Back in 1988, when all but one big-name Democrat wussed out of running for president—quailing (so to speak) before the political megalith that was George H.W. Bush—media cynics labeled the Democratic field “Gary Hart and the Seven Dwarfs.” For the handful of hardcore political addicts who’ve been paying attention to the Democratic primary campaign for governor next year, it’s been tough not to see this race in similar terms. The biggest news has been all about the prominent Dems who’ve shied away from ultimate combat with either of the formidable-but-flawed Republican nominees, Gov. Rick Perry or Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. State senators Kirk Watson and Leticia Van de Putte teased the faithful for a time and bowed out, probably hoping for balmier political climes when the next governor’s race rolls around. Former Comptroller John Sharp and Houston Mayor Bill White—both well-suited for the governor’s race—have chosen to run for U.S. Senate, gambling on Hutchison not changing her mind and retaining her seat through 2012. So at a time when polls are showing Democrats—generic ones, anyway—in their strongest position statewide since they fell into the habit of losing in the ’90s, the field looks decidedly dwarfish. Only one of the four likely candidates so far, humorist Kinky Friedman, has serious name ID across the state—but not as a politician who deserves to be taken seriously, and certainly not as a Democrat. That leaves two candidates who’ve previously struck out in races farther down the ballot—Hank Gilbert, a feisty, grassrootsy fellow who ran unsuccessfully for Agriculture Commissioner in 2006, and Mark Thompson, who lost a race for Railroad Commissioner in 2008—along with Tom Schieffer, who last held office as a state legislator in the ’70s. And it leaves many Democrats waiting and hoping for former Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle, hardly a statewide political force himself, to jump in.
How deep a hole has the “whiter and brighter” Republican Party dug with Latinos?
As anybody with two brain cells to rub together is well aware, that’s the central question for the future of Texas politics—and judging from a survey conducted in July by the non-partisan Latino Policy Coalition, the GOP’s Latino gap is deeper than even the most optimistic of Democrats imagines. The poll wasn’t Texas-centric, and the sample was small: 1,000 Latinos in 23 states (Texas among them). But the results were resounding. Let us count the ways: Seventy-seven percent rated President Obama—whose struggles attracting Latino voters were much ballyhooed and overhyped in 2008—favorably, against just 17 percent unfavorable. Among leading Republicans, only Mitt Romney scored (slightly) higher favorables than unfavorables, though “no opinion” scored highest of all. Former President George W. Bush, whose performance with Latino voters was bracingly strong in 2004, was viewed favorably by only 26 percent—and unfavorably by 67 percent. Forty-nine percent rated Democrats “much better” for the Latino community; just 8 percent thought Republicans were “much better” for Latinos. When it came to issues, the GOP ratings were every bit as bleak. While 19 percent self-identified as Republicans, only 13 percent said the party would do a better job with the economy than the Dems. More than five times as many (65 percent) said they’d trust Obama with economic issues facing families more than Republicans in Congress (12 percent). If an election for Congress were held on the day they were surveyed, just 19 percent said they would vote Republican, and 55 percent Democratic. Similar margins pertained on immigration, health care, gas prices, education and the environment. As Marisa Trevino writes on her terrific Texas-based blog, Latina Lista, “If the Republican leadership was smart, they would use this survey as a blueprint to rebuilding a connection with the Latino community.” Big “if” there. Trevino helpfully suggests six ways for Republicans to recapture some Latino support (“5. Understand that a whole demographic can’t be continually defiled by party pundits without inflicting insult and injury.”). But Texas GOP leaders seem hell-bent on pandering to anti-immigrant whiteys and driving more and more Latinos away. Even the most powerful Republican who dares to talk publicly about such things as “inclusion,” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, felt compelled to suck up to the wingnuts by casting a meaningless vote against Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation.
Texas Republicans are committing demographic hara-kiri. That much is clear. The only questions are whether they have to start losing statewide elections before they wake up—and whether it’ll be too late when they do.
Based on their wide-ranging views on politics and culture, and their very different history in America, it seems highly unlikely that Latinos will ever form a solid voting bloc to match the overwhelming support that African Americans have shown for Democrats since the civil-rights movement. But Republicans are doing their darndest to make it happen.
The Kay Over Texas ’09 tour, in which our senior U.S. senator announced her long-delayed candidacy for governor in 18 Texas cities, concludes later today in El Paso. So it’s time to take stock, folks. What have we gleaned this week about Hutchison and the likely tenor of her rock-’em, sock-’em showdown with Gov. Rick Perry? Well, among other things: She Moves People At her kick-off rally, Monday morning at her hometown high school in La Marque, Hutchison drew only about 150 fans (counting a host of campaign staffers). If she’d held the event in the science lab on the third floor, it would have been SRO and looked dandy on TV. But in the gym, with row after row of empty bleachers, it seemed a bit sad. And it sent the roadies into panic mode. Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman’s did the week’s single finest reporting job, videotaping staffers’ efforts to concoct the appearance of a throng. “First we were there,” one bemused man told Herman, gesturing, “then we were behind the rope, and then we were behind the podium.” Even in a smaller venue later that day at UT-Austin, the Observer’s Josh Haney reported that folks were being urged to huddle together near the stage. Around the state, Hutchison’s crowds were consistently dinky. But hey: It’s August, right? Offense Beats DefenseHutchison lit out after Perry more aggressively than expected. On her Hollywood-slick announcement-eve video, the gravely announcer’s voice called her “a leader who can end the grandstanding in Austin, who isn’t chasing headlines while Texans are losing jobs.” It’s a smart way to counter Perry’s oh-so-predictable attempt to paint her as a “Washington politician” out of touch with Texans—and to play up the fact that Perry’s always been about politickin’ rather than governin’. Hutchison’s slogan, positioned behind her in camera view, reinforced that message: “Results, not politics.” Can She Lie With a Straight Face? Check! Few political skills are more treasured by strategists and consultants (especially her old pal Karl Rove) than the ability to fib without flinching. Hutchison proved her merits when she launched an indictment of her opponent’s failures in office thusly: “And after ten Perry years, where are we? Property taxes? Highest in the country…” Actually, we’re 16th in property taxes—and 48th in total tax burden. She’s Got a Point Republicans do like to win. Accordingly, perhaps Hutchison’s most promising line of attack was on Perry’s role in narrowing the Republican base in Texas with his wingnut pandering. (Not that she’d ever put it quite that way, since she does a fair amount of it herself.) “As Republicans,” she said, “we can continue down the road of shrinking majorities. Or we can inspire, unite, and grow our party. Build it from the bottom up, and reach out to Texans and say, ‘If you are for limited government, lower taxes and less spending, we want you in the Republican Party, we welcome you and want you to be active in our cause.’ ” Unless you are, say, somebody like Sonia Sotomayor. The Great Ones Need Just One NameCher, Madonna, Mary-Kate, Ashley, Britney, Hillary, Beyonce … and Kay! In keeping with the post-Clinton tradition of women politicians dropping their last names, superstar-style, there wasn’t much “Hutchison” to be seen. The Web site says it all: “Texans for Kay: The Kay Network.” English Are Optional Hutchison’s big opening line: “It is with pride and humility for history that I announce today that I am a candidate for Governor of Texas.” Just what, pray tell, is “humility for history” supposed to mean? Or, for that matter, “pride for history?” If Hutchison decides to ever speak to a non-Fox News reporter, we might find out. Of course, she can never hope to out-duel Perry in a battle of the anti-syntactical. At a press conference this week denouncing health care, the guv was asked about his old/new opponent and firmly established his dominance: “Is Washington got the best answers?” he said. “Or is Texas got the best answers? I happen to think that if you use the other 50 states, or the other 49 states, as a measurement, Texas is doing pretty good.”Old Times Not Forgotten In her kick-off at La Marque High School, which is now majority-minority, Hutchison said she wanted to “help create an education system like I had.” Once again, the Statesman’s Ken Herman nailed it: “Yes, 1961 was a great time to be in Texas public schools—if you were white and didn’t face learning disabilities.” Look Out for Perry’s Merry Pranksters!Intent on ensuring a high-minded debate, Perry staffers and supporters dogged Hutchison around the state with a variety of extremely clever stunts. On Monday, they wore pig noses and handed out Kay Bailout bucks, hauling around a portable billboard proclaiming, “Kay Bailout Express.” At a Tuesday-evening rally in Dallas, a plane hired by Perry’s campaign circled above with a banner reading, “Kay come clean—release your taxes!” Asked about the antics, Perry said, “You don’t want a campaign that’s just going to be boring a drudgery, surely. And the idea that somehow or another there’s not going to be a little humor injected into the campaign. There will probably be people who will do something on me one of these days.” Golly: Do you think?
“We have no vision in this state,” Tom Schieffer said last week at a Democratic lunch in Austin. Hard to argue with that. But talking about having a vision is not the same as having one. And if Schieffer’s got one, he’s keeping it under wraps.The 61-year-old former state representative (in the ’70s) and U.S. ambassador to Australia and Japan (in the George W. Bush administration) looks like the Dem to beat in the gubernatorial primary next March. With state Sen. Kirk Watson declining to join the fray, and Houston Mayor Bill White and former state Comptroller John Sharp gunning for Kay Bailey’s U.S. Senate seat, Schieffer’s looking at a less-than-scary bunch of foes: Kinky Friedman, Mark Thompson (who lost for Railroad Commissioner in 2008) and, possibly, former Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle. Unless White or Sharp switches races, Schieffer’s expected to sail through the Democratic primary—and straight into the headwinds of either Gov. Rick Perry or Hutchison. At least that’s the CW. But I can’t see Schieffer as a shoo-in for the nomination, no matter the opposition. It’s tough to win without a message. It’s even tougher when the rank-and-file of your own party doesn’t trust you. And it was abundantly evident in Austin that some Democrats don’t. That’s mostly because of Schieffer’s long friendship with W., his former partner with the Texas Rangers. Schieffer’s been campaigning for months, but he still hasn’t conjured a satisfactory answer to the inevitable question that reared its ugly head even during his introduction to the Central Texas Democratic Forum. “He has some connections to George W. Bush,” said Austin attorney Chuck Herring, who went on to note that Schieffer voted for W. “every time he ran.” The candidate recovered well enough from that less-than-glowing intro to give a lucid, low-key, mildly humorous talk emphasizing his Democratic roots (his mama was in Ladies for Lyndon; how could Dems doubt him?) and his dedication to nice things like improving education. Then it was back to Bush in a brief, contentious Q&A. “I think your repeated support for George Bush is literally the elephant in the room here,” one Dem said, asking if Schieffer “in retrospect” had “any regrets about it.” Schieffer pretended he didn’t understand the question, rephrasing it thusly: “The question was about George Bush asking me to serve as ambassador.” His interrogator interrupted to point out that, no, in fact, that was not the question. Schieffer snapped back: “Could I go ahead and answer and then you can ask me any follow-up you want to?”Next question: Could Schieffer name three Bush policies or actions that he would repudiate?
“I don’t want to get into the critique of the Bush administration,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I would have done differently if I had been president instead of him.” That ain’t gonna fly. Without establishing some clear, wide political distance between himself and his old pal, Schieffer can talk about his admiration for FDR and JFK and LBJ till he’s blue in the face—and many Dems will still look at him and think: “The friend of my enemy is …” If he sorts out the Bush quandary, Schieffer will still have to grapple with a dearth of what Daddy Bush famously called “the vision thing.” Schieffer seems like a bright fellow, and the few issues he’s emphasized—improving public schools, most notably—give off a moderately progressive vibe that could serve him well. But when it comes to specifics, even on his signature issue, he’s offering weak tea. When an Austin Dem asked him where he’d find the money for educational improvements, Schieffer’s response was enough to give a political consultant the shakes: He eluded the question again, instead talking about his sister being a teacher and suggesting, as a fix, getting together some “smart people, put them at the table…” “That’s not the question,” his questioner pointed out, pressing Schieffer on the money thing. This did not end well, either. “I don’t know where we find the money,” Schieffer finally admitted. Which is enough to make a political consultant take a flying leap off a high balcony. There’s certainly time left for Schieffer to shape up. But the longer it takes him to realize that “Loyal Friend of W.” is not a campaign message designed to stir Democratic hearts—or many independent and Republican hearts, for that matter—the longer his odds will grow.
We might as well get clear about a few things right up front. For starters, why Purple Texas? Because this is about today’s Texas politics. Not the gummint-bashing, pistol-waving, Jesus-praising kind that turned the state beet red in the ’90s and early ’00s. And not the blue-state utopia that so many dreamy Democrats, convinced that demographics are destiny, see when they close their eyes and imagine the future. The subject here will be Texas politics in a time of turmoil and transition. It’s a time when the Republicans’ brief spell of dominance looks doomed—especially as long as the party continues to follow Gov. Rick Perry’s tax-cutting, corporation-loving, whites-only roadmap to irrelevance. It’s a time when Democrats—mostly thanks to the GOP’s spectacular failure to govern effectively—appear to be poised for a gradual-but-steady climb back to the preeminence they enjoyed from Appomattox to Ann Richards. It’s a time when the state cannot be accurately color-coded red or blue. We’re purple, people. And unlike those dreamy Democrats, I believe we’re going to stay that way for quite some time to come. For the next 14 months, I’ll be reporting on, poking fun at, and trying to make sense of Texas’ 2010 campaigns. I’ll post plenty, of course, on the great ugly grudge match between Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. I’ll give you the latest on the special election to fill Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat—a contest that is shaping up to be a fascinating, wide-open free-for-all. I’ll update you on the Democrats’ attempts to retake the state House—and to hold on to the districts where they unseated Republicans in 2008. And I’ll do my damndest to shed some much-needed light on the important statewide races that will be largely ignored by reporters and pundits who just can’t get enough of the Rick and Kay Show.Don’t the wrong idea, now. This will not be yet another blog about horse-race politics. I promise you that I won’t be obsessing over polls and quarterly fundraising reports and inside baseball. You can find that stuff in a billion other places. I mean to keep my eye on the bigger picture: not what’s happening, but what it means. And not just what it means to the futures of Texas Republicans and Texas Democrats, but what it means to regular old, rank-and-file Texans—most of whom, understandably enough, couldn’t care less about party politics.
While the future political drift of Texas is anybody’s guess, one thing’s certain enough: We’re embarking on one of the most unpredictable and entertaining political seasons in a long time. It’s going to be one hell of a ride. So hop aboard and buckle up.