Recent years have brought two certainties to the Texas summer: intense heat, and speculation that the long-delayed comeback of the state Democratic party is just around the corner.
The Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in the Lone Star State since 1994; what’s more, they’ve had a candidate break 46 percent in a statewide race only once in that time. Every two years, some promising local official is promoted as the shining lone star who will lead the party back to victory: former Houston mayor Bill White; former Texas land commissioner Garry Mauro; high-school teacher Victor Morales, driving across the state in his truck. Each time, the candidate has fallen well short of the party’s hopes.
This year, the Democrats think they finally have their man, and on paper, retired lieutenant general Ricardo Sanchez brings more to the table than the average politician: rising from humble roots, Sanchez was one of the top ROTC students in the nation, became a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne, led his mechanized brigade to Basra in Desert Storm, was promoted to director of operations of the U.S. Southern Command, and, of course, became commander of Coalition Ground Forces in Iraq in 2003. While he led the military effort, Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed and Saddam Hussein was captured. (Of course, some of the Democratic senators who are hailing Sanchez as a candidate now were among those furiously denouncing him during the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.)
Sanchez’s bid for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison triggered the familiar comeback headlines: Time asked, “Could Ricardo Sanchez Lead a Democratic Revival in Texas?” “Democrats believe his military background and Hispanic heritage give them a fighting chance to compete in a state where they have badly struggled,” wrote Josh Kraushaar of National Journal.
VoteVets.org, the “nonpartisan” organization that has backed two Republicans and 46 Democrats for national office in its history, and that compared Sen. Pat Toomey to Iranian ruler Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is enthusiastically touting Sanchez, calling him “one of our military’s finest minds.”
Despite all the fanfare, Sanchez has stumbled coming out of the gate, and the quiet debut doesn’t offer many signs that he’ll be the man to turn around Texas Democrats’ fortunes. His fundraising is pretty weak, considering the costs of running in Texas; in his first quarter as candidate, he raised about $160,000. (In the 2008 cycle, incumbent Republican senator John Cornyn raised $19.3 million and spent $18.9 million.) By contrast, on the Republican side, former state solicitor general Ted Cruz raised about $800,000 in his first quarter and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is putting more than $2 million of his own money into his campaign coffers. In Sanchez’s first quarterly report with the FEC, $9,000 of the $11,657 he spent in the quarter was to Integrity, a St. Louis tech company, for “website” expenses.
So far, Sanchez’s online effort is a nonentity, at least compared to those of his Republican rivals: 576 people like Sanchez’s Facebook page; for Ted Cruz, the total is 61,739. Sanchez has a Twitter account with one tweet, from June 7, and 46 followers. The Cruz campaign account has sent out 915 messages and has 14,203 followers. Sanchez’s campaign YouTube account has no videos posted yet. As of July 25, the last “news item” on his campaign website is dated June 8.
“We haven’t seen him on the trail or heard anything from his campaign,” said Shawn McCoy, communications director of Leppert’s Senate bid. “Texas Republicans are fired up and ready to send a job-creator to the Senate and vote Obama out of the White House. Sanchez will struggle to get his campaign off the ground.”
A late-June survey from Public Policy Polling — for what it is worth — found Sanchez with a 15 percent favorable rating, an 18 percent unfavorable rating, and 67 percent not sure how they feel about him. His best share of the vote in any head-to-head matchup was 37 percent, up against Republican lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, who garnered 45 percent.
Finally, the retired general has decided to campaign as “Ric Sanchez,” which perhaps inadvertently gives the candidate nearly the same name as the CNN anchor abruptly fired after discussing whether comedian Jon Stewart qualified as a minority because he’s Jewish, and suggesting that all news networks were run by Jews.
Of course, none of this even gets into the potential drag from President Obama at the top of the ticket; a University of Texas survey found that 46 percent of registered voters “disapprove strongly” of Obama’s job performance, with another 9 percent “somewhat disapproving” and 9 percent “neither approving nor disapproving.” Asked about their likely 2012 vote, 48 percent said they would vote for the Republican candidate and only 30 percent said they would vote for President Obama. Asked about their generic preference for the Senate, 46 percent would prefer a Republican candidate, only 30 percent a Democrat.
One Republican strategist in the state wonders if national Democrats’ effusive praise for Sanchez was more for party morale outside the state than for their chances to win the Senate seat. “When he got into the race,” the strategist says, “the DNC and DSCC were making exaggerated claims that Texas was in play — for the Senate race and the presidential race. I don’t think anyone ever really bought into that. More than likely it was a fundraising move to spur some Texas donors into action. Maybe the committees got some money out of it, but nobody in Texas is paying attention to Sanchez.”
Lawrence Person, an Austin-based blogger who follows Texas politics closely, argues that outside observers have overhyped the political impact of Sanchez’s ethnic heritage. “For most of the past two decades, the likes of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have been crowing before every election about how Texas’s growing Hispanic population will make Texas competitive for Democrats, and every election Texas elects more and more Republicans,” Person says. “Being Hispanic couldn’t secure a victory for Victor Morales against Phil Gramm in 1996, for Tony Sanchez against Rick Perry in 2002, or for Rick Noriega against John Cornyn in 2008, and I doubt it will help Ricardo Sanchez beat Ted Cruz or David Dewhurst in 2012.”
In the end, perhaps any promising Democrat in Texas was doomed to run afoul of Senate Democrats’ difficult math. Protecting their majority in the chamber is high priority, and national committees almost always work to protect incumbents before committing to open-seat races. There are a slew of vulnerable incumbent Democrats (Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana, and perhaps Bill Nelson in Florida, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, and Joe Manchin in West Virginia) and plenty of open-seat races on easier territory: New Mexico, Virginia, Wisconsin, and perhaps Hawaii and Ohio. What’s more, Texas is an expensive state to run in, and the cost-benefit analysis for the DSCC won’t favor investing heavily in Sanchez’s bid.
Still, perhaps there’s a vast, hard-to-see grand strategy to Sanchez’s low-profile so far. Perhaps we’re witnessing a groundbreaking approach to winning a silent majority: a silent campaign.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.