The former state comptroller announced his candidacy today. He does not plan to form an exploratory committee but will begin raising money immediately. This will be Sharp’s second bite at the Senate apple. In 1992, when Lloyd Bentsen resigned his seat to become Secretary of the Treasury in the first Clinton Administration, he was one of three prominent candidates to fill the vacancy. The others were Henry Cisneros and Houston congressman Mike Andrews. None of them got the appointment. Revelations of an extra-marital affair ruined Cisneros’s chances. Andrews, as I recall, was unacceptable to organized labor. And Sharp was, and is, pro-life and Richards could not bring herself to appoint a pro-life senator. So she ended up appointing railroad commissioner Bob Krueger, who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Kay Bailey Hutchison. Sharp has run twice for lieutenant governor since then: in 1998 against Rick Perry, and again in 2002 against David Dewhurst. Readers are entitled to know that Sharp thinks that I don’t like him, which is not true. He and I got crosswise because I picked him to lose both races, and he has blamed me for both defeats on the grounds that the predictions made it more difficult for him to raise money. I regard Sharp as a first-rate public servant who, to his misfortune, doesn’t run very good races. In the 1998 race, Sharp had a killer ad against Perry—as I recall, it had a Texas Ranger saying that Perry was soft on crime—and unaccountably took it off the air toward the end of the campaign. I thought Perry would win that race because Bush was at the height of his popularity and I thought the governor would have enough coattails to bring Perry over the finish line. In fact, Bush polled three-quarters of a million votes more than Perry, and Perry barely won, 50.04% to 48.19%. Perry has always resented Karl Rove since that race, because Rove wanted to Bush to carry El Paso, which meant turning out Hispanic voters who would vote for Bush and Sharp. Bush did carry El Paso and used his appeal to Hispanic voters to bolster his presidential candidacy. Others would say, however, that Sharp would have defeated Perry but for a late $1.1 million loan to Perry from James Leininger. Four years later Sharp tried again. This time I was sure he would lose. By 2002, it was hard for Democrats to raise money, and Dewhurst’s resources were unlimited. Dewhurst could start early, establish his name ID and go negative against Sharp, and there would be no way Sharp could catch up. He had to hoard his money until the end, and he couldn’t win. As it turned out, 2002 was the high point for Republicans in Texas. By the next general election campaign, in 2006, Perry was running for reelection as governor, and the Democrats’ fortunes were at a low point. Even so, Sharp might have beaten Perry in a head-to-head race, but Perry shrewdly asked Sharp, a former Aggie buddy of Perry’s, to help him fix the school finance system, which the Texas Supreme Court had declared relied on local property taxes to a degree that made the system unconstitutional. Sharp agreed to head the committee that came up with the new business tax. By giving Perry cover, Sharp infuriated many Democrats, who wanted to blame Perry for the unpopular tax. Sharp has always seemed to be off in his timing. He runs when things are bleak for Democrats and doesn’t run when there is an opening. (Sentences like this one explain why he doesn’t like me.) So here we go again. Sharp is running for a Senate seat which Hutchison will likely vacate around a year from now. Perry will be able to appoint Hutchison’s successor, who will have the advantage of incumbency. The appointee will have to run in a special session two months after the vacancy occurs. This race could draw some people with large bank accounts: Dewhurst again, former Secretary of State Roger Williams, and, on the Democratic side, Houston mayor Bill White, who is term limited in 2009. Sharp’s big shortcoming has been his inability to raise the kind of money he needs for a statewide race. Nobody doubts his ability to do the job. Sharp is gambling that, by starting early, he will be able to raise the money he needs to take on the boys with the fat wallets. I am still skeptical. He could end up in a special election with the likes of Dewhurst, Roger Williams, Michael Williams (the railroad commissioner), and Bill White, and I am only halfway through the list of names known to be interested in the race. Because of his alliance with Perry in 2006, many Democrats do not look upon him with favor. I can’t see him beating Bill White. Sharp is a two-time loser with business-tax and pro-life baggage. Sharp’s best chance is that White will run for governor instead of senator (but why would he do that when a Senate seat is open?). If White decides to retire from electoral politics, then Sharp still faces the obstacle of trying to defeat a well heeled Republican. I do think Sharp has been very savvy about the way he has played the game so far. He has taken his candidacy to Washington, where he can make the case to Senate Democrats that he can win the seat, and depending on the twists and turns of politics in an Obama presidency, deliver the D’s that coveted 60th Senate seat. The national D’s have oodles of money to spend on Senate races. They wouldn’t spend it on Rick Noriega, but they might spend it on Sharp. (The business tax fight is of little interest to national Democrats, though it does loom large with some Texas D’s.) So Sharp might be well financed, for once. The question is whether his name still energizes Texas Democrats. Some, yes. He has always run well among Hispanics. But he has to be counting on Texas turning blue by 2010, and that is not a good bet. Democrats seeking statewide offices ran worse in 2008 than their counterparts did in 2006. Unfortunately for Sharp, he reached the apex of his political career ten years ago, just as the Republicans were reaching their high point in Texas.
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