Could Ricardo Sanchez Lead a Democratic Revival in Texas?

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

What’s in a name? For Texas Democrats, it’s the hope that after 17 years of exile from statewide office, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez can lead them back to the promised land with a successful bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. A native Texan of Mexican-American descent who rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army only to end his career in controversy, Sanchez has the potential to be a long-needed standard-bearer for Lone Star Dems. But observers from both parties agree the assumption that he would carry the state’s growing number of Hispanic voters is overly simplistic.

“If it’s just based on a name, the Democrats are going to lose yet again,” says Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. “It has to be money, message and turnout… the Democratic establishment, both inside and outside the state, has to spend resources.”

Over the weekend, the establishment indicated that Sanchez was likely a recruit for what the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is dubbing its “Six in 12” campaign to take six Republican-held Senate seats in next year’s election. U.S. Senator Patty Murray, chairwoman of the DSCC, said Texas would be one of the six given its “changing demographics.”

Based on the growth of its Hispanic population, there is little argument that Texas will eventually become a “majority minority” state, likely around 2040. But for now, although 38% of Texans claim Hispanic roots, only 20% of the state’s registered voters are Hispanic. Also, last fall’s midterm elections showed that Hispanic voters are not monolithic and, in the case of historically Democratic South Texas, not always enthusiastic about turning out to vote.

But Democratic establishment figures are hoping Sanchez, who has never before run for political office, will light a fire under that critical base. His personal story is compelling — born in a dusty South Texas town, he rose to the rank of three-star general by the end of his 30-year Army career. “He’s the one guy who could unite the Hispanic vote. He’ll get the conservative Hispanic businessman,” former Democratic Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes told McClatchy Newspapers. Sanchez does indeed offer a broad appeal. “Socially, I’m a progressive, a fiscal conservative and a strong supporter, obviously, of national defense,” he told McClatchy. But he would not be the first promising candidate from South Texas named Sanchez that Barnes has backed. In 2002, Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez spent $75 million, much of it his own, in a bid to beat Republican Gov. Rick Perry – Tony Sanchez was trounced 58% to 40%.

Good Democratic candidates for statewide office have proved elusive in Texas. In the 1980s, Democrats hitched their wagon to Henry Cisneros’ star. The charismatic former mayor of San Antonio went on to serve as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and was widely popular. But Cisneros’ marital indiscretions proved politically fatal and he withdrew from public life under the cloud of an independent counsel’s investigation into payments he allegedly made to his mistress. Democrats were left scrambling. The party’s lack of a deep bench of potential candidates is the result of “simply being out of power for so long,” says Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at University of Texas-Pan American in the Rio Grande Valley, “and it’s a slow process when you are building from a losing team.” Julián Castro, who now holds Cisneros’ old job as mayor of San Antonio, is a rising star (he was featured in TIME’s 40 under 40), but he has given no indication he plans a Senate run this cycle.

There are members of the state legislature, including Julián Castro’s twin brother, State Rep. Joaquin Castro, who could be viable candidates if they have assurances of support and adequate funding from the Democratic leadership, Camarillo of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project says. But victory, she adds, would depend on exciting the base — something that the popular former Democratic mayor of Houston, Bill White, failed to do in his gubernatorial bid against Perry last year. While U.S. Senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Barbara Boxer of California stirred Hispanic enthusiasm for their own campaigns by raising issues like immigration reform, White avoided the topic altogether and opted to go after Anglo swing voters, Camarillo says. White lost 55% to 42% with Perry winning 39% of the state’s Hispanic voters, and 48% of the total vote in heavily Democratic South Texas. For Republicans running in Texas, winning 40% of the Hispanic vote is the “Holy Grail,” Polinard says.

While Democrats have been searching for a leader, Republicans have been working to expand their base. Co-founded by George P. Bush, son of Jeb and nephew of George W., Hispanic Republicans of Texas is dedicated to electing Hispanic Republicans to local governments and the statehouse. Part of the goal, says co-founder Juan Hernandez, is just to prove that the term “Hispanic Republicans” is not an oxymoron. HRT found 20 “novices” and trained them in campaign basics from how to build a website to how to handle the media. “We had zero seats in the statehouse and Nov. 5 we won five — cinco!” Hernandez says. After a key party switch by a South Texas Hispanic Democrat, the GOP now holds a supermajority in the lower house in Austin. Hernandez says HRT plans to recruit 100 local candidates for the 2012 election.

Democrats hope a statewide run by Sanchez could change everything. He opened the door a little more on Monday, telling the Houston Chronicle, “I’ve served my country for many years and this would be another potential way for me to serve my country.” His final decision could come in the next few weeks. Whether he will face competition in the primary is unclear — another name being floated is that of former Comptroller John Sharp, who has deep ties to South Texas and proved a canny vote-getter in the Hispanic community, even if that was more than a decade ago.

What is clear is that Sanchez’s tenure as commander of ground forces in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein may cause some pain on both the left and the right. While not held responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, he was roundly criticized by Democrats in Congress and among the Netroots for the brutality that occurred on his watch. After retiring from the Army, he also drew fire from conservatives for his call for a “Truth Commission” to investigate the Iraq War, as well as his alignment with Nancy Pelosi in 2007, when he called for defunding the war.

On the Republican side, the race is already under way. The crowded GOP field includes two minority candidates — former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, the son of Cuban immigrants, and Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, an African American with long-time ties to the Bush family and strong Tea Party connections. But in the end, ethnicity could be little more than a footnote in the Texas Senate race. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Williams recalled a conversation he had with former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, now U.S. Trade Representative and also an African-American. Williams said he told Kirk, who ran for Senate in 2002 along with the ill-fated, but deep-pocketed Tony Sanchez: “Texas didn’t reject a black candidate for U.S. Senate. Texans rejected a liberal Democrat — no Democrat won in that cycle.”