The one-vote Senate difference could make Kirk a top target for GOP guns.
The one-vote Senate difference could make Kirk a top target for GOP guns.
Peter Calvin

Over the Rainbow

It wasn't easy for Texas Democratic Party leaders to design a rainbow dance card for next November's statewide elections, but the last partner fell into place neatly last week. With a convincing 60-40 margin, Senate nominee and former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk sent Victor Morales grousing into the night -- the cranky Crandall schoolteacher's pickup-truck tour of Texas politics finally ran out of gas.

Now the party theoreticians have their newfangled, three-winged political contraption piloted by African-American Kirk, Hispanic gubernatorial hopeful Tony Sanchez and Anglo John Sharp, former state controller and lieutenant governor wannabe. But it will have to fly against the gale-force onslaught of Republican dollars and the expected campaign assistance of President and former governor George W. Bush.

It's diversity deluxe versus the GOP's triple ivory-white towers of Governor Rick Perry, Attorney General John Cornyn seeking the Senate, and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst running for lieutenant governor.

The theory behind the dream-team strategy is fairly straightforward: use native son candidacies to increase turnout among blacks and Hispanics, who traditionally favor Democrats. They hope that will be enough to balance the party deficit among Anglos and win a slim majority for the statewide ticket. The million-dollar question awaiting an answer next fall is whether there are enough minority voters to tip the scale to the Democrats.

Start with the hard numbers. There are 12.2 million registered Texas voters, out of a population that the 2000 census put at 20.8 million. That census tallied the ethnic breakdown as 52.4 Anglo of non-Latino descent, 32 percent Hispanic and 11.5 percent African-American. The numbers don't add up to 100 because of an overlap in the categories.

The percentage of Hispanic adults eligible to vote is less than the other segments because of the sizable number of Latino noncitizens. Voter registration data doesn't include ethnicity, so the actual makeup of the electorate has to be surmised by perusing tea-leaf surveys, polls and past election results.

Of the total number of registered voters, experts advise shaving off a million or so as ineligible due to death, duplication on the rolls, or relocation. Then consider that turnout rarely exceeds 50 percent even in a high-intensity presidential election year, and the pool of votes to be contested shrinks to little more than six million.

Dr. Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy, sketches out the formula Democrats will need to produce a victory.

"Potentially, you might be able to get the Hispanic registration and participation up to around 20 percent of the total state vote," says Murray. Roughly 65 percent of the Hispanic vote went to Democrats in past elections, but with Sanchez as a beacon Murray figures 85 percent is a feasible goal.

"That would be a record and would result from Sanchez not only getting more Hispanics registered but getting them to vote in larger numbers," he explains. African-Americans, who give Democrats more than 90 percent of their votes, can be expected to rally around Kirk and produce 10 to 12 percent of the statewide total.

With Asians splitting about 2 percent between parties, that leaves the Anglo percentage of the total vote in the high 60s. Democratic candidates must take at least 35 percent of the Anglo vote to have a chance to win.

"That's minimal with very good minority participation," notes Murray. "It gets into the higher 30s if the boost from Hispanics is not so strong."

The best recent performance by a statewide Democratic candidate was Houstonian Paul Hobby in his 1998 race against Carol Rylander for state comptroller. Hobby lost by only 20,000 votes out of 3.7 million cast. Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies, who was Hobby's 1998 campaign consultant, has no doubt about the outcome if Hobby had a dream team to run with in that election.

"If you crank up Hispanic turnout by just 5 or 6 percent more than they turned out in 1998, and assume their loyalty factor is no better than it ordinarily is, then Paul Hobby is controller," says McClung. "Just that one thing would change the dynamic."

Hobby himself is more than willing to surrender the title of best Democratic performer to the current crop of candidates.

"This is an absolutely great ticket," says the attorney and businessman. "If it doesn't drive turnout, it's hard to know what will. Obviously any incremental minority turnout in 1998 would have changed the result in my race."

The irony of the dream team is that the main impact of the history-making candidacies of Kirk and Sanchez could be enabling the Anglo to win while they go down in defeat.

Austin political consultant and lobbyist Bill Miller of HillCo Partners figures the top of the ticket is the toughest for the Democrats.

"You've got a Texas president and a one-vote difference in the Senate," says Miller. "There's no bigger priority for Republicans for reasons of politics and reasons of prestige. They are going to pour it on, and that makes it real difficult for Ron Kirk to get untracked."

Houston Democratic consultant George Strong expects racial factors to hurt Kirk more than Sanchez, particularly among upper- and middle-income Anglo ticket splitters and independents.

"You can't poll very accurately, because people aren't going to tell you over the phone they're not going to vote for someone because he's black," explains Strong, who saw the same phenomenon in the Houston mayoral race. "They don't want to admit it, so they'll say they're undecided. We found that with Lee Brown big-time."

Miller believes the candidacy of Sanchez is crucial to Democratic hopes, even if he doesn't win.

"He's got to get competitive early and remain that way throughout the process," opines Miller. "If he starts to fade, it hurts Sharp a lot, and Kirk Watson for attorney general, and down the line."

The scenario is particularly favorable to Sharp, a savvy politician. He lost the 1998 lieutenant governor race to Perry by only 70,000 votes and carried his opponent's home county.

"With his ethnic front covered, you figure Sharp can really make hay in rural and small-town areas," says Murray. "And now he won't get beat in the big cities precisely because the minority vote will offset the suburban Republicans."

"Sharp right now is positioned perfectly," agrees Miller. "Many people credit him with the vision of this ticket, and it's a smart vision whether it's his or not, a perfect confluence of his personal interest and the party's interest."

Miller says Sharp has been impressive by reaching out to Republicans and attracting supporters like former Astros great Nolan Ryan. "He's running like a Republican and appearing as moderate as possible. And that's a very good strategy for him. That's a winning strategy." Miller cautions that Sharp will be badly outspent by Dewhurst and could be vulnerable to an intensive negative media campaign over the summer.

The consultant says, "The whole game for the Democrats is the first four slots. Below that it's just not going to happen."

However the dream-team strategy plays out, Texan political junkies are guaranteed an upcoming political season as competitive and entertaining as anything the state's gridiron powers can field in the fall.

Close to You

When the TV cameras focused on Chris Bell for his Democratic primary victory speech at Ovations in the Rice Village last week, practically joined at his hip was City Controller Sylvia Garcia, the party's Precinct 2 commissioner nominee. Garcia proceeded to soak up the limelight as Bell lieutenant Jeff Steen and then the candidate himself waded through a lengthy list of thank-yous to politicians who had endorsed Bell in the 25th Congressional District race.

Garcia's name never came up -- she had previously declined to give Bell a thumbs-up in his rough-and-tumble campaign against City Councilman Carroll Robinson. The omission seemed to have no effect, as Garcia continued to smile and applaud.

Bell denies he intentionally snubbed Garcia, saying he understood her decision against making an endorsement. He says he expects to work closely with her as a fellow Democrat on the November ballot.

Several Bell supporters were not so understanding, making snide asides afterward about Garcia's alleged stage-hogging, and the fact Bell's wife, Alison, had to practically squeeze herself into the picture with Bell and the controller.

"Let's just call her 'static cling,' " hissed one. It was a bit reminiscent of runoff night in the mayoral election last December. Garcia had irritated mayoral supporters by waiting so late to endorse Mayor Lee Brown over Orlando Sanchez that it had little effect on the outcome. But she was similarly omnipresent at Brown's side during the victory celebration.


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