DALLAS--The merriment leaked from Republicans' lives last May when Vermont's Sen. James Jeffords defected from their ranks, giving Democrats control of the Senate and the ability to block President Bush's agenda. Republican hopes of regaining control of the Senate recently suffered a setback because of the emergence of a balding, 47-year-old man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, tortoise shell glasses, a mild demeanor and electoral successes winning two mayoral elections in this entrepreneurial city.
Last month Ron Kirk, whose first political experience was service on the staff of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, won the Democratic nomination to run for the Senate seat that has now been held for three terms by Phil Gramm, who last Sept. 4 announced that he was retiring. Gramm went to Washington in 1979 as a Democratic congressman, then in 1983 switched parties, as Texas itself was doing, and in 1984 became only the second Texas Republican (the first was John Tower in 1961) elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.
No Texas Democrat has won a Senate race since 1988, when Bentsen did. No Democrat not named Bentsen has won a Senate race since Ralph Yarborough did in 1964. The only Democrat to win the governorship since 1982 was Ann Richards, whose 1990 win was wafer thin (a 99,239-vote margin). Today all 29 officials elected statewide are Republicans.
So how good can Kirk's chances be? Good enough
that he will force Republicans to spend a considerable sum holding this seat in an expensive state with four major media markets (Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio) and 15 others.
Republicans comfort themselves by assuring themselves that Democrats are going to have to spend lots of money defending seven seats--in South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey and Georgia. On the other hand, Kirk knows that Democrats outside Texas may say: Directing $1 million to his campaign might not make much difference, whereas giving $1 million to the Democratic candidate in, say, South Dakota would enable that candidate to buy an ice cream cone for every South Dakota voter.
``This election,'' Kirk insists a bit plaintively, ``is not about who loves George Bush the most.'' But he knows that with control of the Senate at stake, his opponent, John Cornyn--the first Republican attorney general since Reconstruction--will say: A vote for Kirk is a vote to enable Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to continue tormenting the president.
Kirk, who says he could not have been elected Dallas' mayor without having conservative credentials, is teamed with the Democrats' gubernatorial candidate, Tony Sanchez. Kirk says it will not be easy for Republicans to portray Sanchez as a dangerous liberal, given that Sanchez is a banker (estimated net worth: $600 million) who gave Bush's presidential campaign $250,000.
In recent elections blacks and Hispanics have made up about 25 percent of the Texas turnout. If the Sanchez-Kirk ticket increases that to 30 or even 33 percent ... The trick will be to achieve that in ways that do not repel the white majority.
Today the three most prominent African Americans in government are Republicans--Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas. Only two African Americans have been elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke (1967-1979) and Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun (1993-1999). Kirk's hope of becoming the third hinges partly on the fact that, as the first African American mayor of a major Texas city, he stands to run much stronger in the Dallas area than most Democrats do when running statewide.
He might dislike the Senate, as many senators do who have experienced the satisfactions of executive office. He speaks most ardently about issues that are more mayoral than senatorial, particularly education grades K through 12. However, he is motivated by having experienced the limited ability of unassisted local government to deal with Dallas' 5 percent annual increase in students, Texas' shortage of 40,000 teachers, or the problem of schools with wiring too old to make use of donated computers.
A passionate basketball fan--he had Dallas Mavericks season tickets when the team was atrocious--Kirk says the Senate race ``is like an NBA game--put two minutes on the clock, give one team a small lead and the ball, and you will have a close game.'' Anyway, he says, cheerfully switching metaphors, that by now he is too far into the campaign to let the odds depress him. Its like initiation into a fraternity: ``Once you've swallowed the worm and drunk the buttermilk, you can't quit.''