When Karen Hughes announced her decision to leave the White House and return to Texas, the only thing Washington could agree on was that it was a loss for George W. Bush. It was Hughes who helped Bush find his voice during the 2000 elections, who signed off on speeches, who helped loosen him up. It was Hughes, the pundits agreed, who kept the White House "leak-proof and disciplined"; Hughes, wrote Newsweek, steered Bush toward "an almost pitch-perfect tone of strength and reassurance" in the weeks after September 11. "What will he do without her?" fretted Time magazine.
But a better question might be what Texas will do with her. After all, the best explanation for why she's headed home is that the Texas Republicans need her more than Bush does. "Rumor number 1," United Press International reported in late April, is that Hughes "will assume a senior if unofficial role in the statewide GOP campaigns." It's not hard to see why: For the first time in years, the Texas Republicans are starting to sweat. Governor Rick Perry is polling at about 50 percent, and he missed out on a slew of endorsements from business groups that are normally pro-Republican. Attorney General John Cornyn, the Republican candidate to replace U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, has yet to poll over 50 percent. "On paper and in practice," argues Harvey Kronberg, a Texas political analyst, "you'd have to say that this is the first competitive election since George Bush and Ann Richards" raced for governor in 1994.
To get a sense of just how big a change this is, consider the last few Texas elections. Four years ago, an incumbent Governor Bush led the Republicans to a sweep of Texas's statewide offices. Two years ago, when Bush was running for president, prospects for a win were so dismal that Democrats didn't even bother to field serious statewide candidates.
That the Democrats are actually fielding a full slate this time around is itself a significant development. What's more, the ticket has rapidly become known as a "Dream Team." At the top of the slate is gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, a banker, oilman, and seventh-generation Texan. Sanchez has no previous political experience and no ties to traditional Democratic constituencies, but he begins with two big advantages. The first is his massive personal fortune, some $30 million of which he is expected to sink into his campaign against Perry; the second is that Sanchez, in the grand tradition of Texas bipartisanship, is a close personal friend of Bush's. In fact, he's given about $300,000 to Bush over the years and was a Pioneer during the 2000 presidential race (Bush, returning the favor, appointed Sanchez to the University of Texas Board of Regents). This makes liberal Democrats in Texas nervous about Sanchez. But it also makes it harder for the GOP to simply run against Sanchez's party label.
Rounding out the ticket are Ron Kirk, who hopes to succeed Republican Phil Gramm in the U.S. Senate, and John Sharp, who's running for lieutenant governor. Kirk was twice elected Dallas mayor, both times with support from Republicans and the local business community; like Sanchez, he enjoyed friendly relations with Bush and is widely considered a moderate. Sharp is an experienced campaigner who came within two points of beating out Perry for the lieutenant governor's job in 1998. Although he hasn't run a single general-election ad and hasn't held office for four years, Sharp's in a dead heat with Republican lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, who has already spent $7 million on attack ads. Between the three of them, Sanchez, Kirk, and Sharp are moderate enough to win in conservative Texas, experienced enough to be credible, and well enough connected -- with both in- and out-of-state donors -- to be financially competitive.
But what really gives the White House the willies is that the Democratic ticket -- one Hispanic, one African American, one gringo -- amounts to a kind of demographic flying wedge. The Republicans dominate Texas today for three reasons: The state is essentially conservative, the GOP has an advantage in party registration, and under Bush, the Republicans have been able to attract a near majority of the rapidly growing Hispanic vote. Sanchez, Kirk, and Sharp have already blunted the first factor (by telling national Democrats like Al Gore and Terry McAuliffe to stay away from the state party's convention in June, for instance.) And they're well on their way to overcoming the other two.
Indeed, the Democratic primaries in March and April were the stuff of Republican strategists' nightmares. Democratic turnout was high for an off-year election. But it was especially high among blacks and Hispanics. The former group turned out for Kirk, the latter thanks to heightened interest in the all-Hispanic gubernatorial primary, which pitted Sanchez against former Attorney General Dan Morales. (The two even held one debate entirely in Spanish.) For his part, Kirk has demonstrated an unusual ability to garner cross-ethnic votes. And Sanchez, a political neophyte who's still relatively unknown, already has the support of 60 percent of Hispanic voters. If Sanchez can turn out Hispanics in the general election and Kirk can turn out African Americans, the Republican base vote advantage disappears -- leaving the election to be decided by swing voters and soccer moms.
To be sure, Texas Democrats still have a steep hill to climb. Sharp is favored to knock off Dewhurst, but Sanchez is still awkward on the campaign trail. (He's "a work in progress," explains one Texas pol.) Although Sanchez has spent the last few months apologizing to Democratic activists for his donations to Bush, the question remains whether he can rally the Democratic base along with the several hundred thousand new Hispanic voters he will need in order to compete effectively. And nearly everyone in Texas expects Bush -- who can't afford to lose any votes in the Senate -- to get more involved in the Cornyn-Kirk race should Cornyn get into serious trouble. "There is an abiding faith," says one Texas political analyst, "that if the ticket is really in trouble in the fall, [Bush] will get more involved."
What makes the race intriguing is that the Democrats may have Bush boxed out. Karl Rove's master plan for the GOP hinges on the Republicans eventually gaining a strong plurality of the national Hispanic vote over the next few elections. And Texas, where Hispanics are more integrated and more conservative than in California, will be the first important proving ground. But it will be hard for the Republicans to campaign strongly against Sanchez -- who is not only Bush's friend but also the first Hispanic gubernatorial candidate in modern Texas history -- while simultaneously making a play for the Hispanic vote. Partly as a result, Texas Republicans are not getting the kind of high-visibility White House support that has accrued to other Republicans, such as South Dakota senatorial candidate Jim Thune.
In fact, Bush seems to be keeping his distance. He hasn't even committed to an appearance at the Texas Republican convention this summer. And although Bush returns to his Crawford ranch every few weeks or so, he has held exactly one political event in Texas since settling in the Oval Office: A fundraiser for Cornyn earlier this spring. (Perry, eager to soak up some of that war-presidency glow, more or less crashed the party.) "The only race that Bush really cares about is the Senate race, because of Daschle," says Kronberg . "[Karl] Rove has told folks privately that he will help Perry, but I don't think Bush will be very busy helping Perry like he will be visible in helping Cornyn."
But at least the Texas GOP will have Karen Hughes.