By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Daschle, on hearing of Wellstone’s death, called him “the soul of the Senate.” And what does that make the Senate now that Paul Wellstone is dead?
If anything, my other weeks on the campaign trail this fall have underscored how exceptional Wellstone and his campaign truly were. And none more so than my week in Texas, the Republican fatherland, where this year the Democrats actually believed they could mobilize enough voters to elect a Democratic governor and senator in W.’s home state. There, the Democrats assembled an ethnic “dream team” designed to mobilize enough nonwhite voters to dethrone the Republicans. The dream teamers are (white) lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp, (African-American) U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk (until recently the mayor of Dallas) running for the seat that Phil Gramm is vacating, and (Latino) gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, an oil man and banker with enough money to register and bring to the polls however many Latinos are required to push the state into the Democratic column.
Only things haven’t quite worked out as planned. Sanchez did indeed plunge a fortune into the technology of voter mobilization. People can’t stop talking about the PalmPilots he purchased by the hundreds for his precinct walkers, so that voter preferences can be noted and processed immediately. A veteran political consultant in Houston swears that the Sanchez campaign has leased every van in town.
But visits to campaign headquarters and talks with political hands in the most Latino big cities in the state — San Antonio and El Paso — suggest that Sanchez isn’t getting much bang for his buck. Part of the problem is Sanchez himself, a candidate whose stump speeches suggest nothing so much as a banker reading aloud from a quarterly report. Part of the problem is his message, which ignores a range of working-class issues — raising the minimum wage, for instance — that could awaken his Latino working-class base, particularly in the poverty-stricken Rio Grande Valley. An avid supporter of George W. Bush when he was governor, and not known for favoring any notably progressive policies, Sanchez is falling woefully short of the kind of Latino breakthrough candidate who could transform Texas politics. College students are nowhere to be found in his campaign offices, and longtime liberal and Latino activists are quietly scornful of their gubernatorial standard-bearer. “We’ve been in the trenches for 40 years for this?” asks one. “For a guy who’s no better than a Republican?”
Finally, part of the Sanchez problem is a flood of negative commercials, a number of them his own, which are turning potential voters away from politics. “We’re not finding a lot of activity in the neighborhoods,” says Christine Stephens, lead Texas organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation, which sponsors many of the state’s leading community-organizing and living-wage campaigns. “The negative ads have really taken a toll on people’s wanting to vote.” Indeed, with millions of dollars sunk into a capital-intensive field campaign to increase voter turnout, and millions more sunk into a negative media campaign that can only depress voter turnout, the Sanchez campaign has become a marvel of self-negation. Despite all the Sanchez millions, the final voter-registration numbers show a net increase of just 200,000 new voters this year — much less than half the total needed if Sanchez and Kirk are to win.
The Sanchez campaign is only an extreme example of the vast futility that seems to cling to so many of this year’s Democratic campaigns as the election draws near. They are better-funded than any Democratic campaigns in history; indeed, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has raised every bit as much as its Republican counterpart, even if the pro-GOP “independent” campaigns of the pharmaceutical industry are tilting the air wars toward the Republicans. The problem is that, with all the megaphones in the world, the Democrats still have no message. Save only their commitment to preserve Social Security, they have declined to draw clear lines to distinguish themselves from the Republicans. They have nothing to say, and, as Lear points out to Cordelia, nothing will come of nothing.
“Nothing,” of course, is not an electoral outcome; the Republican nullity who lives in the White House has brought us not nothing, but one damned thing after another. As things now stand, I doubt he’ll pick up the Senate. The Democrats may lose Missouri, and have an outside shot of losing South Dakota, but they stand to pick up Arkansas and maybe New Hampshire, with an outside shot at carrying Colorado (the key there being the new Latino voters). The House strikes me as imponderable; betting either with or against the House seems rash.
And Minnesota? Minnesota stands secure. Wellstone was going to win it; now Walter Mondale is going to win it. What’s sobering to realize is that Mondale was not just the only instantly credible name that the Democrats could find at this late date, but the only potential candidate with politics even close to Wellstone’s. And Mondale, whatever his considerable virtues, is no down-the-line progressive, much less a legislator in the Wellstone mode, eager to grapple with the very premises of the age.