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Bell Jarred

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The $1 million contribution Chris Bell received from flamboyant plaintiffs lawyer John O’Quinn (with perhaps more to follow) came with some not-so-hidden-charges in the form of a tough response ad from the Perry campaign. Here is the text of the spot, narrated in voice-over mode:

“Just when you thought it was safe, the sharks are back in the water. A scandal-plagued personal injury trial lawyer is funneling millions of dollars to Democrat Christ Bell, one giant Washington liberal. Bell wants to raise your taxes. Rick Perry continues the fight for lower taxes. Chris Bell voted against securing our border from terrorists and drug gangs. Rick Perry is securing our border. Chris Bell, wrong on taxes…weak on security…too liberal for Texas.”

The spot opens with a couple of sharks swimming to the ominous strains of Jaws. The line “one giant Washington liberal” is accompanied by shots from an early Bell ad in which he was depicted as a giant. Perry makes his lone appearance in an outtake from his early spot on border security. This ad should fire up the Republican base, something Perry’s earlier positive spots did not accomplish, but it won’t hurt Bell with Democrats, who don’t have the same allergic reaction to trial lawyers that Republicans do. It could cost Bell some support among independents and undecided voters, but since he didn’t have much support to begin with (19% in the latest Rasmussen poll), and presumably most of that support came from Democrats, the risk was small. But so was the reward. A $1 million contribution will buy around five days of TV time in the major markets. Unless O’Quinn is willing to put more of his considerable stack of chips in play, or can raise the money from other trial lawyers, five days of TV in mid-October will be little noted or long remembered.

Bell surely knew that the Perry campaign would castigate him for taking the contribution. O’Quinn is the juiciest target among the trial lawyers, but the charge “scandal plagued” is a half-truth. In 1998 a Houston jury found him innocent of charges of barratry stemming from an airplane crash lawsuit. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal gleefully reported that O’Quinn’s law firm had been hit with $825,000 in sanctions by a Corpus Christi federal judge in a silicosis lawsuit but–oops–the Journal was wrong. The actual amount was 1% of the reported amount, $8,250, and the Journal published an ungracious retraction.

Let’s assume for a moment that O’Quinn does deliver enough money to allow Bell to remain on TV for the remainder of the campaign. Can he beat Rick Perry? I think the answer is no. There is a difference between Rick Perry’s being beatable, which any candidate with just 34% of the vote surely is, and actually figuring out a way to beat him. Bell needs just over half of the anti-Perry vote to win. There are three ways for him to get it:

(1) Take votes away from Perry. Forget it. Republicans will not vote for Democrats (although the reverse is not true).

(2) Get a big turnout from the Democratic base. Forget that too. The minority vote in the big cities has no reason to turn out. In minority neighborhoods, the Voting Rights Acts requires districts to be drawn so that minorities are all but assured of victory. The only election that matters is the Democratic primary; rarely does the Democratic nominee have a serious Republican opponent. Courthouse races also draw minority voters to the polls, but the party has little going for it in the courthouse races in Harris and Dallas counties. Nor does the statewide ticket help. The only minority candidate is lieutenant governor candidate Maria Alvarado, a political neophyte. There are hot races for county judge, sheriff, and the legislative seat formerly held by Vilma Luna in Nueces County, and a couple of contested legislative races in Bexar County, but that’s not nearly enough to help Bell. Without a substantial minority turnout, a Democrat has no chance.

(3) Take votes away from Strayhorn and Friedman. It’s mathematically possible. The two independents would have to fade to the mid-teens, which isn’t that far-fetched a scenario. You could end up with Bell 36%, Perry 34%, Strayhorn 15%, Friedman 15%. But this outcome presumes that Bell collects all of the leakage from the Strayhorn and Friedman campaigns. Perry would get some of it. And all of this speculation leaves out the advantage Perry has in a battle-tested campaign staff that is of national quality. None of his challengers seem to have any idea of how to run a race against him. How about running a series of ads that start with, “Tired of …?” There’s no shortage of material.

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