IN THE AGE OF OUTSIDER POLITICS, metaphors come cheap. No one knows this better than senatorial candidate Victor Morales, the 46-year-old high school government teacher who will face the formidable Phil Gramm this November. Last spring, in one of the most improbable upsets in Texas political history, the unknown Morales won the Democratic primary by defeating the party favorite, Congressman John Bryant; he did so by traveling more than 60,000 miles across Texas in his dented white pickup, using $8,000 in savings as his campaign fund, and not at all coincidentally, allowing himself to be turned into an icon. The victorious Morales was compared in the press to Cinderella, Don Quixote, Rocky Balboa, and David of Goliath fame, to Forrest Gump and Being There ’s Chauncey Gardiner. He was labeled Señor Smith, as in Señor Smith goes to Washington.
The voters did not seem to mind that Morales was vague about his platform and weak on issues, that a question about rising gas prices could elicit a deer-in-the-headlights stare. They found him “down to earth” and “sincere” and thought it “refreshing” when he confided to one reporter, “I don’t have any formulated plans. What I have are life experiences.” Morales won big points for refusing money from political action committees, for refusing to open a headquarters in Highland Park, for refusing to stand on a phone book to enhance his five-foot-seven-inch frame during a speech. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” Senator Bob Kerrey, of Nebraska, a newfound supporter, gushed to a reporter. Senator John Breaux, of Louisiana, told the media, “He’s the type of candidate that public relations firms dream about. He’s natural and he’s real.”
Such accolades please the candidate, but they also cause his naturally taut jaw to clench even tighter. “Girl, this didn’t happen overnight,” Morales declares, evoking a movie line, as he sometimes does, for emphasis: “We played all the gin joints in town before this happened.” Dark haired and dark eyed, Morales bears little resemblance to any of the fey characters he is often compared to. He is instead an intense, sharply handsome man made more so by a recent sun burnishing received at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Freer and the Fiesta parade in San Antonio. In repose he has the sleepy smile and easy, whazzup manner of a high school hero, but repose is not a position Morales frequently assumes. Picture the best teacher you ever had—the most demanding, the most implacable, the most ferocious—and you will have some inkling of the determination that has propelled his campaign so far. “I’m gonna be myself,” Morales says, eschewing all com-parisons. “I’m gonna show Phil Gramm what a real honest man can be. He’ll have advisers, spin doctors. I’ll just be me. From the heart. If things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to, I don’t care,” he adds, only somewhat disingenuously. “For eight, nine months, I was by myself.”
And now he is not. By succeeding in the classic American role of the man beholden to no one, Victor Morales has created a genuine political ground swell. Ever since his victory over Bryant, the spacious HUD foreclosure Morales shares with his wife and two children in Crandall, an exurb 25 miles southeast of Dallas, has been inundated with $10 and $15 checks from as far away as Minnesota and as near as the west Dallas housing projects (“You are truly making American politics what it was intended to be all along,” one note read). The big checks have arrived from strangers in Florida (“If you can be Quixotic, so can I. Here’s $1,000”) and from more-familiar big-wigs, like San Antonio’s Morris Jaffe. There have been phone calls from state-wide power brokers, the temptations of private jets and ritzy hotel suites, the attention of major media: Morales has been profiled in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Miami Herald and on the Today show, Dateline, and CNN. Perhaps most important, he has sat for the obligatory, underdog-championing portrait in People.
But, with five months to go, success has brought ambivalence to the Morales campaign. The man who declares that “there were no free periods in my class” admits to being a bit weary. He is tired of fighting the press over the requisite “scandal” of this campaign, an ongoing battle with the federal government over his wife’s as yet unpaid 1978 scholarship loan. Like any candidate, he longs for more staff and more money. But unlike other candidates, he can’t have them. A victim of his own iconography, Morales must now maintain one of the most delicate—and certainly most curious—balancing acts of modern politics. The bigger he gets, the more like a typical politician he becomes, and the smaller his chances of victory. The only way Morales can possibly defeat Phil Gramm, one of the toughest, meanest competitors in the country, is to keep his operation small, remain true to the myth that anybody, no matter how inexperienced or naive, has a shot. “They’re tellin’ me stuff I already know,” Morales says of the political experts who are now jockeying for a ride on his tailgate. “‘Stay in the truck, Victor. Stay in the truck.’ And I’m goin’, ‘Duh.’”
THE U.S. SENATE RACE—RIGHT HERE,” VICTOR Morales says proudly, indicating the sunny, spacious kitchen where pots, pans, and snacks have been replaced by stacks of mail, invoices, rubber bands, paper clips, and a torn, finger-smudged calendar. “Victor’s new cell phone number” is scrawled in chalk on a small blackboard, along with a new campaign address, a Mesquite post office box. Tacked to a nearby wall is a map of Texas with Morales’ travels tracked in yellow marker, the work of his eleven-year-old daughter, Julia, and his nine-year-old son, Jesse. Out in the dining room, the table is buried under more correspondence, as is a fax machine (“Somebody sent that to us,” Morales says. “We gotta see how it works”), a video for first-time candidates titled