If you were a Texas Republican strategist in charge of devising the party’s overall strategy in this election, what would worry you the most? The answer is turnout. With the war in Iraq going badly and President Bush’s approval rating at 42% and the Mark Foley scandal still in the news, the concern is that GOP turnout will be lower than usual. Add to these woes Rick Perry’s modest approval rating (44%) and standing in the polls (34%), and the possibility of a dropoff in GOP voting is not far-fetched. The worst-case scenario goes something like this: Republicans are generally thought to have a ten-point advantage over Democrats in party identification. A significant drop in GOP turnout could reduce the Republican advantage by as much as 5 points. That’s not all. Some Republican consultants have noticed that Libertarian candidates are polling better than usual. Maybe this is another sign of disgust with the GOP. So, 5 points lost to turnout, another 3 to 4 lost to Libertarians, and poof! The Republican advantage is about gone.
A low turnout could cause problems for lesser known Republican candidates in down-ballot races for statewide offices–those below U.S. senator and governor–and, further down, for legislative candidates, because of voter tendency to skip some of these races. The trifecta of light turnout, defections to Libertarians, and skipping races might jeopardize lesser known statewide candidates. This is why lieutenant governor David Dewhurst is already airing TV spots, and comptroller candidate Susan Combs will not be far behind. Dewhurst in particular has to be mindful of defections to the Libertarian column among his critics in Houston–stirred up by talk radio host, and soon to be state senator, Dan Patrick–who are unhappy about Dewhurst’s (and Perry’s) role in passing the new business tax to fund property tax reductions. Dewhurst’s Democratic opponent is an Hispanic woman, Maria Alvarado, who could pick up votes of Hispanics who support Rick Perry. The last time I wrote that downballot Republicans face tight races, a reader commented that the Rs would win by 15 points. I’ll take the “under.”
The case against the worst-case scenario is that Texas is not like the rest of the country, for two reasons: (1) President Bush is still popular here. Texas is one of five states in which the president’s approval rating is higher than 50%. (2) The Foley scandal does not seem to be a major issue here. The reason is that the scandal has the most impact in congressional races featuring Republican incumbents on the defensive, but Texas has no such races, thanks to the Tom DeLay-inspired congressional redistricting map. Virtually all Republican incumbents have safe districts. One who doesn’t is Henry Bonilla, whose district was redrawn by a three-judge court this past summer, but Bonilla’s main Democratic opponent, Ciro Rogriguez, doesn’t have the moxie or the money to knock off the incumbent. Only two other congressional races are seriously contested, and Democrats are likely to win both–DeLay’s old seat, in which the Republicans have no candidate on the ballot, just an underfunded write-in campaign for Houston council member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs against Democrat Nick Lampson, and a seat centered around Waco, where Democratic incumbent Chet Edwards has a comfortable lead over Republican Van Taylor.
Some responsibility for what seems to be a lethargic election campaign is due to cutbacks and consolidations in the media. There just aren’t enough bodies covering state politics. Three big-city papers are gone forever (Houston Post, Dallas Times Herald, San Antonio Light), and recent cutbacks at the troubled Dallas Morning News led to the voluntary departure of investigative reporter Pete Slover–a big loss. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News have consolidated their bureaus. Kinky Friedman’s racial remarks have gotten more attention than Rick Perry’s record. Reporters used to go on the road with candidates regularly. This year, the Morning News sent reporters and photographers with the four gubernatorial candidates for one day and was so proud of itself that it introduced the story with an editor’s note. It was a good story, too. They ought to try it more often.
The Democrats’ worst-case scenario is that their hopes for gaining legislative seats will be wiped out by a tidal wave of Republican money in the closing weeks of the campaign. Unlike the GOP scenario, I believe this one is a sure thing. On issues like appraisal caps, school vouchers, and support for public education generally, Tom Craddick did not have a working majority last session. His speakership is safe for now, but Democratic gains could make life very unpleasant for him. Craddick has to protect incumbents Rs and take out some incumbent Ds. The money has already started to roll in–endangered GOP incumbent Toby Goodman, for instance, has received $25,000 from politically active homebuilder Bob Perry, $10,000 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and $10,000 from Craddick’s own Stars Over Texas PAC. It is widely anticipated that James Leininger, who reportedly spent $2.5 million in Republican primary races last spring to help conservative candidates defeat moderate GOP incumbents, will contribute millions more to beat targeted Democrats. This money is most likely to be used for mailings designed to stir up likely Republican voters. Don’t be surprised if the mailings include references to hot-potato plaintiffs lawyer John O’Quinn and his pledge to fund Chris Bell’s gubernatorial race singlehandedly. Hostility to trial lawyers is one issue on which Republicans are united.
Back in the middle of the summer, the people who establish the conventional wisdom were saying that Democrats would pick up at least four legislative seats, and possibly as many as seven. I think it’s more likely that several incumbents in both parties will be defeated, ending in a small gain for one party or the other. And I’m betting it will be the Republicans. They have more money than the Democrats, better organization, superior political talent at the consultant level, and much superior get-out-the-vote techniques. Texas needs two strong political parties, but the Democrats have a long way to go to hold up their end of the deal.