2002: A Race Odyssey

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

March 2001By Comments

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.


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 Brown as mayor of Houston.) Two other names that keep coming up are the near-miss Democrats of 1998: John Sharp, who lost a close lieutenant governor’s race against Perry and can be expected to look at the Senate, governor’s, or lieutenant governor’s race; and Paul Hobby, the son of a lieutenant governor and the grandson of a governor, who lost his bid for state comptroller by just 20,000 votes to Carole Keeton Rylander. But Hobby appears less eager than Sharp to return immediately to electoral politics. Whoever it is, the Democratic nominee will have a much harder time financing the race than his opponent will, especially if the GOP candidate is Gramm or Dewhurst. Advantage to the Republicans—but this is going to be a competitive race.


Can Rick Perry escape a Republican primary challenge?
Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has talked openly of wanting to run for governor, appeared to have made her decision to stay in Washington when she became vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference. She has said that she probably wouldn’t challenge Perry if he were an incumbent, which he is. And yet some Texas politicos attending inauguration festivities were startled to hear from Hutchison’s backers that she was still looking at the race. Without a doubt, she would rather be governor than senator. The Senate is a wait-your-turn place, and she is going to have to wait a long time before accumulating the seniority to become eligible to chair a committee. Hutchison, for now, is better known and more popular than Perry and would be favored to win a primary race. But the prospect of a battle that could leave the party divided is not one that the state GOP hierarchy relishes. Unless Perry has a disastrous legislative session, Hutchison will probably, and unhappily, stay put.And a disastrous session is unlikely for Perry. As a candidate against two formidable Democrats, Jim Hightower in 1990 and John Sharp in 1998, and as lieutenant governor, he has proven himself a good judge of political situations. He knows that neither the political climate nor the circumstances of his ascension to the Governor’s Mansion, nor the constitutional nature of his office demand bold, big-picture leadership. He has put forth a modest, cautious, noncontroversial agenda focusing on highways and education that will sound good if it passes and won’t be missed if it fails. He is personable and should find it easy to get along with just about everyone except Speaker Pete Laney; their long-simmering feud will not be cooled down by Perry’s praise of Laney in his State of the State address.

Have the Democrats found their savior?
Not according to a joke that is making the rounds in Republican circles: “Question: What’s Spanish for Claytie Williams? Answer: Tony Sanchez.” The point is that money and personal appeal can’t win the governorship if your mouth turns you into your own worst enemy, as Williams’ did in his 1990 race for governor against Ann Richards. Sanchez has been a force—some would say a loose cannon—as a Bush appointee to the University of Texas Board of Regents, getting involved in successful battles to challenge the architectural plan for a new art museum and to consider a Hispanic candidate for president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Can he withstand the inevitable scrutiny of his business interests and his personal life? Does he have the discipline to stay on message? These are things that Sanchez must weigh before deciding to run.

The reason Democrats are excited by the prospect of a Sanchez candidacy lies in the voter turnout numbers in 1998. The total general election vote was 3.8 million. Polls show that among Texans who identify themselves as belonging to a political party, the GOP has an 8 percentage point lead over Democrats. Take 8 percent of 3.8 million, and you can calculate the Republicans’ built-in lead of around 300,000 votes in a race between comparably attractive candidates. How do you get 300,000 new voters? Run a Hispanic for governor. How do you raise the money necessary for a statewide campaign? Run a rich Hispanic for governor.

Clearly, the idea appeals to him. “Tony Sanchez for Governor” bumper stickers have made their appearance. Sanchez has been helped by Kelly Fero, who was a consultant for Jim Mattox’s losing 1990 race for governor and Sharp’s losing 1998 race for lieutenant governor, and has had discussions with George Shipley, a longtime Democratic strategist and consultant. But the race is likely to cost him as much as $20 million out of his own pocket, and it could be to no avail. To be successful, a Democratic candidate has to have a united party behind him—but some Democrats’ enthusiasm for him will be diminished because Sanchez is pro-life and others’ will be diminished because he backed Bush over Ann Richards when her administration sided against him in a local power struggle over where a highway would be located in Laredo.

What happens if Sanchez doesn’t run?
Sanchez has said that he will make a decision by Labor Day. If the answer is no, what is plan B? Sharp would cherish a rematch against Perry, but he would have a hard time raising the $15 million he would need. Plan C? Here’s a real long shot: Ben Barnes, onetime boy wonder of Texas politics (Speaker of the House at 26, lieutenant governor at 30, in 1969) has been making speeches about the future of Texas. Good speeches too. But they don’t mention the Sharpstown scandal of the seventies (which cost him his political career, though he was never implicated), the Barnes-Connally real estate fiasco of the eighties, and his incredibly lucrative contract to get a lottery for Texas in the nineties.

Lieutenant Governor

Will Bill Ratliff run for a full term?
A Republican state senator from Mount Pleasant until his colleagues elected him in late December to succeed Perry, Ratliff occupies an office that was once regarded as the most powerful in the Capitol but has lost some luster since the days when Barnes, Bill Hobby, and the late Bob Bullock held it. He was chosen by his peers (by a one-vote margin) not only because he is a Hall of Fame senator, a model of intelligence, integrity, and fairness, but also because he is nonthreatening, more of a caretaker and a wise man than a ruler.Like Phil Gramm, Ratliff is obligated to express interest in running in 2002, to protect his ability to be effective during the current session. But he doesn’t fit the mold of a statewide candidate. He doesn’t burn with ambition, for one thing; even in seeking his current job, he declined to campaign for it. He’s not TV material. Nothing about him is flashy or charismatic. His fundraising ability is unproven. But his biggest problem may be one of his best qualities—fairness. When he handed out chairmanships to the other thirty senators (fifteen Republicans, fifteen Democrats), he balanced committee memberships and chairs between the two parties. The biggest plum, Ratliff’s old job as chairman of the budget-writing Finance Committee, went to an African American Democrat, Rodney Ellis of Houston. Some of the Capitol’s self-proclaimed pundits are already saying that Ratliff’s bipartisan appointments were not well received by the Republican hierarchy around the state. Even the power of incumbency might not be enough to overcome these obstacles in a contested primary. First among those who might contest it is Dewhurst—who is regarded as almost certain to make the race if his first choice, the U.S. Senate, is blocked by Gramm’s deciding to run for reelection after all. But if Dew-hurst does go for the Senate, then comptroller Rylander is likely to run, and Attorney General Cornyn might jump in as well.

Sharp is the Democrats’ probable standard-bearer. This is the race that Republican strategists worry about the most. They believe that Sanchez will fall short of defeating Perry, but that the Hispanic voters he brings out will benefit all down-ballot Democrats, especially Sharp—and Sharp could win even if Sanchez doesn’t run.

Attorney General

What will John Cornyn do?
At the moment, it looks as if he will run for reelection, and if he does, he will be hard to beat. He has been involved in several controversies—most notably, his hosting of the Republican Attorneys General Association meeting, an ill-judged love fest with actual and potential corporate targets of lawsuits brought by states. But a down-ballot race doesn’t get much attention in a year when there are lively races for governor and senator, with the result that incumbents usually win them, as Democrats know, since they used to win them. Bucking this trend for the D’s might be Austin mayor Watson or Dallas state representative Steve Wolens. If Cornyn joins the parade of Republicans seeking higher office, state senator David Sibley of Waco, another Hall of Famer, who lost the lieutenant governor’s battle to Ratliff by the vote of one senator, will look at making the race.

Speaker of the House

So, if all the action is in 2002, what is left to do in 2001?
The answer is redistricting—the most politically charged of all legislative issues. The big unknown is whether Speaker Pete Laney, the last high Democratic officeholder in Texas, wants to try for a record sixth term in 2003. If so, Democrats will try to draw the map of House districts to protect as many Democratic incumbents as possible, as well as Laney’s Republican allies.If not, Laney and his most loyal supporters are likely to retire, and Republicans will gobble up their rural districts. Either way, by 2003 the GOP will surely have a majority in the 150-member House (which currently has 78 D’s, 72 R’s); the only question is whether the majority is large enough to unseat Laney and replace him with a Republican—possibly Tom Craddick of Midland, Kim Brimer of Fort Worth, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, or Ed Kuempel of Seguin. If the House plan is favorable for Laney, Governor Perry can be expected to veto it, touching off a big fight that will carry into the 2002 statewide elections. And that’s where we came in.

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