Dream Team or Bad Dream?

Democrats sift pre-election portents for the answer

The political electricity got stuck on low voltage as the Texas Dream Team mounted a riser in front of Houston City Hall for a pre-election rally. After suffering through the B-52's "Love Shack" on a tinny amplifier, a small crowd of maybe 200 -- most of them kids or political operatives and officials -- beat their palms and cheered on a sunny Sunday afternoon as one member after another of the statewide Democratic slate took a turn at the mike.

Although the event was supposed to be a showcase for statewide candidates, ubiquitous Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee popped out of nowhere clad in an eye-catching red tunic suit. She beelined to the stage and shoehorned herself so snugly between gubernatorial hopeful Tony Sanchez and lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp that her head appeared to be growing out of their shoulders. In a rare act of restraint, she did not attempt to address the crowd, perhaps mindful of the negative press she garnered recently while upstaging the Queen of Thailand at a Houston dinner.

The rally marked the kickoff of early voting, and what started as a theory co-authored by former Texas comptroller Sharp will soon face the test of the ballot box.

Who's that girl? Congresswoman Lee wedges herself between dream-teamers Sharp (far left) and Sanchez.
Tim Fleck
Who's that girl? Congresswoman Lee wedges herself between dream-teamers Sharp (far left) and Sanchez.

Can a perfectly balanced Democratic ticket -- one appealing to each of the state's major ethnic groups and utilizing the unique assets of the top three candidates -- break the GOP's lock on the Lone Star State?

There are tantalizing portents pointing in both directions. Recent polls indicate a Republican victory, but early balloting figures measure heavy Democratic seismic activity in South Texas and the big cities.

Banker Sanchez may be about as exciting on the stump as cold oatmeal, but the estimated $57 million he contributed to his own campaign is fueling the get-out-the-vote vans and a wave of early balloting in Hispanic strongholds around the state. If nothing else, the TV ad attacks and awkward debates between Sanchez and Governor Rick Perry serve up a reminder that neither measures up in polish or popularity to the predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Mediagenic former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk has performed well in his televised debates with state Attorney General John Cornyn, his opponent in the U.S. Senate race. More important, Kirk has galvanized African-American supporters in the ballot-rich inner cities of Dallas and Houston. Even as a sacrificial lamb, his campaign could tip down ballot races in Harris and Dallas counties to the Dems.

Sharp is running to the right of his two ticket partners, using a political machine built on the patronage of his former state office while putting Republican supporters like baseball great Nolan Ryan on the airwaves to describe him as "conservative." It's a label few Texas Democrats have embraced since the ascendancy of the party's liberal wing paralleled the defection of conservative Dems to the Republicans over the last two decades. Sharp is also blessed with an opponent Republicans love to diss behind his back: martinet Land Commissioner David Dewhurst.

So how will it all sort out?

Recent media reports seized on the relatively low number of newly registered Texas voters with Spanish surnames -- they were up only 170,000 over last year. That was viewed as a sign that both the Sanchez campaign and a registration drive spearheaded by former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros were sputtering. A Dallas Morning News poll showed both Sanchez and Kirk trailing their Republican counterparts by double-digit margins, while Sharp was locked in a dead heat with Dewhurst.

Some experts believe the polls are suspect because of the difficulty in measuring new voters who are expected to be churned up by the first black and brown candidates at the top of a state ticket.

"Minorities are more likely to tell you they are undecided," notes Dr. Richard Murray, director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston. "So the Anglo candidates, who in this case are Republican, probably poll better than they actually run." He points to one survey showing that 11 percent of Texas blacks are undecided in the Kirk-Cornyn race, when in fact the Democrat is likely to get more than 95 percent of that group's ballots.

Early voting figures compiled by the Texas Secretary of State's office offer better tidings for Democrats. Voting is up across the state in heavily Hispanic counties. San Antonio's Bexar County so far (as of October 22) leads the state in the number of in-person early votes, even though it has fewer than half the number of registered voters of Harris County and nearly 400,000 fewer than Dallas County.

Early vote in Harris County communities was up across the board last week, with polling places in Hispanic neighborhoods showing big increases. More people voted in the first two days at Moody Park than in the entire early voting period in the last election, according to observers.

Democratic strategists say the attention accorded the relatively low new voter figures misses the point of the Democratic game plan: to maximize the turnout of previously registered Hispanics and other party constituencies.

"True enough, there haven't been a hell of a lot of Hispanic registrants," admits Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies. "But we decided early on that we had about a million Hispanic registered voters who had never cast a ballot, and that we were a lot better off spending our money trying to get them to vote rather than going and finding people who were not registered but were citizens."

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