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Party Matters

Candidates from both sides of the spectrum are self-recruited and responsible for their own campaigns. So what's the value of a relationship with the state's political parties?

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In late November, Cathie Adams’ past collided with her present. 

A letter endorsing Eva Guzman over Rose Vela for Texas Supreme Court circulated with Adams’ name attached.  It’s exactly where one might expect to spot the mark of a lifelong activist and former Texas Eagle Forum president, but not the newly minted Republican Party of Texas chairman. Adams is both.

Adams wouldn’t be the first party chairman — generally expected to remain neutral except in extreme circumstances — to endorse a candidate in a contested primary. Surely the future is full of them.  And she signed the letter before she became chairman anyway (though, she knowingly allowed its release afterward).  More than anything, the dust-up highlights a dividing line in Adams’ political journey. 

It may seem, at least to an outside observer, that a party chairman and the body they oversee can’t really do much of anything — especially when contrasted with the freedom of expression enjoyed by an activist who has “built her reputation and her career by being a very divisive personality and a very extreme ideologue,” as Democratic consultant Matt Angle describes Adams.

On December 3, the one-month filing period for the March primaries began.  In an act that has been repeated thousands of times, prospective candidates transformed into the real deal by marching into the RPT or Texas Democratic Party headquarters (or, for local races, the county equivalent) and filling out the necessary paperwork.  The candidates, self-recruited and still responsible for their own campaigns, officially bound themselves to an organization in a relationship, the value of which — beyond superior brand recognition — can often seem elusive.

Even thinking of the party as a candidate’s paddle in the proverbial political creek risks overselling its role.  “The party’s direction is driven by the votes of the people in the primary,” says Eric Opiela, who stepped down from his post as executive director of the RPT after Adams came onboard.  “The party does not dictate to the people the values and principles of the party.  The people dictate that to the party.  Who am I to dictate to the people of Texas affiliated with the Republican Party what they should believe?”

“Of course, you can be an ideologue,” says Angle of party chairmen, “it just blunts your effectiveness.”

“You’re supposed to give wise counsel and listen well in that job,” says former Texas Democratic Party executive director Ed Martin. “You’re more likely to lead a party toward a winning ticket by not playing your hand too hard.”

For the record, RPT spokesman Bryan Preston insists that the organization is adhering to its “prime directive” of fairly administering the primaries. “It’s our job to provide the structure under which candidates compete.”

It is unglamorous and often thankless work, but party workers are tasked with maintaining that permanent structure that candidates pass through in their ephemeral political careers — unless, of course, they are up for braving the cold as an independent. 

But jumping on the party’s bandwagon does not come with a guaranteed spot on their general election ballot. “A political party provides all its resources to its candidates.  Part of what a primary is about is learning which candidate knows how to effectively use those resources,” says Martin. “Sometimes a person profiles incredibly well, but you find out in a primary they just aren’t a very good candidate.  There are some Democrats who have been in office a long time who were never supposed to win.  They weren’t the pick of the establishment, but it turned out the pick of the establishment wasn’t as good.”

Those resources range from the very tangible ( “Direct mail is easier to operate through the party,” Preston says, and Opiela adds they also “maintain master voter file, provide training, and give direct cash contributions, especially on the local level”) to the less so (“The party identifier lets voters know where you stand on issues,” says Preston). 

“Everybody uses the online voter file,” says Martin of the Democrats.  “There are modeling projects that are there – there’s ways to target voters that not all campaigns used to have access to.  There are remarkable tools and a lot of efforts to train young campaign workers and make them available to campaigns.”

Tools alone don’t make the party.  Somebody has to be swinging the hammer. “Demographic manna doesn’t fall from the sky,” says Martin. “We have to keep doing the work.  People say it’s eventually going to turn, but nothing eventually turns.  You have to go elect people.”

To understand a party’s importance, go back two decades to when Democrats had a stable of A-list candidates with statewide fundraising capabilities. When the rug was swept out from under those big-named feet, there wasn’t much of a party to fall back on and Democrats spent years, as Angle says, “in the wilderness” — a mistake their opponents may be flirting with now.

“Republicans for the last 12 years now really had an extraordinary opportunity to really build the infrastructure of their party and make it a juggernaut.  They haven’t done that,” says Angle. “What they’ve done is fielded and won statewide races and created some strong statewide candidates. The danger with that —when your candidates lose and when they’re gone, then you’ve got nothing.”

In 1994, one of Tom Pauken’s first acts as RPT chairman (he served from 1994-1997) was to put an active county chairman in every county in the state, even those that historically leaned in Democrats’ favor.  “We built from the grassroots up,” he says, “which began to have a ripple effect over time.  Quite frankly, that’s what the Democrats have been doing, to their credit.”

In 2005, after over a decade without any Democrats in statewide office, the Texas Democratic Trust, which Angle currently directs, was founded and began investing heavily in the party infrastructure.  Since then, they’ve gained ten seats in the Texas House and are now in position to run credible statewide bids.  In 2008, straight-ticket voting for Democrats caught up to straight-ticket voting for Republicans.  In Dallas County, straight-ticket voting — a major boon to downballot candidates on a top-heavy ticket — allowed the Democrats to sweep all county seats.

“We had precinct chairman in the old days who talked to their neighbors and tried to persuade them to vote for Republicans,” recalls Pauken, a Dallas County resident.  “Recently, we have precinct chairman in name only or a lot of vacancies. There are a lot of people with mixed feelings about who to vote for, and party workers can really make the difference in turning out the vote and persuading their friends.”

Pauken isn’t just talking about county elections.  “I don’t think Karl Rove appreciated it,” he says,” but our grassroots support for George W. Bush in 1994 helped make the difference in defeating Ann Richards, who was a very popular governor at the time.”

Another thing Pauken did that Rove didn’t appreciate was terminating Rove’s relationship with the party, where he had enjoyed significant control (“He says he quit, I say I fired him,” says Pauken).  Of course, Rove didn’t slink away — he was in the process of grooming George W. Bush for the U.S. presidency, and the Texas governor’s mansion was the first stop.

“There was a lot of tension when I was chairman,” says Pauken.  “Karl was determined to control the party and — if you didn’t go along with everything that Gov. Bush wanted — to essentially cut off funding to the party.  It is difficult when you have somebody at the governor’s office who wants the party to be totally subservient to people in power.”

Democrats like Angle are quick to point out that Adams’ allegiances, at least in her previous life, are clear — which could be a problem . “It’s an indication that Rick Perry really has control of the party,” he says of her election. “She’s a Perry guy.”

“There’s a lot more to do than just take care of the governor,” agrees Martin. “That’s one of the problems Cathie Adams has. She doesn’t seem like a person that’s apt to bring the disparate elements of the Republican Party together as this civil war is waged in their gubernatorial primary.”

Preston dismisses these concerns. “As the chairman of the party, she administers the primary,” he says definitively. “We don’t intervene.” 

Intervening would certainly make difficult the task of holding the party together, which Pauken counts as “one of the major challenges of a party chairman.”

“When I was chairman, we were able to get economic and social conservatives to pretty closely work together,” says Pauken.  “Now, I think that’s a more difficult proposition. Quite frankly, how do we put the Ron Paul people and the Mike Huckabee people together?  You’ve got to put those elements together if you’re going to succeed from a conservative point of view.”

Concerned about the result of an overcrowded primary on the Democratic side, TDP chairman Boyd Richie called together four of the Democratic candidates (not coincidentally on the same day Bill White announced that he would consider entering the race).  Richie did not apply a strong hand, but read to them prepared notes on largely procedural matters  — the importance of maintaining a civil race, a promise to remain impartial, and repeated reminders (a hint but not an ultimatum) that there were many open slots down ballot that needed filling.

When all candidates emerged seemingly more energized about the race for governor than ever, it only emphasized the image of a powerless, ineffectual party chairman. 

But, sure enough, come filing time, candidates started dropping down and falling in line.  Hank Gilbert announced a run for agriculture commissioner and Kinky Friedman — a failed independent candidate in 2006 despite household name status who is now seeking to make use of the party structure — is considering a similar move.

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