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A Record Race For The Ayes Of Texas… Hispanic Ballots Called Crucial

Spending Liberally, Sanchez Tries to Hasten Impact of Major Political Shift

By Dan Balz

October 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE WASHINGTON POST. All rights reserved. 

HOUSTON -- Democrat Tony Sanchez set out to make history when he announced his candidacy for office: to become the first Hispanic elected governor of Texas. But even before Election Day, the gubernatorial campaign here is one for the record books, as the costliest, longest and one of the most negative the state has seen.

Sanchez has spent about $55 million -- virtually all from his own fortune -- in his campaign to defeat Gov. Rick Perry (R), the former lieutenant governor who took over the state when George W. Bush was elected president two years ago. Sanchez could end up spending more than any nonpresidential candidate in U.S. history, and with the money Perry has spent, the total for the race is already more than $70 million. At the rate the candidates are saturating local television stations with their ads, spending could approach $100 million before the election is over.

The TV campaign has been as negative as it has been unrelenting. After the two candidates met for their first televised debate here on Wednesday night, the headline in the Houston Chronicle read: "Mudfest goes to airwaves." The debate, while not quite as negative as the ads have been, was otherwise consistent with the tone of the campaign, as both candidates turned questions about substantive issues into opportunities to attack each other's character.

By the time it ended, Sanchez had vowed that, if elected, he would push the state attorney general to launch a criminal inquiry into the insurance crisis in the state, where rates have soared for homeowners and other coverage. He implied that his opponent should be among those investigated because Perry has accepted large contributions from the insurance industry.

"He's taken more than a million dollars from insurance companies for his campaign and they told him not to solve it [the problem of skyrocketing rates]," Sanchez said about what has become the dominant issue in the race, and one that has helped the Democratic challenger chip away at the incumbent's lead.

Perry defended his handling of the insurance crisis, but repeatedly hammered Sanchez as a businessman who was at the helm of a failed savings and loan institution that came under investigation for laundering Mexican drug money. He also repeatedly stressed that his 17 years in office give him the experience and leadership skills his opponent can't match, and belittled Sanchez as someone so uninterested in the problems of the state that he didn't even bother to vote in the governor's race four years ago.

The tenor of the campaign belies its potential significance in the political evolution of the state. Sanchez is not just trying to make history, he is attempting to accelerate the political impact of an ongoing demographic shift that will make Hispanics a majority here by about 2026, according to population projections.

The rising power of the Hispanic vote eventually will move the Lone Star State back toward the Democrats after two decades of GOP ascendance, unless Republicans can attract a larger share of the Latino vote. Sanchez wants to fast-forward the future by making it happen this year.

A black-brown "dream ticket" lies at the heart of the Democrats' strategy this fall. Sanchez hopes to ignite a large increase in Hispanic turnout next month, and Democrats believe that the Senate candidacy of Ron Kirk, who is seeking to become the first African American elected senator from Texas, will produce a sizable increase in black turnout.

Public polls have shown Perry leading Sanchez, but Sanchez strategists say that their polling has the challenger close enough to pull off an upset, and that they have the financial resources to outspend the incumbent in the final weeks, something Democrats have not been able to do in recent elections. Even some Democrats say Sanchez faces an uphill battle, but the insurance crisis has given him an opening and the turnout battle here will be fierce.

Sanchez's spending spree began in the primary and has continued almost without interruption. From July 1 to Sept. 26, he spent $26.2 million, and advisers say he will significantly outspend Perry in the final weeks.

Sanchez's spending continues a trend of wealthy, self-financed candidates in national politics. In 1994, former representative Michael Huffington spent about $30 million of his own money in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). In 1998, businessman Al Chechhi spent $35 million in the California Democratic primary for governor. That governor's race holds the record for combined spending in one campaign, an estimated $130 million among four candidates.

The most any nonpresidential candidate has spent in a race is the $73 million by Michael Bloomberg in last year's New York mayoral race. Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) spent $63 million to win his seat in 2000. It's possible that Sanchez will neither eclipse Bloomberg's record nor even spend more than any other candidate this year. In New York, businessman Thomas Golisano has promised to spend around $75 million in his independent candidacy for governor, and it's possible the New York race will end up as the most expensive ever.

Sanchez, who made his money in the oil and gas business and in banking and who contributed heavily to Bush's campaigns, began his attacks on Perry last summer and has never let up. His ads prompted a furious counterattack by the Republicans, who launched a television ad campaign in July focused on Sanchez's role in the Tesoro savings and loan failure.

Perry's ads, said Sanchez media consultant Bill Knapp, "ripped a hole in our hull" and helped drive up negative impressions of the challenger. But Knapp said the campaign has weathered that storm.

Insurance was already becoming a significant element in the race when Farmers Insurance announced late last month that, starting in November, it would begin to stop covering homeowners in Texas. Farmers is the state's second biggest home insurer.

Texas long has had high homeowner insurance rates in part because of the risk of hurricanes, flood, and tornadoes, but also because of state regulatory flaws that allow insurance companies to raise rates substantially.

Sanchez promises to roll back insurance rates, and he contended again Thursday that Texans are paying a "Perry premium" because of his opponent's closeness to the industry. Perry said that's not the case.

"I've got contributors on every side of every issue," he said, "so the idea that any decision I make there is going to be someone who has contributed to my campaign who would have rather it went the other way. I make decisions that are in the best interests of the people of the state of Texas, regardless of who makes a campaign contribution."

The outcome of the race hinges on who votes and how well Perry can attract Hispanic votes. Democratic Party strategists report that enthusiasm is high in the African American community because of Kirk's candidacy, but Latino turnout, which is harder to predict, will need to be at record levels. Sanchez must get about 80 percent of that Hispanic vote and about 35 percent of the Anglo vote to win, but Perry's strategists said they are confident the Republican will take at least 30 percent of the Hispanic vote and could win with a bit less.

Perry has accused Sanchez of trying to buy the race, but it is not clear that the money being spent is a significant issue to voters. What could be significant is the impact of months and months of negative ads and whether that will depress turnout. When the candidates debated Wednesday night at Rice University, the auditorium was barely half full.

Whoever wins will face state problems -- a looming budget deficit, questions about educational accountability tests among them -- that have largely been obscured by the television attack ads. "They're running a fantasyland campaign," said Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "The day after the election, we'll shift to a reality gear."

Hispanic Ballots Called Crucial

By W. Gardner Selby

October 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved. 

AUSTIN – Former Gov. Ann Richards, discounting polls showing Texas Republicans leading Democratic candidates, predicts Hispanic voters will drive next month's election, but a Republican pollster disagrees.

"This all boils down to whether or not the Hispanics in Texas recognize these races are important to their lives," the state's most recent Democratic governor said Tuesday.

Statewide polls have shown Republican candidates in the lead, but Richards said pollsters cannot know the Nov. 5 turnout of traditionally low-voting Hispanic populations – especially with the Democrats offering gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez of Laredo.

"There are no polls, there are no focus groups, there is nothing out there now that can tell you how these campaigns will turn out," Richards said. "There's not a doubt in my mind about that. Anyone who tells you that they know is wrong.

"This election is going to be determined by the level of enthusiasm of the Hispanic vote," Richards said.

Referring to Sanchez, Richards said: "There is an ingredient of enthusiasm that is very difficult to measure by the presence of an Hispanic name on the ballot. We all know it has an impact, but we don't know by how much."

Austin pollster Mike Baselice, whose clients include GOP Gov. Rick Perry, said his nightly tracking polls show no differences in enthusiasm between Hispanic, African American or Anglo voters.

Baselice said Hispanic and African American turnout will increase, but not by margins that would turn around what he considers an eight percentage point edge for Republicans among Texas voters.

Sanchez, Baselice said, deserves the "Jim Mattox award," referring to the former attorney general, for his high negative ratings from voters.

"He could actually suppress turnout among some voters who had looked at him earlier," Baselice said.

Richards, who lost her re-election bid to George W. Bush in 1994, works in Austin and New York as a senior adviser to Public Strategies Inc., an Austin firm.

But she said she hopes to campaign for Democrats if invited.

"I feel sure before it's over I'll be in South Texas," Richards said. "I'll do whatever it takes. I'll stay away or go."

Richards said Sanchez and Perry "aren't very funny candidates" – meaning, she said, "colorful."

A dozen years ago, Richards and Clayton Williams, a cowboy-hatted Midland businessman, traded barbs down the stretch and drew national attention. Texas Monthly magazine even fudged them dancing together on its cover.

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