Because of an editing error, a report Aug. 1 about a runoff election in the 1st Congressional District in Texas attributed to Republican candidate Edd Hargett a statement calling the Democrats' emphasis on the foreign trade deficit "a kind of sucker punch." The statement was made by a Hargett strategist.
More than 300 voters, including lots of good ol' boys in bib overalls, came here this week to eat catfish and meet Republican candidate Edd Hargett. That suggests why tomorrow's special congressional election pushes party realignment another step closer.
Nearly all present were Democrats. Members of the party's elite in Red River County were there wearing Hargett buttons. Some confessed plans to vote against Hargett's Democratic foe, ex-district attorney Jim Chapman. Yet, this is one of the most solid Yellow Dog Democratic counties in congenitally Democratic East Texas.
Whether or not the six-percentage- point Hargett lead shown by his polls holds up, the election exposes what ails the Democratic Pary all over the South. The party's national policies, personalities and alliance with organized labor are poison in the First Congressional District, which sits on the brink of realignment.
That prospect is downgraded by local Democratic politicians, who see the election as one very complicated accident. Hargett, 37, is a dimly remembered Texas A&M football hero and ex-professional journeyman quarterback who spent the past 10 years as a rural electrification engineer and voted in the Democratic primary only last year. Had the Republicans not handpicked him and then poured in over $1 million, he would not be a serious challenger.
What's more, Chapman, 39, might be the only Democrat Hargett could beat in the runoff. He carries baggage from his losing 1984 primary against conservative State Sen. Ed Howard (labeled by Chapman the "lapdog" of the utilities). Conservative Democrats backing Hargett admit they consider him "untested," but abhor Chapman.
However, to stress the accidental nature of this election is to miss political reality in Texas: the labor-backed Jim Chapmans increasingly will emerge from Democratic primaries to face hand-tooled Republicans such as Edd Hargett. Like Chapman, these Democratic nominees will count on help from the national party and labor, but cannot acknowledge it.
Thus, at the Cuthand fish fry, Hargett talked about pro-Chapman "mailouts from the union leaders" and accused his opponent of "trying to hide where his support is coming from." That followed strategy laid down by Washington-based political consultant Lee Atwater, deputy manager of the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign, who leads an "A-Team" of paid professional GOP talent holed up in Texarkana running the Hargett operation.
This week's final TV spot by New York-based Roger Ailes assails Chapman for not owning up to labor help. The parting appeal to conservative Democrats: "This election isn't about party. It's about integrity."
Chapman has informed unions, he told us, "I don't need your endorsements" but that he would have no objection "if you want to send money." In fact, the United Auto Workers and local AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils have fired off "Dear Brothers and Sisters" letters soliciting votes for Chapman.
Such support signals that Democratic-labor strategists fighting rement have given Chapman a free pass to support the balanced-budget amendment, school prayer and aid to Nicaraguan contras. In a debate with Hargett, Chapman even declined to say how he voted for president in 1984.
Chapman's issues feature warnings that Hargett will cut Social Security and acquiesce in foreign imports. But the main issue, he tells interviewers, is that "he's (Hargett) a Republican, I'm a Democrat." Indeed, nowhere in the Hargett campaign is the word Republican mentioned.
Yet, dilution of Democratic loyalty in low-income, high-unemployment East Texas is palpable. Drew Pirtle, a Red River County commissioner who showed up at Cuthand wearing a Hargett button, told us the only reason he stays a Democrat is local politics. That was essentially the same reason given by former state representative Hamp Atkinson of Texarkana, who actively supports Hargett but may run for county judge in next year's Democratic primary.
Democratic loyalists are determined to punish Atkinson in that primary. If they succeed in forcing the Atkinsons into the GOP and presage Chapman-Hargett contests at the county level, party realigment truly will be in view.