Is Mikal Watts the best challenger the Democrats can put forward against John Cornyn in 2008? Watts has announced the creation of an exploratory committee, which usually means that all the exploring is over with and the candidate intends to run. The case for Watts is that he has made a fortune as a plaintiff’s attorney and can self-fund the race. The case against Watts is that he has made a fortune as a plaintiff’s attorney and can self-fund the race. His candidacy has been hashed out on the Burnt Orange Report blog, where you can find praise of him from one M. Eddie Rodriguez, who is not to be confused with Eddie Rodriguez, the state representative from Austin (although I did so when this item was first posted) as well as the predicable complaints that his Democratic credentials are suspect because he is rich and has contributed to Craddick Democrats and even a Republican or two.

Some may find the suggestion strange that Watts’ wealth could be a detriment, since money is said to be the mother’s milk of politics, but here’s the argument: In 2002, the Ds ran Tony Sanchez at the top of the ticket. He had contributed to Republicans (including George W. Bush) and his immense fortune made it difficult for voters to regard him as a populist champion. The last thing the Democrats need is a candidate who comes across as Sanchez reheated. The second problem for Watts is that he is a trial lawyer, a profession that Reublicans — including Cornyn — have villified for two decades.

But Cornyn has burdens of his own. He has never been a popular figure, and his approval rating continues to linger below 50%. His political career has been guided by Karl Rove, and Cornyn is closely identified with President Bush. Sure, he can score points on the trial lawyer issue, but he will have to defend his own positions on the war in Iraq and on immigration. He currently is pushing a draconian amendment to the immigration bill that is before the Senate, which could hurt him with Hispanic voters. Those issues are likely to be more important in a Senate race than Watts’ profession.

A Democratic strategist I spoke with, who did not want his name to be used, expressed considerable admiration for Watts but still remained skeptical that Cornyn could be defeated. Yes, Cornyn is vulnerable, he said, but that doesn’t mean he can be defeated. He questioned whether the Democrats would be repeating their mistake of 2002, putting forth a major effort when they don’t yet have the numbers to win. His view is that the Democrats have to keep their priorities straight, that the Senate seat in 08 doesn’t matter in the big picture, and the big picture is that the 2010 election will be make or break for any Democratic resurgence. He thinks Watts would be a great candidate for attorney general. If he runs for the Senate and loses, he could hurt Democrats downballot and cost his party some of the momentum it gained in the 06 elections.

My feeling is, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Either the Democrats are going to contest this state or they’re going to default again. They made the mistake in 2006 of not believing that they could win, and they missed a chance to win at least three or four more legislative seats. They can’t just sit there and let the likes of Gene Kelly be their standardbearer.