LOUIS DUBOSE Phil Gramm, Clayton Williams, Joe Dial and Dan Quayle lost the same seat a few years ago by failing to respond to negative ads run by Beau Boulter was quick to refute the disinformation before it could stick. It helped that Sarpalius, though considered a bit of an amiable dizzard, had a mud-resistant reputation, because of his Horatio Alger, boys’-ranch history, the contacts he’d cultivated with agricultural interests as a former Future Farmers of America president, his earlier high visibility in the district’s largest city as its state senator, and finally because he had crafted a good record in his first term in Congress. The national Democratic Party, recognizing a swing seat in the conservative Panhandle, chipped in as well: Sarpalius obtained a coveted seat on the Agriculture Committee president of the House freshman class \(a obtained national park status for Lake Meredith, and also had U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen campaigning for him. Not that Sarpalius was afraid to get down and dirty; a week before the election he called a press conference to announce that Waterfield \(who’d campaigned on the usual “send a managed a feedlot into bankruptcy. In the end, Waterfield, despite his own local popularity and significantly more bountiful campaign treasury, never gave voters a reason to reject a popular, conservative incumbent a candidate who was able to turn the tide of negative advertising into an asset for his own campaign. In District 14, which runs from the outskirts of Austin to the Gulf Coast \(Victoria is the names “Greg Laughlin” for “Bill Sarpalius” and “Joe Dial” for “Dick Waterfield.” In both cases, very conservative firstterm Democrats faced even more conservative Republican challengers, financed and supported by Phil Gramm and the national GOP. And both challengers lost for similar reasons. Like Sarpalius, Laughlin had, thanks to smart Democratic Congressional leaders, snared a seat on a committee of importance to his district \(Maritime for Laughlin, Agriculhelp to the district, including beach-development and erosion-control projects. He’d also helped bring the multibillion dollar \(and tics contract to Calhoun County. Laughlin is also said to be quick to respond to constituent concerns \(unless the constituents in question happen to be environmentalists, many of whom supported him in his first campaign when he defeated an incumbent Republican, to the district 40 out of 52 weekends in the preceding year. Gramm also ran a full-scale campaign in the area, appearing at least 30 times since his election, and, in the past year, campaigning with Dial on every visit. But again: Gramm may have been too involved. At the same moment he and Vice President Dan Quayle and Clayton Williams were holding a rally for Dial in Victoria, Laughlin was trumpeting his own vote against the proposed federal budget, whose high gasoline taxes \(among large, mostly rural district. Paradoxically, by running as a self-described “maverick” Democrat, incumbent Laughlin \(like Sarpendent voice while challenger Dial, overwhelmed by Gramm’s pungent personality and the presence of Barbara Bush, Quayle, former Senator John Tower, and several Cabinet members, began to be perceived as part of the Washington establishment, according to local observers. As in the ShineEdwards race, the well-publicized fact that the national Republican Party had dumped the maximum allowable $60,000 into the district contributed to that perception. The Republicans also mis-Dialed in slinging the slime. Gramm tried to link Laughlin to the NEA vote, but the Democrat was able to show he’d consistently voted against funding the arts agency, and Dial was forced to back off the issue. A Dial tough-on-crime strategy foundered against Laughlin’s background as a tough, successful former Harris County prosecutor. And clumsy attempts to link Laughlin to Big Labor bosses in Detroit backfired by galvanizing union get-out-thevote efforts. Once again, tile Republicans failed to give voters a reason to turn out of office a representative who voted his district and took care of his constituency’s concerns. The results of these three close races \(13 other Congressional candidates ran unopposed, and most of the other 11 faced only very conservative areas of Texas, in regions that voted heavily for Gramm and below the state average for Ann Richards, Democrats can still triumph, though perhaps at the expense of Democratic Party principles. \(The burgeoning tax-fairness issue that coincided with the national budget debate might also The party maintained its control of the Texas Congressional delegation, despite the handicap of the widest margin of victory in history for a Republican candidate at the top of the ticket, the largest for a U.S. Senator since Lyndon Johnson’s days. Richards’s and Bob Bullock’s strong showings surely helped, but smart campaign strategy on the part of both, the candidates themselves and the national Democratic Party indicate that the party may be learning the arduous lessons of campaigning in the 1990s. As for Gramm, despite his lack of coattails, his demonstrated ability to extract huge sums of cash from big-money special interests managed to procure him the National Republican Senatorial Committee post, which will provide him a formidable base for his expected 1996 Presidential run. But his demonstrated inability to pull other candidates along with him both this year and in previous election cycles may have severely hampered his grandiose ambitions. \(After the results came in, Gramm tried to pin the blame for his proteges’ losses on Williams, but Congressional races appear above the Governor’s race on the ballot and directly below Gramm’s U.S. Senate concampaign post, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole praised the Texan’s fundraising skills. But when asked whether the new job would help Gramm’s aspirations for higher office, the Kansan replied, “I wouldn’t start learning the words to ‘Hail to the Chief.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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