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.
Rick Noriega
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

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  but 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,

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