Can a rich Hispanic save the Democrats? The moment that Texas Democrats came back to life occurred in early July at an Austin fundraiser for the party’s effort to regain control of Congress. Amid the usual chitchat, an electrifying rumor swept through the crowd; said one attendee, you could see it travel through the room, lighting up person after person. The rumor, which soon made the papers, was that A. R. “Tony” Sanchez, the Laredo oilman, banker, lawyer, and University of Texas regent (appointed by George W. Bush), is contemplating a race for governor in 2002. Here are the questions racing through Texas political circles.
Why are Democrats so excited? To be viable, a candidate needs two things: money and votes. The party’s last gubernatorial nominee, Garry Mauro, had neither. Sanchez has both. He’s rich and Hispanic—a political convenience store, quick and easy shopping for everything you need to win an election. He owns the state’s eighteenth-largest gas-producing company and, with his family, is the controlling stockholder in International Bancshares Corporation. He is willing to spend upwards of $15 million of his personal fortune to win the race.
How serious is Sanchez about running? Serious enough to schedule a meeting with Democratic consultant Paul Begala in Washington. But advisers say he will put off his decision until after the November election. In the meantime, he will be looking at polls and making sure everyone is on board, including his family.
Can the Hispanic vote win an election for the Democrats? Maybe. The rule of thumb is that, all other things being equal, Republican statewide candidates start with an eight-point advantage over Democrats, thanks to massive growth in suburban Houston, Dallas, and Austin. The best way—and probably the only way—for Democrats to neutralize the GOP edge is to boost the Hispanic turnout. Democrats believe that they lost down-ballot races for lieutentant governor and comptroller in 1998 because they didn’t have a strong Hispanic candidate on the ticket and just 26 percent of registered Hispanics voted. In 1994, with Attorney General Dan Morales running for reelection, 34 percent voted. In raw numbers, if the turnout in 2002 is similar to that in 1998 (3.7 million), Sanchez would need around 300,000 additional Hispanic voters, all of whom are for him, to counteract the suburbs.
Who would be the stronger Republican opponent for Sanchez, Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry or U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison? A contest between the macho Sanchez and the cheerleader-Breck girl Hutchison would be one for the ages, but it is unlikely to happen unless Perry—who would move up to governor if Bush wins the presidency—has a disastrous legislative session in 2001. Republican leaders will work to cut a deal that avoids a bloody primary fight that could cost $5 million and leave the survivor weakened and the party divided.
What effect would Sanchez have on down-ballot races? Those new Hispanic voters, if they materialize, will probably be voting for most, if not all, of the Democratic ticket. The biggest beneficiary of a Sanchez candidacy could be the rest of the Democratic ticket, especially John Sharp, the former state comptroller, who is expected to try again for lieutenant governor after narrowly losing to Perry in 1998.
What potential problems does Sanchez face? He needs to position himself as a populist to excite Democratic voters and as a Henry Cisneros without the baggage to attract independent voters. But his wealth, his business background, and his support of Bush may turn off some Democrats, and if he overplays the Hispanic card, he may alienate independents. As for the baggage, his business deals in oil and banking will surely come under scrutiny, just as it happened to the last representative of those professions to run for governor: Clayton Williams.
What can the Republicans do to counter the Sanchez candidacy? Two things. First, run a well-known Hispanic for a down-ballot office, possibly lieutenant governor, hoping to divide the ethnic vote. Railroad commissioner Tony Garza and Supreme Court justice Al Gonzales have already surfaced as possibilities. Second, try to portray Sanchez as a loose cannon (as a regent, he was accused in the press of helping to scuttle a proposed design for a new UT art museum) and hope that as loose cannons go, he turns out to be Claytie Williams, not John McCain.