Democrats see party's future in Texas vote

Latino, black candidates top ticket with an eye on changing demographics

October 28, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DALLAS - The future of the Democratic Party is getting road-tested this fall in the biggest Republican state in the country. It's been a bumpy ride.

With a week to go, Republicans hold a considerable lead in Texas' gubernatorial and Senate contests, according to the latest statewide polls. It would take a huge turnout by black and Hispanic voters to erase that advantage, something few here are predicting.

Democrats had hoped to end the GOP monopoly on major offices in President Bush's home state by promoting their unusually diverse ticket - headed by a wealthy Latino candidate for governor and a pro-business black nominee for Senate.

"We're just trying to reinvent a Democratic Party," said Dan McClung, a Democratic consultant who is part of a posse of hired guns trying to round up voters, especially newly registered Hispanics, at the polls.

The reinvention experiment is being closely watched by strategists in both parties, who regard the nation's fast-growing Hispanic population as key to their future success. But as the campaign draws to a close, it appears the best hope for Texas Democrats is to regain some lower-level statewide offices.

In the governor's race, Republican incumbent Rick Perry, the former lieutenant governor who took office in 2000 when Bush resigned to become president, holds a double-digit edge over Democratic oilman and banker Tony Sanchez, the first Hispanic nominee for governor of Texas.

Sanchez, a novice candidate whose previous political experience was limited to giving campaign cash to others - including hundreds of thousands to Bush - may sink as much as $70 million of his personal fortune into his own campaign. If he loses, he could set a record - for futility - spending more of his money in a failed effort than any previous candidate.

"Never in the history of American politics has a candidate spent so much and said so little," said Perry, who has kept Sanchez on the defensive over allegations that a savings and loan he owned was used to launder Mexican drug money in the early 1980s. The challenger, whose thrift institution was never prosecuted in the case, has tried to refute the charges, branding the governor "a liar" for his latest attack ad, which links Sanchez to the death of a federal drug agent.

In the race for the seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Phil Gramm, Republican Attorney General John Cornyn leads Ron Kirk, the first black nominee for Senate in Texas, by about 10 percentage points. Both sides say the final result could be closer, with control of the Senate potentially at stake.

Campaigning in tandem

To spur minority turnout, the Democratic "Dream Ticket," as it has been dubbed, has campaigned in tandem, including a tour last week through the Rio Grande valley, the predominantly Mexican-American region along the Mexican border.

"We've never really had anything like this in Texas, and it may be a harbinger of things to come," said David Hill, a GOP pollster who advises Cornyn.

Even with a heavy black and Latino vote, a Democrat still needs to get almost one of every three white votes to win statewide. "That's a tough sell for either a black or a Hispanic candidate," said McClung, a veteran of campaigns in this conservative state.

Republicans are clinging tightly to Bush, who has led an all-out effort to avoid an embarrassing defeat on his home turf. He has raised millions for the Texas campaign, is being featured prominently in campaign commercials and is expected to make an election-eve appearance to fire up GOP voters.

But the contest is as much about the future as the present: Changing demographics will soon make Latinos, blacks and other minority groups a majority of the population in the nation's second-largest state.

Even if Democrats lose the Senate and gubernatorial contests next month, "by putting an African-American and Mexican-American at the top of the ticket, that's going to lock in the minority vote for the Democrats for another decade, if not longer," said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Democratic Party theorists have long argued that their national party's return to majority status would require capitalizing on the growing voting strength of ethnic and racial minorities, while at the same time crafting a centrist message that appeals to the whites who hold the balance of power on Election Day.

This fall's campaign in Texas shows how difficult it is to put those ideas into practice.

Kirk, a former two-term Dallas mayor, has borrowed the centerpiece of his rather fuzzy campaign message directly from Bush's presidential drive.

The 48-year-old lawyer calls himself a common-sense candidate who wants to end Washington's partisan bickering. "When I first stepped into City Hall, I thought I was stepping into the TV series Dallas," he said in a good-natured TV debate the other night. "But by putting politics aside, we started working together."

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