammond and other proponents don't deny that, but say the economy will have that much more time to bounce back and the state could outgrow the problem if the economy improves. A reminder: One of the arguments against funding any programs with the tobacco money in the first place was that the money would eventually peter out, but the programs wouldn't.
The chamber says its proposals would produce $5.4 billion to $8.2 billion (depending on how much could be raised by the tobacco deal) that could be used to cover the canyon between expected revenue and expected spending. That's without a tax bill or a spending cut, although Hammond said the group will be back in a month or so with a list of spending cuts it wants the state to consider.
This Week's Bucket of Mud
Rick Perry's campaign left the insurance fight alone in its newest television spot, returning instead to problems in the Tony Sanchez-controlled Tesoro Savings and Loan, a thrift that folded in the 1980s and was taken over by the federal government. The spot accuses Sanchez himself–not his thrift managers or other board members: "Authorities accused Sanchez of mismanagement, using bank assets to engage in 'collusion,' 'kickbacks.' Sanchez broke legal agreements with federal and state authorities and made bad loans for his associates." The ad says Sanchez paid a fine and that taxpayers were stuck with the bailout bill.
The spot comes after a week of feuding over whether the records outlining the allegations should have been made public. Several news organizations have asked various state and federal agencies for all of the records relating to Tesoro, but the records backing the ad–given to reporters by the Perry campaign–apparently didn't surface in response to anyone's request. The Sanchez camp says it's barred from releasing records that would contradict the ad.
• Planning ahead: The Tony Sanchez campaign opened up a new website as part of its attack on Rick Perry and insurance rates. The site's called www.texasinsurancecrisis.com, and it was announced on the second day of the money. But the campaign's planners were at work well before then, getting the rights to that Internet name on August 14. Sanchez has been aggressive on the Internet: Other names that belong to the campaign include FalseAttacks.com, GovernorForSale.com, PerryTales.com. One of Sanchez' contractors is Campaign Momentum. That's the same company that–without being on the payroll for the John Sharp campaign, grabbed up the DavidDewhurst.com website and has been using it to send out unflattering things about the Republican. David Dewhurst owned that domain name at one time, but let it lapse. The Democrats grabbed it.
• If you missed it amidst all of the squawking from almost all of the campaigns about the need for more debates, the candidates in the four campaigns at the top of the ballot have all apparently agreed to show up in Dallas later this month for the forum sponsored by KERA-TV, Texas Monthly, The Dallas Morning News, WFAA-TV, and the Texas Cable News. The Senate debate will be on Wednesday, October 23. The top three Texas state campaigns will be on the agenda on Thursday night, with an hour for the gubernatorial candidates and a half-hour each for the lieutenant governor and attorney general contestants. Those will all be televised statewide. The first gubernatorial debate on television is within the week: It's set for Wednesday, October 9, and is sponsored by the Houston Chronicle and KHOU-TV. At press-time, the organizers were still trying to get statewide broadcast coverage of that one.
• Republican Jerry Patterson has said he won't be running any television commercials in his bid for land commissioner, so he's pursuing other means of getting the word out. The latest effort comes in the form of Internet greeting cards. Recipients click on a link taking them to a website. One features a picture of Patterson aiming a gun and has the caption "Ready. Aim. Vote." While you're reading that, you're listening to the "Aggie War Hymn". Another features a picture of a cow eating grass in front of one of Patterson's political signs. The caption is "Even some longhorns can support an Aggie for land commissioner," and the music is the "Eyes of Texas."
• Texas doesn't have the toughest campaign finance laws in the country by a long shot, but the state's regulation of political spending is better than average. That contention belongs to the Center for Public Integrity, which puts Texas in 21st place (tied with Georgia) for openness, accountability and public access to campaign finance records. That's the good news. The bad news is that the state's overall score was 67, which the Washington, D.C.-based outfit calls "barely passing." That leads us to one of the better gags of the political year. Texas law has a provision that says candidates don't have to file campaign finance reports electronically, if they are very small operations or if they don't use computers to keep their books. Campaigns for People, a nonprofit campaign finance group, pulled together some elementary and junior high students and some seniors who they said would volunteer to enter the information for "computer-challenged candidates." Reports are due Monday.
Political People and Their Moves
Gary Grief will direct the Texas Lottery until a new executive director is found. The commissioners of that agency named Grief, the operations chief, to the post vacated by the sudden resignation of Linda Cloud. The agency hopes to name a new exec before the end of the year... The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has three new members. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Dr. Michael Seale, who teaches correctional medicine at the University of Texas at Houston Medical School and is medical director for the Harris County Sheriff's Office; Midland County Judge William Morrow, who is real life is an attorney; and Charles Sebesta, a Caldwell attorney and a former prosecutor... The Austin office of Burson-Marsteller is getting a new manager. Russ Keene, who's been working in Washington, D.C., for Kissinger McLarty Associates, an international consulting firm. Anne Keene, a speechwriter for the Bush Administration's EEOC chair, is about to have the couple's first child... Judicial spankings: The State Commission on Judicial Conduct got Livingston Justice of the Peace Howard Lilley to quit and to promise he'll never serve as a judge in Texas again (he can still do weddings, apparently, but only in Polk County). They reached a similar deal with Michael Myers, a JP in Forney (in Kaufman County). Myers wasn't taking required judicial education classes and also developed an unspecific medical problem that keeps him from serving as a judge. They gave a "Public Admonition" to state district Judge James Keeshan of Conroe. Police charged him with disorderly conduct after he got in a bar fight over a comment directed at his date. The commission decided the incident and the publicity it attracted "cast discredit upon the judiciary"... The University of Texas named a new executive vice chancellor: Teresa Sullivan, dean of graduate studies at UT Austin, replaces Ed Sharpe. That's part of a shakeup that followed the UT System's hiring a new chancellor, Mark Yudof... The Lesbian-Gay Rights Lobby of Texas has a new director: Randall Ellis, a former aide to Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, will take over on November 1. That group announced a new director earlier this year, but the deal apparently didn't work out. Ellis replaces Dianne Hardy-Garcia, who left eight months ago.
Quotes of the Week
Democratic congressional candidate Ron Chapman, after his opponent, Republican Jeb Hensarling, held a press conference with a well-known DJ Ron Chapman, to say the candidate was trying to benefit from the confusion: "I'm being accused of tricking people by using my real name."
Sam Richardson, editor of the Lajitas Sun, quoted in a Dallas Morning News story about a developer's attempt to create a resort complete with green, well-watered golf courses, in that Big Bend hamlet: "You've got an area here of people sitting in kind of a wilderness lifestyle, bohemians, overeducated liberals, whatever you want to call 'em... One guy admitted to me he couldn't prove there wasn't enough water down there–he just didn't like the idea of golf."
Democrat Tony Sanchez, saying not enough had been done on toxic pollution in Texas, but blanking out on the (Gov.) Bush Administration's effort to allow voluntary self-regulation by the responsible companies in an interview with the Dallas Morning News: "I don't recall the issue being discussed. I don't recall the debate. So I'm not able to give you an opinion on that."
David Beckwith, spokesman for Republican Senate nominee John Cornyn, telling the Dallas Morning News why their TV ads say Democrat Ron Kirk is in tune with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton: "This reminds people that in Washington, you join one of two teams. You can claim to be in the bipartisan middle, but in Washington, there is no bipartisan middle."
U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, quoted in the Dallas Morning News: "The Democratic Party looks at massive immigration–legal and illegal–and sees potential voters. The Republican Party looks at massive immigration–legal and illegal–and sees potential cheap labor."
A Reminder from Texas Weekly's Public Service Desk, especially if you ever plan to run for office: The date on this edition of the newsletter matches the deadline for registering to vote on the heroes and goats you read about in this very publication. If you haven't registered, you oughta.
Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 15, 7 October 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.