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  •   Runaway Governor's Race and Floods Make Voter Turnout Texas-Size Problem

    Campaign '98

    By Gebe Martinez
    LEGI-SLATE News Service
    Wednesday, Oct. 28, 1998

    It's a tough time to be a congressional challenger in Texas.

    As if trying to knock off incumbent lawmakers were not hard enough, candidates have been struggling to get noticed in a mid-term election year in which there is no U.S. Senate race and the outcome of the state's top race is already a foregone conclusion. Republican Gov. George W. Bush was leading his Democratic challenger, Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, by 45 points in a recent poll.

    Voters are bored, cynical, or apathetic. Even worse, some were justifiably more worried about keeping dry during recent Texas flooding than about participating in "early voting," the state's vote-at-the- grocery system that allows ballots to be cast before election day. During the first weekend of flooding, voting booths in one county were forced to close several hours early because of the rising waters.

    Time to despair? Depends on who's talking.

    No way, is the word from the campaign of one Democratic challenger, whose district – extending from Austin to the Gulf Coast – was knee- deep in floodwaters recently. Forget the governor's race, they say. But remember that the hot race for lieutenant governor is more important because it will decide who will replace Bush as governor if he decides to run for president in 2000.

    The lieutenant governor's contest for the most powerful position in the Texas legislature – some would argue it carries more clout within the state than that of governor – pits state Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, a Republican, against state Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat.

    "This congressional district overlaps with a state Senate district that was represented by John Sharp. People love John Sharp and they are going to vote for him in droves," predicted Chris Lippincott, spokesman for Democratic congressional candidate Loy Sneary, who is challenging Republican Rep. Ron Paul. Sneary's campaign, which is trailing Paul's by a significant margin, hopes that translates into a strong showing for Sneary during next Tuesday's balloting.

    The same logic, however, would seem to hurt Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm, who is engaged in a tough re-election fight against Republican Rudy Izzard in a district that contains Perry's home county.

    But it's a different story in Republican-strong Fort Worth, where voters plainly don't care about the election. GOP incumbent Rep. Kay Granger is dialing for voters after hearing from her consultant that "early voting" in her district is the lowest in the state as of Wednesday – and her area did not even get flooded.

    "It's been really discouraging," said Shirley Ferrell, Granger's campaign manager. "You have Kay Granger at the top of the ticket and then you have George W. Bush next, and voters don't see a problem with it. Neither of them are highly contested races," Ferrell said.

    Adding to their worries is the acknowledgment that Texans are known ticket-splitters. The recent "Texas Poll," showed that even though Bush has a commanding lead over Mauro, Republicans are ahead in only two of the six "down-ballot" statewide races, those of Railroad Commissioner and Land Commissioner. The lieutenant governor's race was even in the poll made public last week.

    "Our consultants have indicated to us that it's much more difficult for Republicans when voter turnout is low," Ferrell said.

    Voter turnout in the Lone Star state in mid-term elections has consistently been 50 percent during the last two decades, with early voting making up about one-third of total ballots cast, said Ann McGeehan, a spokeswoman for the Texas Secretary of State. But daily updates on pre-Election Day balloting shows the number of votes cast so far in Dallas County is half what it was in 1994, when there were three million fewer voters statewide. In Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, only 3.2 percent of the voters have shown an interest in the elections so far.

    This year, the overall vote total may fall to 45 percent of the state's 11.5 million registered voters, predicted Royal Masset, a consultant for the Texas GOP.

    "I really think it's just a real turn-off to all of politics," Masset said. "The Clinton thing has made everybody numb."

    The Clinton "thing" – the pending impeachment inquiry against Clinton regarding his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky – has caused a general malaise among voters even though it has not become an issue in the campaigns, Masset said. One exception occurred early this fall, when Izzard called on Clinton to resign.

    Public opinion polls also are showing a large number of voters still undecided, with only a few days before the election, said Harold Cook, the political director for the Texas Democratic Party. "If they haven't decided, they are not going to be ready to vote," Cook said, maintaining that it is not good news for Republicans.

    Though Masset does not think the flooding has had a major impact on the election, Cook disagrees.

    "Any time you have something as major of a problem as widespread flooding, from San Antonio to Austin and all the way to the coast, it's going to affect everything else those people have to deal with in their homes," Cook said.

    There is hope on both sides of the political spectrum that tight contests for local county commissioner or district attorney in some areas will make voters tune into the election, even if the top two state elections do not turn them on.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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