Parties Make a High-Stakes Texas Stand
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 1998; Page A01
SAN ANTONIOThere is no more vivid symbol of Texas resistance than the Alamo. But for the Texas Democrats who met at the cavernous Alamodome arena over the weekend to prepare for the fall elections, the history of what happened here long ago was an uncomfortable reminder of the stakes in this year's campaigns.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) holds a commanding lead in his bid for a reelection victory that could launch a presidential candidacy in 2000. If the popular governor has political coattails, Democrats could lose every statewide office on the ballot this fall and emerge leaderless and demoralized from the fall campaigns.
"The elections this fall [could] put the Democrats in their weakest position in state politics perhaps ever," said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "I can't recall a situation where the Democrats are more or less conceding the governorship . . . and where they might end up losing all of the major statewide offices if Bush has the big victory it looks like he will."
But the reality is that this fall's elections in Texas may be the most significant in a generation for both parties. Republicans hope to sweep the major races and put themselves in position to control the next round of redistricting, after the 2000 census. If they do, they are confident they can erase the Democratic majority in the House delegation in Washington and install themselves as the dominant party in the state for the foreseeable future.
Democrats say that is the GOP's best-case result. They argue that Bush is popular but his party is seen as too conservative and ideological by a state with many ticket-splitters. They also believe they have a chance to regain control of the state Senate. If they can avoid an across-the-board defeat in the major statewide races, they say, the longer-term trends in the state, particularly the growth in the Hispanic population, provide the elements for a Democratic revival after the turn of the century.
"This is a huge election," said Ed Martin, former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. "If they [Republicans] don't sweep, there's a great chance the pendulum swings back."
That, however, is a Texas-sized "if," given the trends of the past two decades. What has happened here is similar to the pattern in other southern states, where conservative white voters began voting for Republican presidential candidates in the 1960s and the 1970s and gradually have transferred their allegiance to the GOP in state and local offices.
In the past decade, Republicans have taken control of the Texas Railroad Commission, the state supreme court, the criminal appeals court and the state school board. The number of Republicans elected to county offices has increased tenfold in that time although Democrats still hold a large advantage in the county courthouses in part because of their historic though now dwindling strength in rural areas.
Democrats once held a comfortable margin in party identification in Texas; today that advantage goes to the GOP. Republicans have grown as a party with the increase in population, symbolized by the shifting balance in voter turnout in primary elections. Twenty years ago, when Republicans first captured the governor's office, 158,000 people voted in the GOP primary, compared with 1.8 million people who participated in the Democratic primary. In the past two elections, Republican and Democratic primary turnout has been roughly equal.
Republicans have made inroads in conservative east Texas and in rural areas of the state, but the biggest gains have come in the rapidly growing suburban areas, a pattern that continues. "There is no evidence yet that the Republican growth pattern in the suburbs is slowing down," said Karl Rove, chief strategist for Bush.
Democrats also suffer from a lack of strong and attractive leaders. The party that at the beginning of the decade looked to politicians such as former senator Lloyd Bentsen, former governor Ann Richards and former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros now has "no person you point to who you say, 'This is the leader of the party,' " said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.
In the last three contests for the Senate, Democrats nominated a high school teacher with no political experience, a businessman with little political experience and a former House member who had been out of office for nearly two decades.
Rarely have Democrats faced an election so divided and disorganized. Garry Mauro, the Texas land commissioner who is challenging Bush in the governor's race, trails the incumbent by roughly 50 percentage points in the most recent Texas poll. Mauro said the poll is flawed, arguing that Bush's lead is a mere 30 to 35 percentage points.
Key Democrats in Texas led by retiring Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and state Rep. Rob Junell, chairman of the appropriations committee have defected by endorsing Bush. Texas House Speaker Pete Laney has done little to help Mauro, while more than 100 local Democratic elected officials also have endorsed Bush. The Democratic support has enlarged an already lopsided financial advantage for Bush and the Republicans.
The most competitive statewide race in Texas this year is the battle for lieutenant governor, which many experts say is a more powerful constitutional office than governor. Bush needs a Republican to free him to run for president, if he chooses. Democrats see the post as a last line of defense against the GOP tide.
The race pits Texas comptroller John Sharp against Republican agriculture commissioner Rick Perry, a former Democrat who was co-chair of Vice President Gore's 1988 presidential campaign in the state. Sharp, knowing he will need the votes of many Texans who support Bush for governor, refuses to endorse Mauro because he is sure Perry would use it against him. "The reason is real simple," Sharp said. "Perry has absolutely no issues at all and that's the TV spot he wants."
The other bright light for Democrats this year is comptroller candidate Paul Hobby, son of former lieutenant governor William Hobby. He said he supports the Democratic ticket but has steered clear of Mauro as well.
Mauro came on stage at the Alamodome on Saturday to the theme from "Rocky" and as he hurled two red boxing gloves into the audience, shouted, "The fight is on." Then, like Col. William Barret Travis at the Alamo, Mauro tried to draw a line in the sand with Sharp and Hobby, challenging them to embrace his campaign. Neither was in the hall to join Mauro and other candidates on stage in a display of party unity.
The turmoil at the top of the ticket has prompted many Democrats to concentrate on races for the U.S. House and particularly the state legislature. "The most critical effort is to maintain our margin in the state House and to pick up the two seats . . . we need to take control in the state Senate," said Bill White, the outgoing state Democratic chairman.
Republicans have a three-seat advantage in the state Senate but Democrats still hold the majority in the Texas House. Republicans are battling to avoid losing their state Senate majority and they hope to increase their numbers in the state House enough to make it possible for them to capture control in the 2000 elections and, with it, the redistricting process.
White and others argue that Democrats are on the brink of a revival, citing the party's appeal to moderate voters, particularly women, who find the state GOP platform far too conservative. Democrats believe Republican divisions over social issues will intensify in the years ahead, making them an attractive alternative to the GOP. To underscore that, Democrats on Saturday elected a former Republican, Molly Beth Malcolm, as their new state chair.
What offers Democrats the most hope and distinguishes Texas from other southern states is the growing Hispanic population that gave Ann Richards 72 percent of the vote in 1994 against Bush and gave President Clinton 75 percent of the vote in 1996. "This is not rocket science," Polinard said. "The Republicans can read the demographics as well. We're a generation away from being a majority-minority state, with Mexican Americans being the biggest group."
That is why the 1998 elections in Texas are important to both parties. Republicans know they must expand their appeal in the Hispanic community and lock down majorities in the legislature or risk seeing their power begin to slip back. But Democrats face by far the bigger challenge this fall, and some of them fear their party has not yet hit bottom.
At the Alamodome on Saturday, veteran liberal Democrat Jim Mattox, who is running for state attorney general, called on Democrats to put aside their differences this fall or face a bleak future. If the party is not united during the next four months, he said, "We will lose these statewide elections and we will be irrelevant for the next 20 years."
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