Grand Illusion

Rich, moderate, and Hispanic: For a while, Tony Sanchez seemed like a competitive candidate for governor. Then the smoke cleared.

THIS IS WHAT THE DEATH of a political campaign looks like.

At 9:45 a.m. on Friday, October 25, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez stands in front of a bank of cameras and microphones at his Dallas campaign office. Though he is engulfed in a sea of chanting, sign-waving partisans, he is grim-faced and visibly angry. Behind him are his wife, Tani, and their four children. They have been with him everywhere, mingling with supporters at political events, shaking hands, smiling and waving.

But this morning they look pale, somber, and uncharacteristically untelegenic. This was supposed to be a rally for the true believers, to buck them up as they headed out to canvass some 100,000 households over the weekend. But it has turned into something else entirely.

The night before, Sanchez’s opponent, incumbent governor Rick Perry, unveiled a television ad claiming that the drug lords who orchestrated a hit on a federal drug agent named Enrique “Kiki” Camarena had laundered drug money through Tesoro Savings and Loan, a Laredo bank that Sanchez once owned. It is the second ad Perry has run about Tesoro, but this one is much harsher than the first. The implication is clear, and Sanchez is furious. “Rick Perry is a liar,” he tells the crowd. “He has sunk to a level no other politician in the history of politics has sunk to. He owes me and my family an apology.”

The partisans are quiet now. They seem to sense that this is an important moment. Sanchez is usually nothing if not controlled—some would say stiff—but now he is coming a bit unglued. There is muted applause. The true believers are seething. A ragged-looking Glenn Smith, Sanchez’s campaign manager, says sourly to a trio of reporters, “Find me a place in American history where one candidate accuses another of murder.” Later, Sanchez will go even further, calling Perry “by far the most disgusting human being I have ever known.”

The central truth of this moment, though Sanchez does not know it yet, is that he has just lost the race for governor. All campaigns have their turning points. In retrospect, this one’s was the statewide debut of the Camarena ad. It was brutally negative, even by the standards of this bitterly partisan election season. It was a response to Sanchez’s own brutally negative ad, featuring a police video of Perry trying to talk his way out of a speeding ticket. Polls commissioned by the Sanchez campaign indicated that the ad had knocked five points off Perry’s lead. But the Camarena ad would turn out to be too great a blow. No amount of TV—or money—could save him now.

Eleven days later it became official: Sanchez lost to Perry by a whopping eighteen points, 58 percent to 40 percent. Those numbers suggest not just a political defeat but a tactical failure of colossal proportions. In his bid for governor, Sanchez had vowed to use his $600 million fortune to change the state’s electoral calculus. He was going to awaken the huge, slumbering Hispanic and African American voting blocs. In so doing, he would break the Republican stranglehold on Texas and lead other Democrats to victory.

None of those things happened. Republicans swept every statewide office, almost all by huge margins. After two and a half years, the Sanchez operation proved to be nothing so much as a grand illusion, an enormous smoke-and-mirrors machine fueled by a seemingly limitless supply of money: more than $64 million, compared with Perry’s more than $24 million. Stripped of the special effects, the race’s predestined outcome came into focus. In spite of his promises to change Texas politics forever, Sanchez never had any more chance to beat Perry than Garry Mauro did to beat George W. Bush in 1998. The man behind the curtain turned out to be a very ordinary candidate.

About three weeks before Election Day, I began to travel with Sanchez, meeting his corporate jets at various airports, tracking his bright blue bus as it traveled to San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley, and the Golden Triangle, spending time at field offices and rallies. What I had hoped to see was history being made: Either Texas would elect its first Hispanic governor or, if he didn’t win, I’d at least witness the inner workings of a get-out-the-vote effort unlike any in American politics. What I saw instead was an extraordinarily well-funded campaign fast collapsing under its own weight.

SEVEN DAYS AFTER SANCHEZ’S DALLAS press conference, I am riding with him on his giant, Internet- and satellite-television-equipped touring bus in the Rio Grande Valley. We are within sight of Election Day, and things are looking bleaker and bleaker. Public polls indicate that Sanchez trails Perry by fifteen points. According to one campaign staffer, even Sanchez’s own internal polls, which showed him down seven points before the Camarena ad, are now bouncing between ten and twelve points down.

You would never know this by listening to Sanchez. He seems unruffled, buoyant, optimistic. He says he is betting on his massive ground operation to turn out hundreds of thousands of first-time voters, even though his own staffers concede that his ground operation is worth three points at most. These voters, he insists, are invisible to the pollsters. “You can’t poll the effect of one thousand people walking door to door,” he says. “What we are doing has never been done in any state in the nation.” His get-out-the-vote operation is indeed a large and tantalizing mystery, a Holy Grail of Democratic hopes: The previous weekend his workers canvassed an astonishing 1.1 million doors across the state.

You can’t really understand Sanchez’s campaign if you have not seen him on his bus, which he has had since July. His advisers had debated about whether to send him out in the bus, and several had opposed the idea, thinking he was not ready for prime time—or at least not ready for Jefferson County. But Sanchez loved it, and his tours around the state helped transform him into a retail candidate. He is

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