The Bluest Guys In Texas

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Once again, Republicans win: Retiring Texas Senator Phil Gramm, left, celebrates with Senator-elect John Cornyn

You have to be a pretty lame Republican to botch a run for office in Texas. This is, after all, about as Deep in the Heart of Bush country as you can get. Tuesday, with about 45 percent of Texans leaning Republican and the President exhorting his compadres not to let him down, the GOP was all but assured a sweet victory. And a victory it was: despite a spirited challenge from former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, GOP candidate John Cornyn won a seat in the U.S. Senate, replacing the retiring Phil Gramm. In the governor's race, Tony Sanchez — a Laredo businessman who spent an estimated $60 million of his own cash — was thumped by his GOP rival, incumbent Rick Perry. Bush was so confident of winning his home state that in the last few weeks he only stumped here once, the day before the election. Typical Lone Star cockiness? Typical, perhaps, but also warranted: the GOP proved, once again, that it is capable of running on cruise control here.

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It wasn't supposed to have been so easy. Texas Democrats had high hopes, if not for outright victories then at least for close showings that would signal the beginning of a comeback trail. The drubbings suffered by Kirk and Sanchez suggest otherwise, and once again, Democrats seeking statewide offices will have a few more years to ponder what, if anything, they can do to win this elusive state.

As recently as last summer, the Democrats were confident they'd developed a viable strategy. Their ticket, dubbed the "Dream Team," broke multiracial ground in Texas, boasting an African American (Kirk), a Hispanic American (Sanchez) and a Caucasian (John Sharp, who lost in his second bid for lieutenant governor). The idea was to run candidates who reflected Texas's changing demographics, execute a massive get-out-the-vote campaign, galvanize core constituents (blacks and Hispanics), downplay the race card to appeal to Independents and moderate Republicans, hype the candidates' centrist, pro-business leanings — and avoid the "L" word at all costs.

If anyone in Texas was going to pull it off, it was supposed to be Ron Kirk. A voluble, charismatic politician — and Dallas's first black mayor — he positioned himself as a bipartisan, non-ideological deal maker. He said he supported most of the President's agenda (notably on tax-cuts and Iraq) and tried to avoid being seen with liberal bogeymen such as Tom Daschle and Hillary Clinton (though he happily posed for photos with Lloyd Bentsen and Stevie Wonder).

The problem was not in the thinking, but in the doing. Kirk, like many Dems, foundered with money problems. He spent much of the summer fundraising outside the state, since party bigwigs thought that if they brought their big national guns to Texas, he'd suffer by taint of association (don't even think about bringing Al Gore here). For his part, Cornyn, the state attorney general, spent the summer crisscrossing the state and getting his name out. Cornyn avoided playing the race card, but he went negative (one ad charged that Kirk was "too liberal for Texas") in the fall. "Cornyn had a pile more dough and he never deviated from the script," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Texas political newsletter Quorum Report. "Kirk was out of the state way too much."

Kirk and other Democrats were also hurt by a disappointing get-out-the-vote operation. "The Democrats would have had to get increases in voter turnout among hundreds of thousands of people who haven't voted in the past," says Earl Black, a political science professor at Rice University. "It's hard to do that in a mid-term election."

Sizing up the gubernatorial race, Dems figured Tony Sanchez's substantial war chest would catapult him to office, despite his status as a rough-edged political rookie. But despite outspending his opponent by tens of millions, Sanchez failed to energize his core Hispanic constituency and, to make matters worse, got dragged into a nasty spat with Governor Perry. Ads for Perry insinuated that Sanchez ran a Savings & Loan which allegedly laundered money from a Mexican drug cartel (though Sanchez had been cleared by a Federal investigation). And Perry insinuated that Sanchez bore indirect responsibility for the killing of a DEA agent, since, according to a pro-Perry ad, the drug dealer who'd killed the agent had laundered millions of dollars through Sanchez's bank (an allegation that Sanchez staunchly denied). Sanchez, for his part, countered that Perry was an Enron corporate tool (which the Republican denied) and charged that Perry was responsible for soaring home insurance rates.

The allegations seemed to sully Sanchez the most. An independent poll taken a few weeks before Election Day indicated that only 69% of Democrats supported Sanchez. And while going negative may have eroded some support for Perry, it didn't cost him enough swing votes to lose the race. Said Houston housewife Elizabeth Royce, "I was so angry at all the mud slinging, but I am not that informed this year. I didn't take the time to read up on the candidates." Result: she voted Republican straight down the ballot.

Part of the problem was that Democrats couldn't muster the courage to stake out positions that countered Bush's policies on issues like Iraq and tax cuts. If Enron-itis and corporate scandals were going to get traction, it was supposed to be here in Texas, but that didn't happen either. And with a lack of national issues driving the debate, the race came down to Texas pocketbook causes (like solving the home insurance cost crisis). But, as the Democrats learned, convincing voters to switch their votes based on a better approach to lowering premiums is not an easy task.

And so the GOP played up character issues and party loyalty, while Dems parried with a hodgepodge strategy that, in the end, left them in the wilderness once again. "People will vote the way they've always voted unless something about a candidate stands out, and we didn't have that in this election," says Terry Mebane, a 39-year-old financial adviser from Tyler, who voted Republican.

"This race was always a leap of faith for me," Kirk told a crowd of supporters in his concession speech Tuesday night. "I wouldn't change a thing." The same may not be said, however, about Texas's Democratic Party.

With reporting by Deborah Fowler/Houston, Hilary Hylton/Austin and Adam Pitluk/Tyler