Another Democratic primary is behind us and once again North Texas high school teacher Victor Morales has made a strong showing, leading an almost evenly split field of three U.S. Senate candidates and advancing to a runoff with former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk. The clear favorite of the party leadership, Kirk can count on the party’s ample support in the weeks leading up to the April 9 runoff. The strong implication among party officials is that Morales, who has never held public office, is simply not qualified to be in the U.S. Senate. “We have two good men. There is no doubt about that,” San Antonio Congressman Charlie Gonzalez recently told reporters. “But at this point, it’s who can do the job.”
But what does it mean to say that Victor Morales is unqualified? Whatever happened to Texas’ vaunted tradition of citizen legislators? If Morales isn’t qualified because he hasn’t held elected office, party officials will have to explain why Tony Sanchez is qualified to be governor. How does directing a bank and an oil company translate into better experience than working in the fields and teaching high school?
Two days after the primary, 15 of the 17 Democrats in the Texas Congressional delegation announced that they would prefer to work with Kirk. Who would Tom Daschle prefer to work with? He’s the Senate Majority leader, after all. Democratic defections in the Senate recently sank efforts to raise fuel efficiency standards, despite Daschle’s efforts. Those phased-in reductions (for which the technology has been available for years), would have done more than any other single measure to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil–and thus possibly allow us to extricate ourselves from the morass of Middle East politics, or at least be able to participate as a disinterested observer. In one of the most shameful displays of special interest pandering in recent memory, the Senate could not overcome the influence of the auto manufacturers and the oil companies, and the higher standards were killed. Morales said he would have supported the provision. Kirk has said he would not.
From the view of a campaign consultant in an election year, that distinction is virtually meaningless. That may be the hardest thing to stomach about this season’s Democratic primary–it’s so overtly focused on strategy-over-substance this time around. Having Sanchez near the top of the ballot–the first Hispanic gubernatorial nominee!–is a milestone. Think of the implications! Do we hear two Hispanics? No, we do not. Having Morales on the ballot doesn’t add to what consultants are calling the voter turnout “dream ticket”: one Hispanic, one Anglo (John Sharp for Lt. Governor) and one African American–Ron Kirk. Which would you rather have attached to your name: “Best chance of winning in November” or “Best ideas on the issues that matter?”
Certainly there is a great deal at stake: A U.S. Senate race without an incumbent is a rare thing, and the Dems see statewide races in general as their chance to get back on top in Texas. But what are we giving up? And besides, is Morales really “unelectable”? He polled 44 percent against Phil Gramm in 1996, with minimal support from the party. He leads after one round of polling in the current primary, having raised only $10,000 to Kirk’s $1.6 million. How much better could he do with the party behind him? Democratic consultants will have to face the fact that it’s not just Morales’ ethnicity that appeals to voters. It’s the idea that he’s an outsider, something that Kirk, who has become the darling of the Dallas business establishment, manifestly is not. –N.B.