When I read in yesterday’s Star-Telegram that U.S. Senator Patty Murray, chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign committee, intended to target the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2012 , my initial reaction was that Democrats had lost their minds. Everybody knows the score. The D’s haven’t won a statewide race since 1994, almost eighteen years ago. The party chairman has resigned and his replacement is likely to be a longtime political hack from South Texas. The party’s meager assets include Julian Castro, the mayor of the state’s second largest city and a stable of talented legislators (including Castro’s twin brother Joaquin), none of whom wanted to run for statewide office in 2010 because they knew they couldn’t win. The Democratic brand, and whatever influence Democrats had, was ruined by the Republican sweep of contested state House seats on election night.
It took the Democrats only one day after Murray’s announcement to produce a credible candidate: Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. Born in Rio Grande City, Sanchez became commanding general in Iraq in 2003. After his command ended a year later, Sanchez was openly critical of Bush Administration policy in Iraq, both in speeches and in Wiser in Battle, his book about his experience in Iraq, which he wrote after his retirement from the Army. Here is an excerpt from a story in the New York Times concerning his criticism of the Bush administration:
In a sweeping indictment of the four-year effort in Iraq, the former top American commander called the Bush administration’s handling of the war incompetent and warned that the United States was “living a nightmare with no end in sight.”
In one of his first major public speeches since leaving the Army in late 2006, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez blamed the administration for a “catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan” and denounced the current “surge” strategy as a “desperate” move that will not achieve long-term stability.
“After more than fours years of fighting, America continues its desperate struggle in Iraq without any concerted effort to devise a strategy that will achieve victory in that war-torn country or in the greater conflict against extremism,” Mr. Sanchez said, at a gathering here of military reporters and editors.
A potential blemish on his record is the Abu Ghraib scandal, involving abuses of prisoners that occurred during his tenure as commanding general. Sanchez was in line to become the second Hispanic four-star general in army history. He was cleared of any wrongdoing but never received his fourth star. He relinquished command one year after assuming it. After retiring from the army in 2006, he published Wiser in Battle, which is critical of the leadership of President Bush and his administraation.
Any Democratic candidate is going to have an uphill battle, but Sanchez is the kind of candidate the party is going to have to run: an Hispanic whose personal rectitude is beyond reproach – or, to put it another way, is not a politcian. Generalizations can be dangerous, but I think it’s fair to say that Hispanics are among the most patriotic and pro-military of Americans. Sanchez is the kind of candidate who could inspire Hispanics to vote in greater numbers than they are doing now.
The biggest problem for Sanchez is his party. The brand has been destroyed. He is going to have to go into battle defending the policies of a president who is extremely unpopular in Texas. Whoever the Republican nominee is, the strategy will be a page from Rick Perry’s playbook: Sanchez will be defined as a creature of Washington and an ally of the big-spending Obama administration.
The Republican field is not the strongest. The obvious frontrunner is Dewhurst, but recent indications are that he might not want to run. I can’t see Roger Williams, Michael Williams, or Elizabeth Ames Jones becoming the nominee. Former state solicitor general Ted Cruz and former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert have shown considerable fundraising ability. (If Cruz were to win the nomination, it would set up an all-Hispanic race.)
The Senate Democrats are placing a very long-shot bet on Texas. I wouldn’t dare put any chips on it. Patty Murray’s explanation for why she thinks Texas might be in play is “demographic change.” We have been hearing that line for many years now, and there is no evidence that demographic change has changed voting patterns. Democrats make the mistake of looking at Hispanic participation in California, in Colorado, in Arizona, in New Mexico, and thinking that Texas could be just like those states. I disagree. Hispanics in those states are alienated. Angry people vote. Hispanics in Texas are not alienated. Unless the Democrats have some pretty good polling that shows the Republicans are overreaching with their budget cuts–and I doubt that they do–they should continue to regard Texas as a lost cause. If he runs, Sanchez will do better than any other Democrat could–but not well enough.