Swept Away

The Election Day rout confirmed what we've known, or should have known, all along: Texas is a Republican state. And that's not going to change anytime soon.

December 2002By Comments

WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD of Texas politics. The Republicans have it all now: every statewide office, solid majorities in both houses of the Legislature, and Speaker of the House (although that won’t be official until January). Yet that list doesn’t come close to capturing the magnitude of the GOP sweep. The Republicans didn’t just win; they crushed the Democrats. Not a single statewide race was close. Governor Rick Perry won reelection by eighteen points despite being outspent nearly three to one by Tony Sanchez. Of the 23 swing legislative races, Republicans won 18, most by decisive margins. In the governor’s race, Sanchez carried just seven counties north of Interstate 10. Sixteen votes in Fisher County, on the South Plains, prevented Perry from winning every county in the northwest quadrant of the state. A pretty good election analysis could be compressed into eleven words: “There are a heck of a lot of Republicans in Texas.”

The rout is all the more impressive because the Democrats mounted an all-out effort to regain their lost glory. They formulated a strategy based on the premise that a normal turnout of Hispanic voters in 1998 would have resulted in the election of two Democrats, John Sharp as lieutenant governor and Paul Hobby as comptroller. The low Hispanic turnout that year (somewhere between 12 percent and 16 percent of the total vote) was blamed on the absence of a prominent Hispanic on the ticket after Attorney General Dan Morales decided not to seek reelection. You know the rest: Sharp persuaded Sanchez to run, and Sanchez agreed to spend whatever it took to win; then, for good measure, Ron Kirk, the African American former mayor of Dallas, won a three-way primary to become the nominee for the U.S. Senate. The piece that completed the puzzle was the Bush factor in reverse: For the first time in three election cycles, George W. was not on the ballot. The game plan was perfect. Why didn’t it work? To see where the Democrats did wrong, let’s take a look at the numbers.

They alienated the white vote. The problem with any strategy predicated on minority turnout is that almost three fourths of the people who vote in Texas are white. Democrats typically need a little more than a third of the white vote to win, yet Republican tracking polls just before Election Day showed Sanchez getting far less—around 28 percent. Sanchez did aim his TV campaign at white voters, using rising homeowners’ insurance rates against Perry and airing a video of Perry, as lieutenant governor, asking a female state trooper to let him “get on down the road” after a traffic stop. But he could never overcome the unfavorable first impression created during the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Faced with an unexpected challenge by Dan Morales, who had superior name identification, Sanchez was forced to fight for the Hispanic vote. Morales, an opponent of affirmative action, accused Sanchez, who favors it, of running for governor of Mexico. Sanchez challenged Morales to a debate in Spanish, hoping to expose Morales’ fluency as insufficient. The public spectacle of a battle over who was “more Hispanic” alienated a lot of Anglos. In making race an issue, Morales said things Perry never could have—imagine the chorus of condemnation if Perry had accused Sanchez of running for governor of Mexico—and handed the Republicans an issue they would later capitalize on, defining the “dream team” of Sanchez and Kirk as a quota system.

They overestimated Hispanic solidarity. The governor’s race turned on two competing views of Hispanics. The Sanchez campaign viewed them as a monolithic Democratic constituency and expected to get at least 80 percent of their votes. The Perry campaign embraced Karl Rove’s view of Hispanics as an increasingly diverse community, some of whose members, because of strong family and religious ties or economic issues, are receptive to a conservative message. The Sanchez view was correct—in one county, that is. Webb, which includes Sanchez’s home base of Laredo, gave him a margin of 35,101 to 3,958, or 89 percent of the vote to Perry’s 10 percent. Elsewhere, though, the GOP view prevailed. In Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi, Perry fought Sanchez to a draw. In Cameron County, Perry got 39 percent of the vote. Some of Perry’s support came from Anglos, of course, but Republican pollster Mike Baselice estimates that he won at least a third of the Hispanic vote statewide.

They overestimated Hispanic turnout. Democrats had Republicans worried, no doubt about that. The probability of an explosion of new voters was tiny, but GOP candidates feared the sleeping giant nevertheless. Once again, the Sanchez strategy worked in Webb County, where the total turnout, 42 percent, was higher than in Collin County, a Republican stronghold that includes Plano. Yet the other big Hispanic counties along the Rio Grande—Cameron, Hidalgo, El Paso—all failed to reach 30 percent in total turnout. An even bigger problem for Sanchez was the state’s two biggest counties, Harris and Dallas, each of which have more Hispanic residents than the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In Dallas County, two state legislative races in predominantly Hispanic districts had total turnouts of only 13,000 each (the total population of legislative districts is approximately 130,000). But contested legislative races in Republican areas routinely drew in excess of 30,000 voters. In Harris County, it was same song, second verse. “Republican turnout was at or above normal levels,” says University of Houston pollster and political analyst Richard Murray. “But in the traditional barrio neighborhoods, it was low. It was better in mixed precincts, like in Pasadena, where upwardly mobile Hispanics have been moving.”

They counted on ticket splitters. Sanchez was relying on some conservative business support, from colleagues in the banking and oil-and-gas communities and from constituencies offended by Perry’s veto binge after the 2001 legislative session, notably doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers. It never materialized: The most startling development of the 2002 election was the disappearance of the ticket splitter from Texas politics. This didn’t affect the outcome of Sanchez’s race, but it did doom Democratic lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp to defeat at the hands of David Dewhurst, a result that many political pros in both parties considered an upset. Sharp had served eight years as comptroller before losing narrowly to Perry in the 1998 lieutenant governor’s race with 48 percent of the vote— seventeen percentage points ahead of Garry Mauro. This year, Sharp did worse, finishing with 46 percent of the vote against Dewhurst. He ran only six points ahead of Sanchez.

What happened to the ticket splitters? Take a look at Smith County, a Republican bastion that includes Tyler. Like many East Texas counties, Smith is one where voters have a tradition of picking and choosing as they move down the ballot. In 1998 Bush beat Mauro there 75 to 24, but Sharp held Perry to 62 percent—a thirteen-point improvement. This year, Perry won the county 70 to 29, but Dewhurst prevailed 64 to 35, a drop-off of only six points. In one election cycle, half the ticket splitters had disappeared.

The inescapable conclusion is that Texas is an overwhelmingly Republican state. The GOP is where the Democrats used to be thirty years ago: In down-ballot races where voters know very little about the people running, the Republican is the default choice for most white voters. Greg Abbott, newly elected as attorney general, told me early in the campaign that he would win because voters had gotten in the habit of voting for Republicans in court races where they didn’t know any of the candidates, and they would regard the AG’s race as a court race. Indeed, a race for the Supreme Court this year exhibits just how little ticket splitting occurs down ballot. Democrat Margaret Mirabal picked up just about every endorsement in her Supreme Court race against Steven Wayne Smith, whose outspoken comments in opposition to affirmative action at colleges and universities were at best politically incorrect and at worst just short of racist. Mirabal got 46 percent of the vote, two to three points more than the three Democrats who sought other seats on the court. That difference is what is left of the informed ticket-splitting vote.

So complete was the Republican victory that it calls into question whether the Democratic party has any near-term future in Texas. If the Democrats, having the advantage of limitless financial resources, couldn’t come within twenty points of a governor whose approval rating and record are mediocre, what hope do they have? It is true that Sanchez had terrible baggage in his management of his bank two decades ago, but when you get beat as bad as he did, you were never going to win. Furthermore, the formula for winning that the Democrats envisioned didn’t work and is not going to. Hispanics are not going to vote in large numbers, at least not anytime soon. We are barely one generation into the upwardly mobile phenomenon noted by Richard Murray; it may take another generation before the numbers really get big.

The issue for the Democrats is not only who is going to vote for them but who is going to run. The party has no bench. With no statewide officeholders who can move up, the Democrats’ best hope to establish a beachhead is big-city mayors, but two of those lost this time (Ron Kirk of Dallas and Kirk Watson of Austin). A woman might have better luck: Laura Miller of Dallas, for example, but she is more liberal than either Kirk or Watson, both of whom were successfully tagged with the liberal label. In the meantime, all the Democrats can do is wait for the Republicans to make a mistake, and even that might not be enough. There are a heck of a lot of Republicans in Texas.

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