2002: A Race Odyssey

See how they run: The next statewide elections are twenty short months away.

Where did 2001 go? The calendar says the year has barely begun, but around the Texas Capitol, the attitude is, Out with the old, in with the new, bring on 2002. The hallways, back rooms, and watering holes are abuzz with speculation about who might seek higher office—U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general. (Sorry, president is taken.) The normal Texas political cycle—legislative sessions in odd-numbered years, elections in even-numbered years—has been distorted by the ennui that has gripped the Capitol this spring in the absence of major issues facing lawmakers and by the far more absorbing prospect of a 2002 campaign in which both parties will go all out to capture every high office.The main reason for the intense early focus on 2002 is that George W. Bush, who dominated Texas politics for six years, has moved on. His successor, Rick Perry, is unelected, unproven, and relatively unknown. The next election will determine whether the changes of the Bush years—when Republicans went from holding just one statewide office (Perry as agriculture commissioner) in 1994 to winning all of them in the 1998 elections—are permanent and whether Texas is rock-solid Republican country or a two-party battleground after all, where Bush’s popularity can no longer mask the residual strength of the Democratic party. So the stakes in 2002 are simple: for the Republicans, complete and total dominance of Texas politics for the foreseeable future; for the Democrats, survival. This is what the Democrats have been waiting for (if one can look forward to a last stand with anticipation): an election without Bush on the Republican ticket. The R’s have lost their star and the D’s hope that they have recruited one in Laredo oilman and banker Tony Sanchez, who is looking at running for governor. But figuring out the lineup for each side is like trying to put together a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Here are the pieces—and some questions that may help you solve the puzzle.

Senator

Is Phil Gramm going to run for reelection?
Speculation has abounded for at least two years that he won’t, and his recent announcement that he would run for a fourth term did little to stop it: He was obliged to say that to keep from being regarded as a lame duck. The reasons he might want to quit: (1) He is vulnerable back home, giving short shrift to constituent work and winning his last race with only 55 percent of the vote against political neophyte Victor Morales. The belief among Democrats is that any challenger to Gramm starts with 45 percent of the vote; (2) He could lose his chairmanship of the banking committee at any time because Republican control of the evenly divided Senate hinges on the health of Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who is 98 and ailing; (3) He will have no other worlds to conquer if he passes Bush’s massive tax cut this year after overhauling the financial-services industry last year; (4) At 58, he seems readyto do something else while he is still well below retirement age. Unfortunately for Gramm, the jobs he is said to want are all occupied—by George W. Bush, Alan Greenspan, and Ray Bowen, the president of Texas A&M.

If Gramm doesn’t run, the list of Republicans who might seek the spot includes Henry Bonilla, currently the occupant of a congressional seat for San Antonio and points south and west; land commissioner David Dewhurst, who is known to be hugely ambitious; and Attorney General John Cornyn. Gramm is said to look kindly on Bonilla, and one scenario has him stepping down early and Perry, who is courting the Hispanic vote, filling the vacancy with Bonilla, who would then have the advantage of incumbency in a special election. However, Dewhurst is nine-digits wealthy, and he could finance a Senate race out of his checkbook, a tremendous advantage in a federal election in which candidates who aren’t so well-heeled must contend with a $1,000 ceiling on campaign contributions. The unanswered question about the little-known Dewhurst is whether he has any political assets other than money.

Why Bonilla?
Because he could be the antidote to Tony Sanchez, the best chance for Republicans to hold the Senate seat. If Sanchez runs for governor and attracts an avalanche of new Hispanic voters, some of those voters, the theory goes, would opt for the Hispanic name in the Senate race, regardless of party. The problem for Bonilla is that he may not be able to fight his way through a special election, or a 2002 Republican primary, against Dewhurst or Cornyn.

Some Democrats would like to see Henry Cisneros as the party’s Senate nominee and interpret his return to Texas as a signal that the former San Antonio mayor is ready to reenter electoral politics. This is wishful thinking. Cisneros may be the best natural politician Texas has ever produced. Without the benefit of famous name or money, with nothing more for a bully pulpit than the mayor’s office of what was then a sleepy backwater, he built a statewide, no, a national following that joined the business community and Hispanics and a lot of what was in between. We know what happened next, but even had he avoided scandal, he might not have fulfilled his political destiny. He just didn’t have the confidence or the hunger to run for high elected office; if anything, he ran from it. That won’t keep his name from popping up again in 2006.

A current mayor, Kirk Watson of Austin, might look at the Senate race or at running for attorney general. (Another mayor Kirk—first name Ron, of Dallas—has statewide potential but is probably headed into business, not politics.) Ken Bentsen, the Houston congressman and a nephew of former senator Lloyd Bentsen, faces the possible loss of his seat in redistricting and might take a shot at the Senate—but it will have been fourteen years since the Bentsen name was on the ballot. (Bentsen is also mentioned as a potential candidate to succeed Lee

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