Sabatos Crystal Ball

Texas Races

Senate Outlook for 2008

Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

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Texas

Outlook: Likely Republican


October 20, 2008 Update:

Ok, so Democratic challenger Rick Noriega has continued to poll well within single digits of Republican incumbent John Cornyn. Peachy. We would like to take this opportunity to extend our previous analogy for Texas perhaps a little too far. Like New Jersey, where the Democratic Party faithful should shore up a relatively easy victory for Frank Lautenberg after a brief scare, so too should the Republican establishment in Texas put the oft-beleaguered Cornyn over the top. Yes, Cornyn has demonstrated a full-throated support of the Bush Administration and has seen falling favorability numbers as a result. Yet despite that, as well as the presence of big shots like Bill Clinton coming down to campaign and fundraise for the Democrat, we just cannot see Noriega catching up to Cornyn and his obvious financial advantage in one of the most expensive states to run a campaign. The Republicans have plenty of states to worry about on November 4th in terms of Senate Races. The Lone Star State is not one of them. But hey, we’ll change the outlook to from “Solid” to “Likely” Republican just for kicks.

June 19, 2008 Update:

This cycle, Texas is for Democrats what New Jersey is to Republicans. Both Senator John Cornyn (low approval ratings) and Frank Lautenberg (age) are vulnerable, but will win reelection over weak challengers in expensive media markets. With respect to Texas, a DailyKos poll (take polls from liberal sponsors with a grain of salt) shows Democratic challenger Rick Noriega within striking distance at 48-44, but count the Crystal Ball as skeptical of the challenger’s chances in November.

Noriega has virtually no statewide name recognition, and although he can self-finance to a degree, he is at a severe disadvantage to Cornyn’s over $3.8 million cash on hand. Neither is Cornyn taking this race for granted: he’s already started to shore up his biggest weakness among Hispanic voters by rolling out endorsements from Latino mayors and announcing his support for extended visitor visas. In the end, this race is just a teaser as the Republican turnout machine will be in high gear come November, but in a different year, with a different candidate, Democrats just might be able to make a run for Cornyn’s seat.

April 14, 2008 Update:

Maybe, just maybe, the Republicans are losing their stranglehold on statewide elections. Democratic state legislator Rick Noriega sure hopes so. Noriega is set to square off with Republican incumbent John Cornyn, who is finishing up his first term in Washington. While the prospects of being a Democratic candidate in Texas may seem bleak, some recent numbers could give Noriega hope.

Polls are showing disapproval ratings for Cornyn in the low 40s, significant when coupled with approval ratings below 50 percent. Only 31 percent of those polled said they would definitely vote for Cornyn, while 53 percent said they would consider someone else. Noriega still lags well behind Cornyn in the matchup polling, but the other numbers point to the possibility of Noriega making a significant move. Also, surprising numbers could give major Democratic donors outside of Texas incentive to chip in on Noriega’s behalf. And we mustn’t forget about the fastest growing minority in the country: Hispanics and Latinos. Noriega’s heritage, and Cornyn’s record on immigration policy, could appeal to Texas’s large Hispanic population, and swing a large bloc of voters in Noriega’s favor.

But what about the aura of Republican invincibility in the Lone Star State? Senior Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison won reelection in 2006 with roughly 62 percent of the vote, perhaps less than would be expected given the exceptionally weak fundraising of her opponent. Governor Rick Perry was reelected as well in 2006, but with less than 40 percent of the vote in a four candidate field; the Democratic candidate won 30 percent. Republicans certainly do still hold the upper hand in Texas, as no Democrat has been elected to statewide office since 1994. At this point, we still see this race as a Republican hold. But, don’t be surprised if Noriega makes this race closes than some might think; we sure won’t be.

November 26, 2007 Update:

The Democratic side of the Texas Senate equation sure got a lot clearer recently. Millionaire attorney Mikal Watts has dropped out of the race, making state representative Rick Noriega the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Noriega has already received endorsements from Massachusetts Senator and 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, as well as retired General Wesley Clark and is the favorite son of the netroots. With the monetary giant of Watts out of the way, Noriega should be able to rally the troops for a full-year charge at Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

But even with Noriega gaining momentum, this is still Texas, the state that hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator since Lloyd Bentsen more than two decades ago. While Cornyn may catch some fire in some quarters for his positions on immigration (especially against a Hispanic candidate) he’s still a Republican incumbent in a very Red state. He has healthy fund-raising and poll numbers, and should be able to stave off whatever the Democrats throw at him. Don’t look for this seat to switch to Blue in 2008.


Background

Incumbent Republican Senator John Cornyn is likely sweating, and not just from the Texas heat. Even though Texas is usually red-hot for Republicans, the immigration debate has eroded Hispanic support, a key constituency in this just-North-of-the-border state. Though George W. Bush remains a golden boy in the eyes of many Texans, national polls consistently show his job approval rating at an all time low and last year’s election showed that his Republican counterparts are taking the heat for it. As a staunch Bush supporter, Cornyn will have to brace himself for an onslaught of anti-Iraq criticism in this campaign. And with only a 43 percent approval rating, a happy ending for Cornyn is no sure thing.

Democrats have already started lining up to take on the freshman Senator. San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts has already pledged to spend $10 million of his own money if he wins the Democratic primary, and has pumped almost $4 million into the campaign already. Though Cornyn has already raised $2.1 million and has another $5.4 million on hand, like everything else in Texas, both sides’ campaign war chest better be big.

Already at a disadvantage in this category, state representative Rick Noriega, who recently formed an exploratory committee, will have his work cut out for him if he decides to make a real run at the seat. However, already supported by the large group that drafted him into running, Noriega is not short of potential donors. Moreover, in a state that prizes its military, Noriega’s 26 years of service and stint in Afghanistan will surely be factors in his favor; not to mention his obvious appeal to Texas’ many alienated Hispanic voters.

With two serious contenders in the running, it is likely that Senator Cornyn will be able to keep Texas ‘Red’ hot, but the Iraq issue might make things a bit more competitive if the Democrats find a capable challenger. An upset here would produce Texas’ first Democratic Senator in fifteen years, but The Lone Star State’s status as the home of President Bush and a hotbed of conservatism makes this seem unlikely.

Candidates

John Cornyn (I) – Republican – current U.S. Senator
Website

Rick Noriega – Democrat – state representative
Website