Give the Republicans the edge, but the top four statewide races in Texas are as competitive at the tape as they have been in years. The GOP candidates are telling those who will listen that they've got the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial contests in the bag, but their actions suggest things are closer, with John Cornyn gripping President George W. Bush's coattails (and Bush isn't even on the ballot) and Gov. Rick Perry running the kind of final days Hail Mary ad normally associated with trailing and desperate campaigns.
Democrats Ron Kirk and Tony Sanchez are counting on their ground games to carry them to victory. That's the least visible part of their operations and could produce the biggest surprises of Election Day. Most of the pollsters and most of the campaign hacks have Perry comfortably ahead of Sanchez, but the novice Democrat is still spending at a record pace and hoping that minority turnouts in urban areas and in South Texas will boost his chances.
U.S. Senate is generally a closer race; one thing to watch is turnout in Harris County (which has lagged other areas in early voting) and in Dallas and Tarrant counties. In all three places, recent elections suggest the Democrats can produce huge results on the ground. Democratic operatives in Houston saved Lee Brown from defeat in the last mayoral race with an impressive turnout machine. Some of the post-election analysis concluded that 70 percent or more of the Hispanic vote in that election went to Orlando Sanchez, a Republican, but that Brown won in spite of the loss of that ordinarily Democratic constituency. If that turnout machine wasn't a fluke, it could help Kirk.
And in Dallas and Tarrant counties, something weird happened earlier this year: More people voted in the Democratic primary runoffs than in the Democratic primaries a month earlier. That helped Kirk beat Victor Morales and illustrated the Democratic nominee's ability to get out the vote.
But the Democrats will need every warm voter they can find. Cornyn is closing, as noted, with the popular president at his side and has been leading Kirk in most polls. As for Perry, we have yet to see a poll in the governor's race that has the challenger ahead of the incumbent.
The next two races on the ballot are the political equivalent of a good Halloween movie–you don't know who's going to get whacked. Republican David Dewhurst has spent around $20 million out of his own pocket and failed to make news by doing so because Tony Sanchez has spent more than $3 for every $1 spent by Dewhurst. In spite of the Republican's bankroll, he's neck-and-neck with Democrat John Sharp. Don't be surprised if the Lite Guv race ends like it did four years ago when only 70,000 votes separated the winner, Perry, from the loser, Sharp. It's tight.
The attorney general contest has the profile of a high-dollar race for the Texas Supreme Court. The candidates have spent a chunk of change but have been almost completely overshadowed by the three hot races higher on the ballot. That's lowered the profile of the contest and left it subject to the trends that start in the other races. Like the race for lieutenant governor, the contest between Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Kirk Watson could end late at night when the last votes are counted.
What happens after that? Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander should win easily over Democrat Marty Akins, who started with a promise to spend some of his own fortune and never really got into the race. And then the stories diverge in the impossible to predict downballot races. Republicans say Rylander will be the stopper and that GOP candidates behind her will sweep. Democrats say voters will be splitting tickets at that point on the ballot and that their down-ballot candidates could prevail.
Still on the Radar Screen: Congress
Redistricting bled most of the drama out of the state's congressional elections, and candidates did a pretty good job of taking the thrill out of what remained. Three races are still on the radar screen, with most analysts convinced only one is still really in play.
That one is in CD-5, an East Texas district that includes a hunk of Dallas County. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, moved to another district and his understudy on the GOP ballot, Jeb Hensarling, has struggled to overcome Democrat Ron Chapman, who has more experience (he's a former judge with several campaigns under his belt), more money than the Republicans expected, and an unusual boost in his name ID, because he's got the same name as a longtime Dallas radio personality. Locals of our acquaintance give Hensarling the advantage but say it ain't over yet.
Former Houston City Councilman Chris Bell, a Democrat, is trying to succeed U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston, who gave up the seat to run for U.S. Senate, in CD-25. The current betting line favors Bell over Tom Reiser, but the Republican hasn't quit. Reiser is on television accusing Bell of sexual harassment. That prompted a press conference from the Democrat, surrounded by women (including the one he supposedly harassed) demanding that the ad get pulled down. According to the Houston Chronicle, Reiser said he'll leave the commercial on television. It's based on a report in the Houston Press years ago that quoted one of Bell's colleagues on the city council recounting a comment he claimed Bell had made behind closed doors. Bell denies he ever said any such thing.
U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, ought to win reelection, but Republicans have been talking up their candidate, Ramsey Farley, in the last few days and pointing to early voting in Williamson County. A chunk of that Republican Austin suburb was added to CD-11 in last year's redistricting, and early voting there has been heavy. A GOP win would be symbolic, since the district includes the Texas home of President George W. Bush, but it's a real long shot.
Still on the Radar Screen: State Senate
Barring an electoral lightning strike, the 31-member Texas Senate will have at least 18 Republicans and 11 Democrats in it, and two more races will determine the final count. No outcome will produce partisan control of the upper chamber, however, unless the senators vote to change their rules. The long-standing setup requires a two-thirds vote–that's 21 senators–to bring most things up for a vote. If you don't have 21 votes, you don't have control, at least under the current rules. We'll leave the rules argument for another day, after the elections.
Both of the Senate's close races involve big-city Democrats. Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, is in a rematch with Republican Bob Deuell, a Greenville physician. That political district was tailored for the Republican, but Cain has been winning in enemy territory for years and could do it again. Deuell has disappointed some of his backers, who say he spent too much time during the campaign talking to Republicans who were already with him and not enough talking to the swing voters who'll probably determine the outcome. One mystery we've written about: Deuell sent out mailers on Social Security, which isn't in the legislative purview of the Texas Senate. The outcome on Tuesday will depend on turnout, but Democrats have been honing their "knock and drag" operations (knock on the doors and drag them to the polls) and a Cain loss would be considered a surprise at this point.
Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, is in the toughest race of his career and is clearly worried that his opponent, Republican Ben Bentzin, has made headway with an ad that features squad car footage of Barrientos' DWI arrest last year. He answered with an ad saying Bentzin was getting a bonus as a Dell Computer Corp. exec at a time when that company was laying people off. Travis County's early turnout was heavy (much like that in neighboring Williamson County) and it's a mostly Democratic county with a well-respected Democratic Get Out The Vote machine. The race is still a toss-up.
Still on the Radar Screen: State House
By Labor Day, the outcomes were all but official in five out of six races for the Texas House.
On the Republican side, 32 candidates were alone on their ballots and another 15 had only minor-party opponents. Another 23 had opponents, but barring catastrophe, had to be considered safe. On the Democratic side, 30 were in the home free column, 6 had only token opposition and 20 had opponents but were in our safe column. As of Labor Day, 56 Democrats appeared safely on their way to taking the oath in January and 70 Republicans were in the same boat.
Only one of those safe races has changed: Rep. Ron Clark, R-Sherman, was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush some time ago, and the U.S. Senate, acting after the Texas ballots were locked in, consented to that nomination. Clark can't campaign, but is still on the ballot. That safely Republican seat might go to the Democrats, or might be empty on the opening day of the session if Clark wins and a special election is called to replace him.
The 24 races that were up for grabs in early September have wiggled since then. After talking with consultants and candidates and others, we had nine races leaning Republican at that time, eight ranked as "toss-ups" and another seven leaning to the Democrats.
In retracing our steps, it appears Republicans have all but sewn up 71 seats; Scott Campbell in HD-72 and Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, in HD-87, don't appear to have any trouble ahead. And move four House races into the safe Democratic column, all of them involving incumbent Democrats: Bob Glaze of Gilmer, Robby Cook of Eagle Lake, Dan Ellis of Livingston and Scott Hochberg of Houston. A reversal in any of those six races would be considered a major upset. The Democrats have 60 locks.
That leaves a dozen-and-a-half races that are on the Election Night watch list. Seven appear to lean Republican right now, but could go the other way if things turn out well for the Democrats: HD-9, where Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, is challenged by Democrat Robin Moore; HD-24, where Republican Larry Taylor and Democrat Tony Buzbee are warring over an open seat; HD-48, where Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin, faces Republican Todd Baxter, a former county commissioner; HD-68, where Reps. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, and David Counts, D-Knox City, are paired; HD-134, where Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston, faces Republican Martha Wong, a former city council member; and HD-138, where Rep. Ken Yarbrough, D-Houston, is rematched against Republican Dwayne Bohac.
Five seats on the watch list lean to the Democrats, but could go to the GOP if things turn out well for them: HD-8, an open seat race between Republican Byron Cook and Democrat George Robinson; HD-29, where Rep. Tom Uher, D-Bay City, is challenged by Republican Glenda Dawson, a well-respected retired school teacher; HD-56, where Rep. Holt Getterman, R-Waco, may have fumbled away a solid Republican seat to Democrat John Mabry; HD-117, where indicted San Antonio Democrat Raul Prado appears to be holding a small advantage over Republican Ken Mercer; and HD-125, also in San Antonio, where Joaquin Castro, whose twin brother is on the city council, faces Republican Nelson Balido in an open-seat race.
Finally, there are six races that are tight enough that weather could determine the outcome by bringing voters out or keeping them away. Two are in northeast Texas: HD-2, where Republican Dan Flynn and Democrat Danny Duncan are fighting over an open seat; HD-4, where Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, is challenged by Democrat Mike Head, whose father, Fred Head, is a former House member. In southeast Texas, the map favors Democrat Paul Clayton in HD-19, but Republican Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton has run a stronger race and has the blessing of the outgoing Democratic incumbent, Rep. Ron Lewis. Rep. Gene Seamon, R-Corpus Christi, faces Democrat Josephine Miller in a contest that has been on most watch lists for a year. It's still a toss-up. Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, is beset by ethical lapses, but is still hanging in there against one of the best-financed challengers on the Democratic side this year, Patrick Rose. And the open-seat Austin race between Republican Jack Stick and Democrat James Sylvester also remains too close to call.
Preview: Speaker's Race
The best contest that's not on the ballot is the race for speaker, and you can spin the story however you would like to spin it. Our look at the contests is based on interviews with people on both sides of the ledger and like any average, it doesn't accurately present either side's view of the outcomes. We have 18 races that could, on a strange and strong night, go either way.
Our GOP base number is 71–that's the number of races that seem already decided in favor of the elephants. If they were to win all 18 of the unsettled contests, they'd have 89 members in the next House (or 90, if they could fill Ron Clark's empty seat), a clear majority and one that would almost certainly put the gavel in the hands of Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. The Democrats' base number is 60. Give them all of the undecided seats and they'd have 78 seats, a quite unlikely result that would leave the House under the control of Rep. J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, for a record sixth term.
This is more likely: Give the Republicans their leaners, and the Democrats their leaners, and let the election winds blow only the six toss-up seats. That would yield a final result in this range: 78 Republicans and 71 Democrats if it's a good night for the donkeys, and 84 Republicans and 65 Democrats if it's a good night for the GOP. That would leave huge question marks over the speaker's race, since Laney would have to make Republicans stick with him–in spite of a majority–to win, and Craddick would have to overcome a small bloc in his own party that won't vote for him. Add three Republican names and maybe more as potential speakers if neither frontrunner can succeed: Reps. Toby Goodman of Arlington, Edmund Kuempel of Seguin, and Brian McCall of Plano.
Murder, He Wrote
The spin coming out of the Rick Perry camp is that he's well ahead of Tony Sanchez and is running the season's most unvarnished attack simply to help less advantaged Republicans like David Dewhurst and Greg Abbott, who are in tight races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. The Dewhurst item is, in fact, part of Perry's closing message to Republican voters, in emails and appearances.
Or take the Sanchez spin, that Perry is worried that the Democrat is catching up and that turnout will be big enough to swamp the GOP boat, and ran the ad to try to cut it off. The ad's effect isn't clear. It features two former federal agents saying that Sanchez's Tesoro S&L was used to launder drug money for the same Mexican criminals who tortured and killed DEA officer Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.
Sanchez called that outrageous, even by the standards of political advertising in the fair state of Texas, and he responded with two ads–one with him deploring Perry's charge and another with a policeman saying it was wrong to exploit Camarena's murder. He also came up with a "Republicans and Independents for Tony Sanchez" group that includes several Republicans who condemned the ad. But Perry says it's true and won't pull it down on anyone's schedule but his own.
Both gubernatorial candidates waited until Halloween to go positive on television, each unveiling a commercial that ignores his opponent and looks forward. Perry's spot talks about his record, what he's done, and what he wants to do, says the election is about the future of Texas and closes by asking for the viewer's vote. Sanchez says Texas is in the history-making business, says what he'll do, and says that would make history, too. Both men touch on the same goals, saying they'd get a leash on insurance rates, improve education and make health care affordable.
• Here's a campaign spending tidbit ferreted out by the San Antonio Express-News: While Sanchez is outspending Perry by $65 million to $25 million, better than 2.5 to 1, he's been putting a larger percentage of his money on television. The numbers are lopsided, but less so, with Sanchez spending $35.7 million on TV to Perry's $18.1 million.
• They waited until the last week before the election to say anything, but religious leaders in the Texas Faith Network decided that political mudslinging has reached too high a pitch in Texas. They didn't jump anyone by name, but said the campaigns ought to be talking about issues instead of pursuing the "increasingly negative and personal tone of political campaigns."
Respectful Silence, Except on TV
Since February, when we first wrote about Republican Greg Abbott's crippling injury and the lawsuit that followed, Democrat Kirk Watson and his campaign aides have carefully skirted the topic. Watson wouldn't criticize his opponent in the attorney general's race, saying only that he didn't think Abbott should be criticized for suing when a tree fell on him and left him unable to walk.
That hands-off approach lasted all the way through the campaign's solitary debate, a half-hour affair in Dallas about ten days before the election.
But the race is tight and Watson is, by most accounts, at a disadvantage in the polling, and he's now attacking Abbott in a television commercial on the subject that up to now has been his campaign's leading taboo. The ad points out Abbott's support of tort reforms that would limit "frivolous" lawsuits, among other things, and contrasts that with the lawsuit he filed against the owner of the tree that hit him and an arborist and then settled for total payments of more than $10 million. (Abbott, who earlier this year would admit only that the settlement was "for more than $100,000", now says that the present value of the settlement when it was made was in the $3 million range.) The ad closes by saying Abbott has one standard for himself, and another for everyone else.
Abbott contends none of the legal reforms he advocates would undermine a lawsuit filed by someone in the same situation he was in back in 1986. Other lawyers we've talked with, including some who were involved in his case, say the changes would make it much more difficult for someone in Abbott's position to win the kind and amount of damages he won.
Abbott, meanwhile, is hitting Watson with a commercial saying the Democrat is a trial lawyer who associates with and supports unpopular Democrats like former President Bill Clinton; the spot then morphs into a positive ad for Abbott.
Pollsters have been all over the board about voter turnout, but Secretary of State Gwyn Shea is unflustered by their uncertainty. She says slightly more than 5 million Texans will vote, or about 40 percent of the 12.6 million registered voters. In 1998–the last gubernatorial election in Texas–turnout was only 32.5 percent. She left one door open, however: "The unknown factor to consider is to what degree are we witnessing the addition of new or reinvigorated voters and to what extent are Texans simply taking advantage of our state's ample early voting opportunities?"
• The Texas GOP is running four commercials on radio stations in Houston, each featuring African-American voters who plan to vote for Gov. Rick Perry. The speakers give Perry credit for a list of programs that would make any Democratic candidate proud: supporting education, favoring state increases in school funding, supporting higher education's effort to help minority and first-generation college students, proposing "a plan that will encourage" minority owned businesses to create jobs and helping expand the Children's Health Insurance Program in Texas.
• Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, facing the familiar (for judges) problem of running for office with little or no name identification among voters, sent out an unusual notice to supporters saying he would be holding an evening "debut of his campaign television commercial" at an Austin club. The "debut" was scheduled to last for two hours at an exclusive club in Austin, so Jefferson could raise some of the money used to put that commercial on television.
• U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, ran a television commercial featuring the image of the burning but not yet collapsed World Trade Center towers. Smith, facing a Democrat opponent in a heavily Republican district, said he was trying to illustrate the need for security.
• State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, has made it perfectly clear that he prefers Democrat John Sharp to Republican David Dewhurst in the race for lieutenant governor, but he avoided using the word "endorsement" to describe his preference. Now Carona has a mailer hitting constituents' mailboxes in Dallas, and he's got this message for them: "Vote a straight Republican ticket."
Political People and Their Moves
Put the rumor of Cliff Johnson's return to the Pink Building on hold. The lobbyist and former House member says he hasn't talked to Gov. Rick Perry about such a thing. But don't forget the rumor, either: Johnson served in the House with Perry, is a pal of his, and has experience in the middle office, working for former Govs. Bill Clements and George W. Bush. Johnson would have to give up a lucrative lobby practice, but Perry allies think he'll need someone like Johnson to work through the next legislative session, especially if the elections leave Democrats in prominent legislative positions... Lobbyist Janis Carter is leaving McGinnis Lochridge and Kilgore for Winstead Consulting Group, a branch of the Winstead Secrest & Minick law firm. That's basically a lobby operation; the different name allows it to operate more like a business than a law firm... Gov. Perry has chosen Julie Caruthers Parsley to be the next addition to the Public Utility Commission. That's not official and his aides won't talk about it, but her name was vetted weeks ago by the governor's office and approved last month by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin. As home senator, he had effective veto power. Perry apparently doesn't want to announce the deal until after Tuesday. She would fill the position left open by the resignation of Max Yzaguirre, a former Enron executive who resigned almost a year ago when Perry was drawing heat for appointing him... Gov. Perry appointed Greg Poole of Conroe to the Teacher Retirement System board of directors. He's the "executive principal" of a high school and a junior high school... Republican political consultant Bryan Eppstein, sidelined by heart problems earlier in the year, is recovering from a heart bypass operation. He's been behaving, by all accounts, but the doctors found a blockage and wanted to get it outta there... Deaths: Former state District Judge Tom Cave of Fort Worth, whose 12 years on the bench included presiding over the first murder trial of millionaire T. Cullen Davis. Cave was 72... CORRECTION: We put the wrong moniker on the newest justice on the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. He is Douglas Lang, an attorney, named by Gov. Rick Perry to replace Sue LaGarde, who retired. Sorry, sorry, sorry...
Quotes of the Week
Police Chief Charles Moose of Montgomery County, Maryland, quoted in The New York Times after the DC snipers were caught: "As police chief, I know you need a lot of luck. I'd like to think it's all skill and moxie and brains. But it's mostly luck."
Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, making a case for state services in The [Brazosport] Facts: "If God was here and this was Judgment Day, and the state of Texas was being judged by the way we treat our mentally retarded, mentally ill, mentally disabled and elderly, we would go to hell."
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, in an Austin American-Statesman story on fundraising by candidates for candidates: "I started raising money to give away as soon as I won my primary... That raises my profile in the House significantly."
Andy Hernandez, a St. Mary's University professor who used to head the Southwest Voter Education Project, quoted by the Baltimore Sun on this year's efforts to get new people to the polls in Texas: "To really get the voters who never vote, you have to talk about issues and give them a compelling reason to come out to vote. I don't think that happened in this election."
Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is on the Tony Sanchez payroll, in that same story: "If both [Sanchez and U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk] fall short, the best analysis will be that we tried to do in two years what's going to happen in 10 or 12 years."
Gov. Rick Perry, defending a commercial that attempts to connect his opponent to the murder of a federal agent by Mexican criminals who laundered money through Tony Sanchez' savings and loan: "Truth is generally a good defense, and by and large, I stand by those ads as truthful."
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, on the power of advertising, in the Austin American-Statesman: "If you're up (on TV), you walk down the street and people look at you like a cousin, like they should know who you are. And that fades within a week."
Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 19, 4 November 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.