The Obama Effect

photo by Jen Reel

For weeks Texas’ political class has been abuzz about President Barack Obama’s planned visit to the Lone Star State. How would a visit from an unpopular president in a conservative stronghold impact statewide races? Could Republicans take advantage of it? Should Democrats avoid Obama? Was Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White’s plan to avoid the president a wise one?

But after Obama swept through Austin and Dallas yesterday—having raised more than $600,000 for the Democratic Party—it seems his visit didn’t have quite the political reverberations many pundits expected. Plenty of people came out to cheer or protest Obama (and/or the federal government, tyranny and socialism). But the day’s events probably will have little impact on state politics.

As the president landed in Austin and found Gov. Rick Perry ready to greet him on the tarmac, people gathered along the road into downtown, waiting in the heat to cheer the motorcade. “Fired up! Ready to go!” the crowd chanted, as people waved at oncoming traffic. Among the many posters welcoming Obama, it was hard to spot a single sign for any Texas Democrats. There was only one visible Bill White sign, held by Lydia Lopez. Despite politicos chattering about it for weeks beforehand, Lopez said she’d just heard about White’s planned absence from the Obama event the night before. “I was kind of disappointed,” she sighed. “This doesn’t deter me from voting for him.” Many other people along the road had no idea that most statewide Democratic candidates wouldn’t be around to greet Obama.

In fact, when the president arrived at the Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Four Season’s, the only statewide Democratic candidate in sight was aspiring lieutenant governor Linda Chavez-Thompson. (Unless, of course, you count Ron Kirk, who ran for the U.S. Senate eight years ago, and is now the U.S. Trade Representative.)

Chavez-Thompson, a former vice chair of the DNC, introduced Obama at the fund-raiser. The press made much ado that no other Democratic statewide candidates appeared with the president. The national media declared that Texas Democrats were avoiding Obama. As it turned out, the Democratic candidates hadn’t been invited. The goal of the event was to raise money, not showcase the statewide candidates, Democratic sources said. “I wasn’t invited and did not ask to attend,” said Barbara Ann Radnofsky, the party’s candidate for state attorney general. But even if she had been invited, Radnofsky wasn’t sure she wanted to attend. She’s not pleased that Obama hasn’t taken on Wall Street more forcefully. “Since that is the issue in my campaign—the key issue—I didn’t see how [attending] would benefit the campaign or advance getting this Democrat elected.”

There were quite a few elected Democrats who turned out for the president’s speech on the University of Texas campus, including a variety of state legislators and city officials. Among the largely Democratic crowd, there was one Republican: state Rep. Dan Branch, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, and likely came based on the President’s chosen topic—getting more students to finish college.

But many of his Republican colleagues chose instead to attend a different Austin event—the Hands Off Texas rally later in the day at the Capitol. The crowd of roughly 400 people was enthusiastic, but ornery. “We are not racists. We don’t like the white half either!” read one sign.

The rally, like almost everything else yesterday, focused almost entirely on national politics. “Today it’s good to be among hundreds of liberty-loving, God-fearing, gun-owning, property-right-defending, socialism-hating, oil-and-gas-drilling fellow Texans who are better for it, not bitter about it!” said the irrepressible Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. The crowd went wild.

But some in the audience apparently didn’t recognize their land commissioner when they saw him. When David Porter, the GOP candidate for Railroad Commission, began to speak, two women squinted, “Is that the land commissioner?” one said. “Yup,” replied her friend, “not sure who the other guy was.”

In his speech, Porter made the mistake of trying to discuss policy. “I am a proponent of common sense regulations,” he said, emphasizing the need for drilling safety. The applause was rather lackluster.

Perhaps realizing his mistake, Porter quickly retreated to the rhetorical red meat. He said Obama’s moratorium on offshore drilling is a “tyrannical attempt to destroy the free market … Tell Obama and his goons, keep your hands off Texas!” he shouted. This time, the crowd went wild.

Additional writing and reporting by Dave Mann.

Published at 7:13 pm CST