In 2006, the House Democrats took Tom Craddick by surprise. This time, he was ready for them. Craddick adopted the brilliant strategy of taking the fight into the Democratic primary. His Democratic allies, among them Ron Wilson and Sylvester Turner, recruited candidates against Democratic incumbents. Most of the Craddick candidates lost, but Craddick didn’t have to win many to change the dynamics of the speaker’s race. Juan Escobar and Paul Moreno were no match for Tara Rios Ybarra and Marissa Marquez. I met Marquez in December, and I knew Moreno was finished. She was after him and she was intense about it. I knew Escobar was gone when I looked at two things: (1) the population distribution in the district and (2) Rios Ybarra’s photograph on her Web site. Even if Escobar had been a good candidate, he had no chance. The southern end of the district is growing; the north end is not. Anyone who met both of them would have voted for Rios Ybarra. She ran an intelligent race, focusing on Willacy county. Marquez had walked half the district by New Year’s. Another amazing move by Craddick was to back Doro Olivo at the last minute against Ron Reynolds. Olivo was thought to be dead in this race, but the late Republican money got her elected, and now she owes Craddick. Finally, he ran Al Edwards against Borris Miles, and Miles self-destructed. Edwards will surely pledge for Craddick. I don’t know whether the others will or not. It doesn’t matter. Craddick’s success is a signal to the wobbly Republicans that he is on top of his game.

Playing defense, Craddick was able to defend most of his Republicans. Macias almost pulled it out against Miller but lost by 38 votes. The only other glitch was that Fletcher/Dan Patrick beat Van Arsdale. Phil King’s race was never close, despite all the talk (including mine). Betty Brown won comfortably. And the two endangered Craddick D’s in the Valley won. Dukes was never in danger. The effect of this is that the mystique of the Democratic leadership’s ability to punish Craddick D’s is broken. If Rios Ybarra and Marquez and Olivo want to vote for Craddick, they can.

The Democrats had counted upon Craddick being an issue in every race. It didn’t happen. The local media didn’t really latch onto that theme, and the public certainly didn’t. Craddick just told his folks that they didn’t have to say they supported him. Even Dee Margo got away with saying that he hadn’t made up his mind in the speaker’s race. Craddick had terrible numbers in Haggerty’s district, something like 12% favorable and 41% unfavorable, which got driven up into the fifties, but it didn’t matter. All politics is local, and Margo was well known locally for his race against Eliot Shapleigh and for ties to the Bushes. Craddick got a huge boost because Haggerty’s support from Democrats failed to materialize, as the presidential race kept Democrats from crossing over. This kept Parent PAC from being effective. In the end, however, Margo’s victory may be short-lived. Democratic nominee Joe Moody has a good chance to win the general election.

The losers will grouse that they were beaten by big money and dirty campaigning. But everybody knows that Craddick has all the resources he needs, in money and talent. If you aren’t prepared to face that, and work like crazy to overcome it, you don’t belong in the game.

Now the fight over the speaker’s race shifts to the general election. The Democratic turnout numbers ought to scare the Republicans to death (except that Craddick doesn’t scare). The Democrats have some good darkhorse candidates who have a chance to win in transitional districts if their numbers hold. If this turns out to be a Democratic year, they can narrow the gap on the Republicans or even win a majority in the House. But the Texas Democratic primary was more manna for Craddick. The speaker has always believed that he would win some seats thanks to Hillary Clinton, and the result of the voting in Texas was that Clinton broke Obama’s momentum. She got him off his game in the last debate and the likelihood that the Democrats may have a disastrous deadlocked convention is appearing more and more likely. I bet Craddick is making phone calls to unpledged Republicans as you read this.

Tom Craddick is a great politician. A terrible leader, but a great politican.