The primary season has become a wistful time for Texas Democrats. Back in the Yellow Dog era, before the Republicans got a foothold, only the Democratic primary mattered. That was before the dawn of the dynasty called Bush. The twenty-year rise of the Texas Republican Party — culminating in the sweep of every single statewide office and control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction – has coincided with the ascendancy of the Bush clan, father and son.
Ever since Ronald Reagan selected Bush the Elder as his 1980 running mate, it’s hard to recall a time when Democrats weren’t dealing with the down-ballot effects of a popular Bush at the top of the ticket: from Bush senior on the presidential tickets from 1980-’92, to George W.’s gubernatorial candidacies in ’94 and ’98. It’s no coincidence that the Democrats’ best years during that span were years with rare Bush-free ballots: 1982, when Mark White, Jim Hightower, Ann Richards, and Garry Mauro first took office; and 1990, when Ann Richards became Governor and Dan Morales Attorney General. Asked to assess the future of the party this primary season, Democrats Garry Mauro and John Sharp agree that the best way – the only way – to bring the Democrats back is to end the Bush dynasty. Not surprisingly, the two men disagree on how to do that: Mauro is managing the Texas campaign of Al Gore; Sharp has taken the helm for Bill Bradley.
Sharp, the former comptroller, and Mauro, former land commissioner, have a history of butting heads that goes back to their days as politically ambitious classmates at Texas A&M. Sharp blames Mauro for the circumstances that led to Sharp’s narrow loss to Rick Perry in the 1998 lieutenant governor’s race. Against the advice of many in his own party (who felt the governor’s race should have been uncontested), Mauro took on a well-funded and well-liked Bush, producing what Sharp has come to call “The Mauro Effect”: because voters focus on the top of the ticket, and because Mauro never got close to Bush in the polls, Democratic turnout was depressed and down-ballot candidates went down with Mauro. If the Dems had left the governor’s line blank, Sharp’s theory goes, then media and voter focus would have been on Sharp’s closely fought contest with Rick Perry.
Also, without an opponent, Bush and his war chest wouldn’t have been a factor in 1998. “You’ve got a man sittin’ over there with $20 million in the bank who’s got to prove that he’s stronger than horseradish … Well, he couldn’t have done that, if he was on the ballot by himself. But instead he just hammered us.” It’s a lesson Sharp said the Republicans learned in 1982, when the Rs ran an underdog named Jim Collins for U.S. Senate against powerful Democratic incumbent Lloyd Bentsen. “Lloyd got mad; they gave him an excuse to spend a bijillion dollars. He uncorked, [then-Lieutenant Governor] Bill Hobby uncorked, and all of a sudden Mark White was elected, Ann Richards was elected, Jim Hightower was elected…. So they learned,” Sharp concluded. “They don’t run people against Democrats when they know they don’t have a chance.”
It was fear of the Mauro Effect that Sharp says kept him away from the Gore campaign. “At the time Bradley got in, there were a whole bunch of us who believed that Gore would have one hell of a time winning, and on top of that, his negatives were so high in Texas – 43 percent, last time I checked. And a lot of us were nervous about what that would do down the ballot. We had just been through it … and we didn’t want the party completely wiped out as it almost was before [in 1998],” he said. This year, down-ballot slots will be crucial for the Democrats, who have made their priority winning back the Senate (by taking Drew Nixon’s former seat in East Texas, the single most crucial race of the season) and keeping Pete Laney in the House Speaker’s chair by maintaining their six-seat majority in the House. Without Laney, the Democrats would lack a champion in the all-important redistricting fight, which will be at the center of the next legislative session.
“I just think it shows how out of touch Sharp is with the majority of Texas Democrats,” Mauro said of Sharp’s support of Bradley. “If you listen to Sharp, and you listen to [Democratic consultant] Peck Young and all that crowd, the number one reason to be with Bill Bradley is you’re repudiating Bill Clinton. And I don’t think most Democrats are ready to repudiate Bill Clinton. Most Texas Democrats, and most Democrats nationally, think Bill Clinton did a very good job the last eight years. They like where the economy is. And considering we had a Republican Congress…. I mean he fought ’em to a standstill.”
No matter who the Democratic nominee is, if Bush is the Republican candidate the national Democratic party is not likely to spend much in Texas this fall. That, more than anything else, is how the Bush family has killed the Texas Democratic Party, according to both Sharp and Mauro. No Democratic presidential candidate has seriously contested Texas since 1976, the last Bush-free ballot. “We may have done it for good reason,” Mauro said, “but your state party can’t survive if during national elections you don’t run any TV [ads] to put forth your party’s ideas.” Sharp estimates that the Republicans have spent $40 million on television advertising since 1980, to the Democrats’ $1 million. “Now if you give me forty to your one, I can convince you that breakfast isn’t good for you,” Sharp said. In 1996, when the Republicans finally ran another Bush-free ballot, Sharp, Mauro, Bob Bullock, and Dan Morales all went to D.C. together to plead with Clinton to run at least some TV in Texas. “We said, man, you can’t just leave us out here … even if y’all don’t think you’re gonna carry Texas,” Sharp said. But to no avail. Mauro said Clinton was receptive but it just wasn’t realistic. Sharp said promises were made but not fulfilled. Both agree that, barring a McCain miracle, it isn’t likely to happen this year, either.
But the prospects for the party in Texas aren’t as grim as they may seem. There was even a silver lining to the drubbing the party took in 1998, Sharp said. “Despite the fact that the top of the ticket got beat worse than any Democrat has ever got beat in the history of the Democratic Party in the State of Texas (nineteen points), two candidates [Sharp and Paul Hobby for Comptroller] still came within one point – made up 18 points – which is unprecedented.” Which strongly suggests that it was Bush and Bush alone that put Rick Perry and company in office. The question they may soon have to answer is: can they do it without him? Sharp likes to point out that among registered voters, there are 632,000 more “probable” (based on demographic profiles) Democrats than Republicans in the state. “I think the dynamics are just moving the wrong way for the Republicans right now and they know it,” Sharp said. “There are Republican consultants running around telling people to get all you can right now because this state ain’t gonna be Republican three or four years from now,” Sharp said. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that they (or their Democratic counterparts, for that matter) would be advising anything other than “Get what you can, right now” under any circumstances, imminent Democratic resurgence or no.
Still, the demographics do look good for the Dems: roughly twenty years from now, two historically Democratic-voting ethnic groups, Hispanics and African Americans, will make up a majority of Texans. You still have to get them to vote, however. The last two off-year elections saw the lowest turnout in Texas history. As Mauro observed, “If Democrats want Democrats to vote – Hispanics, blacks, working people – they gotta be for things that Hispanics, blacks and working people care about. And they gotta talk about that when they run TV ads.” In 1998, Mauro said, he was the only one running those ads; Sharp’s focus was elsewhere.
“I liked the one where he was shaking Bush’s hand,” Mauro said.