You’re Rick Noriega. Do You Approve This Message?
Beating John Cornyn and reclaiming a U.S. Senate seat for the Democrats won’t be easy. It may even be impossible. But there are a couple of things you can do to improve your chances. The first is, Read this memo.
M E M O
To: The Honorable Rick Noriega
From: John Spong
Re: Your campaign for the U.S. Senate
Every two years or so, an assignment comes up for grabs at Texas Monthly that is inevitably greeted by the writers with a resounding chorus of “No thank you!” It’s the Profile of the Statewide Democratic Candidate Who’s Destined to Lose, and know that our reluctance has more to do with the noncompetitive nature of races in the Republican-dominated George W. Bush era of Texas politics than anything about the Democratic candidates themselves. The list of challengers so treated in our pages is not one that will inspire nostalgia in the hearts of your brethren. Garry Mauro. Tony Sanchez. Ron Kirk. Chris Bell. That guy who drove his pickup truck around the state. One of the few we chose not to cover at all was Senate hopeful Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who was nearly doubled up by Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2006. When she failed to mount a serious campaign, the national party and, more significantly, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—the big-money PAC that supports only Senate candidates with a realistic chance of winning—ignored her. And so did we.
But when your campaign against John Cornyn for the U.S. Senate thrust your name into that slot this election cycle, an unfamiliar drama popped up. Sure, Texas is still assumed to be a Republican state. But this race has some variables that have been absent in the past decade. President Bush’s polling numbers show him to be the most unpopular president in the history of polling, perhaps in the history of numbers, and even in Texas his disapproval rating has surpassed his approval rating. Although Cornyn held two statewide offices—Supreme Court justice and attorney general—before winning his Senate seat, in 2002, Texans still know little about him, except that he is the U.S. senator who is closest to Bush. What’s more, your military service in Afghanistan and your work overseeing the miraculously smooth Katrina relief effort at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center give you singular authority to speak to the administration’s most tragic failures. Your stint heading up the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector in Operation Jump Start put you on the front lines of the immigration issue. Your Hispanic surname makes you the potential wake-up call to the sleeping giant Latino vote. And Barack Obama as your party’s presidential nominee is expected to bring out record numbers of blacks and young voters who will hopefully keep “change” in mind as they venture down-ballot. With Democrats around the state whispering about a perfect storm, my editor insisted that this was not the same old story. Then he gave me a list of people to start calling.
Alas, what was whispered in those phone calls was a different c word: “chaos.” You had already been through three campaign managers and two chief fund-raisers. You were spending money hand over fist, but your fund-raising efforts had gone belly-up. Then I spent primary day with you, traveling to various Houston polling places, and saw a campaign stalled at the fork between viability and Radnofsky Land. Here we were in your hometown, your political base, and nobody knew where you were going or how to get there. Your driver got lost more than once. We almost ran out of gas. Your advance team sent you to shake voters’ hands over lunch at an empty soul-food kitchen. Your spokesperson trumpeted the early returns from “Bex”-ar County. Then, at your victory party, at a Houston Heights-area bar—in a development that was in no way your fault but sure seemed to carry poetic import—the cable went out, and no one could watch the election returns. The night’s biggest applause came not when you announced that you’d avoided a runoff â€Šbut when the TVs came back on. It became clear that both campaign and candidate were in a stage that could best be called nascent and that more appropriate than a profile would be some honest advice. That’s what this memo offers.
It’s based on the counsel of a great many politicos, a number of whom are still praying you win. They said it’s still early in the race, that you have time to turn things around. They also said this: The secret to running a successful campaign is no secret at all. A candidate first has to take an accurate read of the political landscape and then concentrate on the three m’s: message, money, and machine. Below are a few thoughts on how to make that happen.
ON THE LANDSCAPE
From the R’s: There is no state redder than Texas, with Republicans enjoying, according to GOP pollster Mike Baselice, a built-in 8 percent buffer. No D has won a statewide election since 1994. No Democratic presidential candidate has made a serious effort here since Mike Dukakis picked Lloyd Bentsen to run with him in 1988. The last time national Democrats gave significant support to a candidate in Texas, in 2002, the DSCC added $4.5 million to the $4.6 million Ron Kirk raised himself. Kirk was the popular former Dallas mayor running against the same John Cornyn whom you challenge now, at a time when Cornyn had neither the advantage of incumbency nor a massive war chest. Kirk lost by twelve points. “Go through the John Madden checklist,” says Baselice. “Linebackers? Cornyn, check. Resources? Cornyn, check. Oh, and the field tilts heavily to one side, so Democrats will have to run uphill all day? Cornyn, check. I see it somewhere between a solid victory and a landslide.”
From the D’s: Texas hasn’t been a red state; it’s been a Bush state. George W. defeated Ann Richards for governor in 1994 as part of the national anti-Clinton, anti-Democratic-Congress Republican rout, but with a specifically Texan payback component for his dad’s presidential reelection loss in ’92. (Memories of Richards’s “born with a silver foot in his mouth” and “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple” slaps at Bush 41 only helped him.) By 1998, with the GOP talking about sending him to the White House, W. had become the Texas brand, and he led the GOP sweep that year, as he did in 2000, 2002 (against the backdrop of 9/11), and 2004 (with the help of the war in Iraq). But his reach was already receding. That year, Democratic state House candidates like Hubert Vo, in Houston, and Mark Strama, in Austin, beat strong incumbents from suburban districts thought to be safely Republican. The trend continued in 2006, and now, in 2008, rather than providing cover, Bush is a heavy stone on a long rope tied around Republicans’ necks. The GOP lost special elections for congressional seats this spring in Chicago, Baton Rouge, and most significantly, northern Mississippi, in a district that Bush had carried by 24 percent in 2004. Those contests took the “wrong track” number—the percentage of people who say the country is heading in the wrong direction, which an ABC News/Washington Post poll put at 82 in early May—out of the realm of the merely theoretical. Now you have a chance to do the same, with the May Rasmussen Reports poll showing that 45 percent of Texans rated Bush’s job performance as poor, while only 39 percent considered it excellent or good.
As for the Hispanic vote: Be realistic here. History has shown that a Hispanic surname alone will not bring Latinos to the polls in greater numbers. Baselice’s research reflects a predictable growth rate in the Hispanic vote of up to 1 percent per election cycle. That will put them near 17 percent, or only one sixth of the electorate, this fall. And as he notes, Hispanics don’t vote in a bloc—that is, they don’t vote monolithically Democratic. Bush courted them and got somewhere north of 40 percent in 2004. Rick Perry did not and got 35 percent in 2006. Cornyn’s been courting them, and before the end of May, he had a long list of endorsements from local officials in South Texas. But he also has a history of flip-flopping on an issue that’s controversial in the Valley: the border fence. (He said he was against it before he voted for it, which was after he pushed a deal with Homeland Security to get the levees in Hidalgo County to count as part of the fence.) According to Baselice, a Republican who gets more than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote will win. But today, with the Republican brand so tarnished, even 30 percent is not guaranteed.
So the math is the math . . . but is it even relevant? The Obama phenomenon is like nothing the experts have ever seen, and none of them have any idea how it will play out. It goes beyond numbers. A stunning 2,875,000 D’s voted in the Texas presidential primary, more than twice the number of the last Democratic presidential primary in which this state mattered: Bill Clinton’s Super Tuesday sweep of Southern states in 1992. But the operative factor is the passion that Obama’s inspiring. “Look at the nearly one million Democrats who returned to caucus,” says consultant James Aldrete, who left your campaign in December and later went to work for Obama. “They caucused for three hours after waiting in line another three hours just to do so. And we had huge numbers at the county conventions too, with twelve-hour fights.” Think back to primary day. Remember all the homemade Obama yard signs and T-shirts we saw while we were driving around Houston? The city looked like the floor of the national convention. So what effect will this outpouring have? Will 90 percent of the black vote turn out? Will 300,000 college students turn out? Are they attracted by his charisma and his ability to give a speech? Or are they drawn by his promise of a new kind of politics? Will they reject the old wedge issues that Obama calls “distractions”? And will a significant portion of them vote the straight Democratic ticket? Even Baselice’s tone changed when the subject of Obama came up. “The new voters Obama brings in are worth looking at,” he said. But then he grew quiet—no numbers, no nothing. Typically, a candidate running on his appeal to new voters, or young or ethnic voters, wouldn’t be given much chance. But Obama is different. Nobody knows the effect he’ll have.
There’s your forest. Here’s your tree. Of course, there are two schools of thought. Austin political consigliere-at-large Bill Miller gives one side. “It’s highly unusual for an incumbent senator to lose in Texas,” he says. (In fact, no incumbent senator from Texas has ever been defeated in a general election.) “And even though Cornyn is close to Bush, he’s still never lost. That’s a good politician. It’s like a pitcher who wins with the Cubs, Pirates, and Yankees.”
Or, just maybe, Cornyn’s more like a decent reliever who doesn’t blow ten-run leads left to him by a once unbeatable starter who’s now thrown out his arm. Fund-raising aside, Cornyn has made this as easy for you as he can. His less-than-80-percent name recognition is poor for a U.S. senator. He owes his ascent to Bush and Karl Rove, and he has kept his name in the news chiefly by carrying their water on judicial appointments and Iraq and by exploiting wedge issues like the same-sex marriage amendment, the “war on Christmas,” and the Terri Schiavo debacle. Despite being a senator from the state with more uninsured children than any other, he sided with Bush against expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. He’s contributed little if anything to the energy debate, besides supporting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but he’s taken huge donations from energy concerns. The only place where he’s put distance between himself and Bush is on immigration. He felt the bipartisan comprehensive plan Bush supported wasn’t tough enough on illegals, so he introduced an amendment that gutted the path to legal status. A New York Times editorial called it “legislative sabotage,” but stronger words were used in the Valley. Let Cornyn explain himself down there.
The thought has been that he would probably ignore you until well into the summer. But then two polls, by Rasmussen and Research 2000, came out in May, showing you just four points behind him, at 47-43 and 48-44, respectively. Granted, the latter was worded in such a way—“Whom would you vote for if the choices were between Rick Noriega, the Democrat, and John Cornyn, the Republican?”—that it was more akin to a generic party-line question than anything else. A subsequent poll by Baselice’s firm had you down a more predictable 49-33, but no matter: Cornyn knows he’s got a fight on his hands. He’ll likely dip into his war chest soon to create a commercial reintroducing himself to voters. And at some point he’ll come after you. He’ll paint you as a liberal, no doubt citing your House vote against the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. (You saw how quickly he reacted to the California Supreme Court ruling in May: within hours.) He’ll also look for a way to turn your military service against you, as Republicans did with former senator Max Cleland, of Georgia, the decorated Vietnam veteran and triple amputee whose patriotism they somehow impugned on the way to defeating him. That’s when you attach yourself to Obama: Those are the politics of the past.
On Your Message
Be your own Huckleberry. You’re a huge movie buff, to the point of copping bad Val Kilmer lines from bad Val Kilmer movies. “I don’t mean to personally disparage John Cornyn,” you told the Texas Observer, “but has he done a good job? If you believe he has, then he’s your Huckleberry.” (See Tombstone.) Here’s your chance to star in your own short biopic. Get a real filmmaker to produce and direct it—maybe fellow Houston boy Wes Anderson. Fill it with family photos and archived news footage. Tell him A Place Called Hope (not Real Genius) is your reference point. And though you don’t have to stick to the following script, I’d invite you not to borrow any lines from Heat.
“My great-grandmother came over with her family at Eagle Pass, where she worked at a laundry that supported a military outpost there. She later found her way to Houston and opened a little grocery store, where she sold tortillas and tacos to raise money for the Guadalupe Church being built nearby.
“She raised my dad, a featherweight Golden Gloves area champion who fudged his age to enlist in the Army after World War II. He served in the 82nd Airborne and the Merchant Marines and then returned to Houston, where he met my mother and went to work for General Electric. We were from that first generation of two-income households.
“I grew up in Houston’s east end Gulfgate neighborhood. For my brother and sister and me it was pure Middle America: Boy Scouts and dancing lessons and Little League baseball. I went to high school at Mount Carmel, with kids from black, Hispanic, Italian, and Czech families. It looked like Texas to me.
“I played shortstop on scholarship at Alvin Community College, and then, in early 1980, during the Iranian hostage crisis, I enlisted in the Army Reserve. I’ll never forget staying up all night ironing my uniform and shining my shoes before advanced-training graduation. I wanted my dad to be proud.
“I graduated from the University of Houston in 1984 and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1990. I was already active in grassroots politics and met my wife, Melissa, at a gathering of U of H alums. We had our first date silk-screening red paint on yard signs for a local political campaign. Our second date was the next night, when we silk-screened the blue paint.
“I first ran for state rep in 1992, at age 34, and the takeaway from that race was that I don’t like to lose. So I went to Austin to work for state senator John Whitmire and then lobbied for Houston Industries. In 1998 I ran for state rep again. This time I won.
“Back then the House had real leaders, like Speaker Pete Laney, who worked hard for all of Texas. But when the Republicans took over in 2003, they replaced concern for the common good with pure party politics. I served as floor whip for the opposition, working to keep us unified as we fought for the regular people that the Republicans were forgetting. At the end of that session, when the Republican leadership tried to force Tom DeLay’s redistricting plan down our throats, I helped organize the more-than-fifty-member exodus to Ardmore, Oklahoma, that prevented Speaker Tom Craddick from completing DeLay’s dirty work on that occasion.
“In the summer of 2004, I deployed with my National Guard unit to Afghanistan, where I was deputy commander at the base camp where the Kabul Military Training Center was located. We called it the Alamo, and I oversaw basic training of the courageous young Afghan army. While I was gone, Melissa filled my House seat and was named Democratic freshman of the year. Shortly after I came home, I answered a call to serve again, when Houston mayor Bill White asked me to head up the Katrina relief effort at the George R. Brown Convention Center. There I saw just what can happen when the federal government doesn’t care about its people.
“I’ve studied democracy my whole life, reading about it and working for it. And I was fortunate enough to be an eyewitness to two events that taught me what it really means. In Afghanistan in October 2004, I saw people waiting for days in the blistering sun to vote, risking their lives for a chance to get that purple ink on their fingers.
“Then, this past spring, I saw similar lines in my own Houston district, at the polls at the elementary school across the street from my house. In previous years, our precinct caucus had totaled six or seven people. This year, one hundred and fifty waited in line for the chance to be heard. It was a scene that played out all over the state.
“This is a special election. Democracy is a special gift. Send me to the U.S. Senate, where I’ll fight for you.”
It’s the economy, stupid. Ann Richards used to joke that she lost to George W. Bush because of his ability to stay on message. “If you said to George, ‘What time is it?’ he would say, ‘We must teach our children to read.’â€Š” Ever since he defeated her, in 1994, the second rule of Texas politics—right behind “Be a conservative”—has been to run as he ran: Find no more than four issues and stick to them. His were education reform, tort reform, welfare reform, and juvenile justice reform. Yours should be the economy, the economy, the economy, and the economy.
I know you’ve preferred to talk about the war and immigration. Of course you’re still going to talk about those issues. But the idea here is to recast them in economic terms. Wouldn’t our economy be better if we hadn’t thrown $600 billion down that spider hole in Iraq? Wouldn’t a reasonable guest-worker program prompt job-seeking immigrants to enter America through the front door, freeing up our Border Patrol to spend its resources hunting down drug smugglers? Doesn’t that make better business sense than building a wall? Cornyn is already on the wrong side of those issues, as well as health care (he enjoys that Cadillac congressional health insurance but voted against expanding health insurance coverage for kids). And where has he been on the mortgage crisis? As always, he’s standing on the far right with Bush, threatening judges and meddling with social issues when he should be tending to the pocketbook issues that matter most to Texans.
You have built a record here. Your biggest accomplishment in the Texas House was passage of the Dream Act, in 2001, which allowed Texas-born children of noncitizens to qualify for in-state college tuition and financial aid. But you didn’t sell that on the morality of removing roadblocks for these kids. You presented it as good business. You talked about getting a return on the $100,000 per student the state had already invested in their education, using numbers supplied by the governor’s office to back up your argument. You made sense, and the Dream Act passed 130-2. Make the same case when you explain the teacher pay raise that you put in the appropriations bill: It’s good business to keep our experienced teachers.
Go back to boot camp. One consultant told me you were on paper (emphasis his) absolutely the best candidate the Dems could send forward right now. To get your message across, you’ve got to be just as good in the flesh, which will require a little bit of polish and a little bit of warmth. “Every state rep can handle a Rotary Club meeting,” says Ross Ramsey, the editor of the political newsletter Texas Weekly. “But Rick’s no longer playing nightclubs—he’s playing arenas.” You need a stump speech you can say backward if you need to and with clarity and passion. And you need to stop orating, as Ramsey describes it, as if you’re telling people to take their medicine. “Rick’s got a wicked sense of humor,” veteran Capitol scribe Dave McNeely told me, “but I haven’t seen that on the trail. He’s got a stiff military bearing that is at odds with the lighter side of who he is.” In other words, you have to stop being Colonel Noriega. “Military people can have trouble presenting themselves as someone you can touch and feel,” says former lieutenant governor and speaker Ben Barnes. “An officer has spent a long time not being touched and felt by enlisted men.” You’ve got to get back some of that good-time quality that made you an effective lobbyist.
You can do that at candidate boot camp. You need to spend a weekend talking to people who know what it takes to win a statewide campaign: how to craft and deliver a speech, how to organize the staff and volunteers, the dos and don’ts and nuts and bolts of politics. Include your kitchen cabinet, maybe a couple of outside consultants, and a couple of hard-nosed trial lawyers. Sit for a cross-examination on the issues with the lawyers; let them get in your face and then get back in theirs. Boil each issue down to the point of your passion, then build a speech around that and get comfortable with it.
When you go back to boot camp, pay close attention when they tell you not to say things like this. When we met in your campaign office on May 7, I asked you about your temper. It’s well-known around the Capitol and has even come up in articles about you, most conspicuously in a Houston Chronicle report on the press conference kicking off your candidacy (“Noriega later grew irritated with reporters who asked repeated questions about his primary campaign, instead of talking about Iraq”).
You started off right in your answer to me, talking about your passion and sincerity and your duty to fight for the people of Texas. But then you went back to the war. “I like to ask the question frequently of the mainstream media: ‘Can you tell me the name of the last Texan that’s been killed?’ I think we owe it to their family to know who they are. Forgive me for that.”
There was only one possible follow-up: Do you know the name of the last Texan killed? “Well, two days ago it was Cunningham,” you said. “This morning I flipped through the Chronicle and saw that another soldier’s name had been released, but it escapes me at the moment.” You were more wrong than you realized. Army first lieutenant Timothy Cunningham, of College Station, was indeed killed on April 23. But in the two weeks between that date and our interview, six more Texans had died. Don’t set yourself up for mistakes like that.
Wear your guayabera. At least when you’re in the Valley. Change may be the deciding factor this election, but look at the two presidential candidates and tell me that authenticity is not the baseline. You remember how Tony Sanchez failed to move the Hispanic vote? That was in part because he was busy shaving off his mustache when he should have been visiting the barrio. You’re already going there. So when you’re there, stress that you’re a prominent player from the generation of Houston Hispanic leaders that produced the city’s first Latino state reps and state senator. You passed legislation creating the East End Management District, which is bringing in new businesses and development and making the whole city proud. The Swift Boaters will likely try to marginalize you as an ethnic candidate no matter what you do. Let them. Your National Guard service was to protect all Americans, and your SCHIP vote was to insure all Texas children. But your strategy to win Texas is to take the Valley and the big urban areas. Autenticidad will work for you there, and it shouldn’t be an obstacle in the better-educated, white-collar counties.
On Your Money
Rob a bank. Then, once you’re certain you’ve made a clean getaway but before you’ve counted your haul, rob another bank. Repeat. The politicos I talked to were all over the board on how much money you’ll need to beat Cornyn, with estimates ranging from $10 million to $30 million. Some said that in a bloodred state like Texas, you’ll have to outraise your opponent. Others said that in an anti-incumbent year like ’08, your money will go further and you won’t need as much. Your campaign manager, Mark Bell, falls into the latter category, arguing that you need 60 percent of what Cornyn raises; by his math, that puts your goal at $10 million. But none of that is even relevant at your current fund-raising pace. During the first quarter of this year, you raised $387,000, not too far off Ron Kirk’s first-quarter total of $428,000 in 2002. Yet while that amount pushed Kirk’s cash-on-hand figure to just under $1.1 million, yours languished at a Radnofskian $329,000. Even more depressing—and telling—is a comparison with Cornyn’s cash on hand for the same quarter this year: nearly $8.7 million.
Time to get on the stick. You’ve made good use of the new netroots model; with the help of deep-blue bloggers like Daily Kos, you’ve pulled in more than $620,000 from more than 6,700 contributors on ActBlue.com, an online donation portal. You’re no Obama, but now that the presidential-primary media storm has abated, some of the attention going to his race will go to yours. Take maximum advantage of it. Look into the phenomenon of “rapid online fundraising events.” Last summer, President Bush attended a fundraiser in Washington State for U.S. representative Dave Reichert. His Democratic challenger, Darcy Burner, saw Bush’s appearance as a chance to raise money for herself and launched a four-day “Burn Bush for Burner” drive on the Web. Her request was simple: Send a message by sending money to me. Over the course of one August weekend, she raised $124,000.
Of course, you can’t neglect the more traditional methods. You’ve already learned how much harder it is to raise money with the federal limit of $2,300 per individual per race. As Kirk laments, “They call it ‘hard money’ for a reason.” So find some good bundlers. Bill Richardson called you on primary day to congratulate you on avoiding a runoff. Call him back and ask him to pull together some New Mexico money. Ring up some Hollywood stars and give them a chance to get behind the first plausible Hispanic senatorial candidate from Texas. Find some young Texpats living off oil and gas royalties in New York. And though the biggest money-raisers in Texas will be giving to the R’s, there are a few rich Democrats you can turn to. Get your erstwhile primary opponent Mikal Watts to throw you a party. He’s a trial lawyer—his kind is one of your natural constituencies—and last summer he raised $1.1 million for the DSCC with one simple soirée in San Antonio. Better yet, lock yourself in a room with Henry Cisneros and don’t let him out until he agrees to help you find $500,000.
And when you fund-raise from this point forward, (a) blare the good news, like those polls showing you within striking distance of Cornyn, so loudly that people wonder what the fuss is about, and (b) do it in person, not on the phone. “People won’t give squat to some kid on the phone,” Kirk says.
When you encounter a rich person who’s interested in helping you, write his name in Magic Marker on the palm of your hand. If that strikes you as less than senatorial, write it on one of your aides’ foreheads. The late-April day that I watched you campaign in Laredo went well—up to a point. On Jay St. John’s radio show that morning, you did a good job of mixing your talking points with reminiscences of your time with the Border Patrol (though I’ll admit my favorite moment came after the interview ended, when St. John told us that he likes to play Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” when he sees Mexicans wading across the Rio Grande through the window of his studio). Then, at breakfast, you spoke eloquently about the history of Laredo and showed your wonky side in discussing primary races in counties all along the border. Later you charmed Belinda Guerra, the CEO of the company that owns one of Laredo’s leading tejano radio stations, into donating a dance hall she owns for a fund-raising pachanga this summer.
Toward the end of the day, we met with Gary Jacobs, the former president and CEO of Laredo National Bank, who has raised huge money for Democratic candidates through the years. The meeting did not go as you’d hoped. Everyone was in agreement on the issues discussed: the ways in which NAFTA had succeeded and failed, the scapegoating of Mexican immigrants, the idiocy of the border fence, and the tragedy of the war in Iraq. You made a great point when Jacobs brought up the global economy. “We’ve seen a China boom and an India boom,” you said. “And I think the next boom is going to be driven by transportation and distribution costs, and for us that means Mexico. We need to start working on policy that gets us ready for that now.” Then Jacobs asked about your campaign. You impressed him by detailing your ActBlue fund-raising, but you blanked when he asked you to name your biggest supporters in El Paso and Dallas. So did your staff. You can’t forget the names of huge supporters when you’re talking to other potentially huge supporters.
When we left, you commented on what the visit had netted: Jacobs’s patio as a party locale, his $2,300 donation, and a look at his phone list of potential donors. Not good enough. What you needed was his promise to twist arms at that party and personally call the people on that list. To get that, you have to ask. The hardest part of fund-raising is closing the deal.
Find a better pitch to the DSCC than “Help!” You have no way of raising all the money you need by yourself, so when you hit your knees each night, you need to be praying that the DSCC decides to match you dollar for dollar. That way, if you get to $5 million by Labor Day, you’ll have a full $10 million and a greatly improved chance at running a respectable race. Expect a hard sell. Texas is a much more expensive place to campaign than other states, as in move-the-decimal-point-one-place-to-the-right more expensive. So why would the DSCC give $5 million to you for an outside chance to win a seat in Texas when that same money could be split between New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Alaska, and Minnesota?
Well, the DSCC’s dream this year is a filibuster-proof majority of at least sixty Democrats in the Senate. So a more worthwhile prayer for you would be that other states’ Senate races go well enough that you become the potential sixtieth D. Then, if you are still polling close enough to Cornyn, you might get your wish. And remember that even if your own numbers aren’t where you want them, there are other measurements that could portend a close race, like how close other Texas D’s are running this fall. If legislative races are surprisingly tight in areas you hope to win, you can argue that the updraft will lift your chances too.
Even failing that, there’s a case to be made that the Hispanic vote is very much in play in Texas. It’s been going roughly two to one for the Democrats in recent years (Bush’s ’04 race being the exception). Don’t let the DSCC jeopardize that crucial part of the Democratic base by allowing the state’s first serious Hispanic candidate for Senate to go underfunded. Remind them also that Texas will be gaining at least three, or possibly four, U.S. House seats in the 2010 redistricting, largely at the expense of Rust Belt Democrats. The party would do well not to provoke the sleeping giant, whether or not it wakes all the way up for this election.
On Your Machine
To quote Donald Rumsfeld: Go to war with the army you have. If Bush is hurting Republican candidates around the country this year, one way he’s still killing Democrats, at least in Texas, is through the lingering effects of fourteen years of Republican domination. “There’s not a lot of institutional knowledge in winning statewide campaigns,” you told me in your office in May. “There aren’t a lot of Vince Lombardis out there. And as Lombardi said, winning becomes a habit, but so does losing. You don’t want to assemble a team with people who are oh and fifteen. Texas Democrats don’t have a very deep bench.”
An adjustment must be made to your metaphor: The bench may not be deep, but the Democrats are itching for a chance to get in the game. Obama and Hillary Clinton may have sucked up all the money ($16.1 million as of late May) and attention in the state so far, but they also set the party on fire. “Rick Noriega could get a huge boom because of that excitement,” says Kirk. “Look at that [presidential] debate in Austin. Democrats haven’t had a pep rally like that in years.” Look also at the support Clinton built in the state, precisely in the areas you need to win. Have your people talk to her people immediately. Some will go to work for Obama, no matter what they told the pollsters back in March and April. But the ones who don’t will have a natural home in your organization.
Also get a copy of your party’s list of caucusers from primary night. That’s nearly a million people who are, by definition, passionate Democratic activists. Reach out to them.
Listen to your wife. Melissa Noriega is one of your campaign’s strongest assets: charming, intelligent, and extremely capable. She now holds an at-large city council seat in Houston. She may have higher name recognition in Harris County than you do. And you shushed her twice in front of me on primary day.
The first time came as we drove between polling places, when I asked how you had selected these particular spots to greet voters. When Melissa started to answer, you interrupted and asked her to cede the floor to Rowland Garza, your deputy campaign manager and field director.
“We’re going where there’s been high turnout historically,” Rowland said, “and places with contested races today that should also see higher turnout. And places that match up with our demographics.”
“What are your demographics?” I said.
“Hispanics, African Americans, and whites,” said Rowland.
“Um, isn’t that kinda everybody?” I said.
Rowland laughed a little, and there was silence. Then Melissa spoke up. “We have what we call the Progressive Dogleg in Houston,” she said, tracing her hand through the air on an imaginary map. “It runs from the Heights and Montrose down through Rice University and South Hampton and then ends in the Braeswood and Meyerland neighborhoods. That’s the area we’re concentrating on today.”
The second time you shushed her was when we were driving to lunch. After the aborted meet and greet at the soul-food kitchen, you decided on a nearby Luby’s. We drove right past it as Melissa pointed out the window at the road we needed to take, and you said you knew how to get there. Five miles later, we turned back around.
Don’t be afraid to let her speak for you—or to listen when she’s speaking to you.
When (if?) Obama comes back to Texas, don’t let him be photographed without you at his side. All other things in your race being equal—and they aren’t—Obama’s the one wild card who could change the whole game. Cling to him (but not bitterly) whenever possible. And if it looks as if he won’t be campaigning down here, do whatever you can to convince him that the state is in play. Cite the conventional wisdom that you can help him win back the Hispanics who voted for Hillary. Tell him that with the spillover support you’ll get from his black, young, and new voters, you can go to the Senate as his most loyal supporter. Tell him you’ll be the John Cornyn to his George W. Bush. Then ask him to make a few fund-raising calls.