Grand Illusion

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

December 2002By Comments

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 by nature a somewhat formal, reserved man, but by August he was plunging into crowds, signing autographs and kissing babies.

Out here with Sanchez, particularly in traditionally Democratic areas, life is good. The advance work is impeccable (his advance chief, Sam Myers, came from the Clinton White House). In some ways it’s too good: With Sanchez’s deep pockets behind it, all stops are orchestrated on the level of a presidential campaign. “He never goes somewhere where there are only twenty-five people,” grumbles one staffer.

As the bus rolls toward a rally in McAllen, I ask Sanchez if he would have done anything differently. “I have to think about that,” he says, gazing out of a rain-streaked window. A brief pause, and then: “I should have had more education summits. We had one in Austin. If I had to do it again, I would have done it in three or four other places.”

“Is there anything else?” I ask, amazed that this is all he can come up with.

“No,” he says, shrugging. “Nothing that I can think of.” This is obviously a man who is untroubled by the decisions he has made.

Though Sanchez spends a lot of time on his bus, he does not travel exclusively that way. Like no other candidate in history—or at least none I’m aware of—he commutes to work by jet. He spends most nights at home in Laredo, flying to and from his political appointments in one of several Citation jets owned by his companies. On a typical day he gets up at four-thirty or five in the morning, exercises for an hour on a treadmill, listens in on a conference call with his campaign manager and field directors, then travels by jet to a regional airport. There he is met by the bus, which whisks him away to the day’s political events. At the end of the day he jets back home, often with his whole family in tow. This is, of course, an expensive way to travel—the sort of campaign that only someone with several hundred million dollars could run.

But the jets and customized buses are just one luxury among many. The Sanchez campaign floats in a sea of money. Money defines every corner, every nook, and every cranny of his political organization. Even the polls that had his campaign staff so excited in October were largely money-driven, moved as they were by Sanchez’s ubiquitous TV ads. One of the lessons of the Sanchez campaign is that his ads managed to move the polls but failed to move actual voters.

He spent the vast majority of his money—some $36 million—running television and radio ads. He spent $6 million for strategists, pollsters, and the like, ten times more than Perry spent. (One consultant, the estimable George Shipley, was paid $132,000 in the last three months of the campaign.) He spent $10 million on a huge field operation with offices in 34 counties. His Austin campaign headquarters occupied a full basement floor in a skyscraper at the high-rent corner of Congress Avenue and Sixth Street. His printing costs alone were $2.4 million—six times Perry’s. He employed more than 900 people versus Perry’s 41, and he paid individual staffers a significant premium over what Perry staffers were paid. In his campaign, everything was first-cabin, from his staff’s computers and PalmPilots to rooms for the traveling staff at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston, from his top-of-the-line, fully loaded Suburbans to the $5,000 he spent on confetti for a special event. (“It would be cheaper just to shred the money,” political consultant Monte Williams told the Dallas Morning News, adding, “It’s not a campaign. It’s a cruise ship.”)

WHAT THE SANCHEZ CAMPAIGN WAS most famous for, however, was the sheer number of television ads that it ran in Texas. On advertising alone, Sanchez spent almost twice what George W. Bush spent on his entire gubernatorial campaign in 1998. He ran so many different ads (more than fifty) so many times that at one point this fall, his campaign staff estimates, he was being seen eight to ten times a week by the average Texan.

And it is here, where he spent the most money, that his mistakes began. Virtually unlimited funds meant, in part, that the campaign was rarely forced to make choices or to focus on a few hard issues, as Bush had done during his insurgent bid to unseat Ann Richards in 1994. “This has been an incredibly undisciplined campaign,” says a well-placed staffer who asked not to be identified. “It has turned into a spending free-for-all. Ask me what the campaign plan is. I have no idea. We’re dealing with too many issues.”

In spite of the broadcast blitzkrieg, Sanchez’s problem seemed to be, and in fact had always been, the exact opposite: His campaign had too few issues. His attack ads offered plenty of reasons to vote against Perry. But Sanchez, who aired ads on everything from health care to hunting, failed to convince voters that he had anything new or interesting to offer. On the subject of education, which he considered his number one priority, his position was nearly impossible to distinguish from Perry’s: They both wanted to expand health insurance options for low-income children, improve pre-K programs, raise teachers’ salaries, and reduce dropout rates. Sanchez ranted against “teaching to the test” but did not say he wanted to roll back the testing-and-accountability movement in Texas. He was, after all, a big supporter of Bush’s education policies. And, like Perry, he refused throughout the campaign to say how he would solve the state’s two biggest and most obvious problems: a full-scale public-school funding crisis and an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion state budget shortfall. In the most telling line of their two debates, Perry taunted Sanchez, saying, “Never in the history of American politics has a political candidate spent so much money and said so little.”

The one notable exception was the issue of homeowners’ insurance. Early in the campaign, Sanchez and his staff had identified it as a Perry weakness. Homeowners’ insurance rates, in particular, were rapidly rising. Sanchez had run ads saying as much, needling Perry for his failure to address the problem. The issue exploded when Farmers Insurance Company announced in late September that it was pulling its operations out of the state and not renewing policies. Immediately Sanchez ran a new set of ads attacking Perry and offering his own plan for insurance reform.

In hindsight, it is remarkable what Sanchez was able to do when in possession of a real, easy-to-grasp issue, at least as measured by opinion polls. When the insurance crisis hit and Sanchez’s ads went on the air, his polls showed that he had erased Perry’s twenty-point lead.

THE BASE OF THE HUGE SANCHEZ ground operation in houston is the Carpenters Union Local 551 building, just southeast of downtown. At nine o’clock in the morning on Sunday, October 27, you can see why so much hope, not to mention money, has been invested in GOTV (shorthand for “get out the vote”). Around the cavernous stucco building, a massive, military-style effort is under way. Hundreds of people crowd into the back door, and dozens of huge white vans pull into the building’s parking lot. In the three weekends before the election, more than 1,200 people—most of them paid—were mobilized to canvass 600,000 households. Fifty volunteer callers will reach 300,000 more homes. The logistical operation behind them includes: 45 fifteen-seat vans, 2,000 doughnuts, 40 gallons of juice, 1,000 cups, 500 backpacks, and 1,500 rain ponchos. The vans pull up, are filled with people, food, water, and literature, and head off into the precincts, where today some 750 workers will walk through neighborhoods. They are distributing brochures and asking people to vote for Sanchez. The whole operation looks lean and efficient.

What is special about this is not just the scale, which dwarfs similar efforts previously mounted around the country. It is also the way the work is being done. The highly sophisticated, house-by-house lists the walkers carry are the product of a canvassing effort over the summer in which two hundred Sanchez workers armed with PalmPilots surveyed nearly one million homes, gathering key data that would later be used to make so-called knock-skip-drop lists (you knock on the door if the resident is a Democrat, skip it if he’s a Republican, and drop literature if you don’t know). “We were told that Texas was too big to canvass,” says deputy campaign manager Steve Bouchard, who is in Houston to check up on the office. “But we did it anyway.”

Bouchard, in fact, is a special sort of political operative, a veteran of Democrat Mark Warner’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia last year, in which he carried 52 percent of typically Republican voters. Warner pulled it off in part because of a similar house-to-house canvass. And now Bouchard and two other bright young Warner campaign veterans—GOTV director Dan Berwick and deputy field director Josh Segall—are using what they learned to target Texas voters. Though Houston is the biggest of Sanchez’s field offices, he also has major operations in Dallas and San Antonio and in Hidalgo County. All are following the same script.

After seeing this operation, and after going out with the neighborhood walkers, I was astonished to see just how ineffective the effort proved to be on November 5. The vaunted Hispanic vote never materialized: Sanchez lost Harris County, where voter turnout was below the statewide average, by eleven points. In populous, majority-Hispanic El Paso and Cameron counties, voter turnout was 7 percent and 6 percent below the statewide average, respectively—and the Hispanics who did turn out didn’t necessarily vote Democratic (Perry pulled 39 percent of the vote in Cameron County and 49 percent in Nueces County). In spite of having a highly visible Hispanic candidate, and in spite of being contacted numerous times, voters simply did not respond. The celebrated get-out-the-vote operation that had been hyped as a revolution in Texas politics proved to be yet another myth created by Sanchez’s money.

AT DON JUAN’S MEXICAN RESTAURANT in McAllen, the crowd is on its feet. They are loud, raucous. At the microphone, Sanchez slips in and out of Spanish and English. He tells jokes. The crowd cheers. They love him. Almost all of the rest of the Democratic statewide candidates are here (only Ron Kirk is missing), and Sanchez is the best speaker in the group. These are his people—”mi raza,” he calls them. They let loose with what is by now a familiar chant at Sanchez campaign stops: “To-ny! To-ny!” With just a few days to go before the election, it is apparent how vastly improved Sanchez is as a candidate, especially when he’s in South Texas, where he feels most comfortable. He is far better at this than he used to be. “Rick Perry got one million dollars from the insurance companies, and they said turn your head while we raise rates!” he thunders. The mostly Stetson-clad crowd yells and applauds. Then he says, “When you come to my office as governor, you won’t have to bring any money!” Laughter and more applause.

From the back of Don Juan’s, it is easy to believe that Sanchez is everything he says he is, that his campaign can deliver on all of its promises, that this giant untapped electorate really is out there, and that they really do love him.

Four days later, on November 5, we all knew better. And so did he.

With reporting by Kirstin A. McCudden.

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