Swing Vote

Think all politics is local? In the 5th District, think again.

Sessions' campaign manager, Gary Griffith, agrees. "I think that the issues that resonate with working people and taxpayers are the same in Limestone County or Dallas County," he says.

Yet Griffith notes that the district's geographic size requires candidates to devote time to traveling to events that might be spent meeting constituents.

But are there any strictly local issues in this campaign? Sharp says Montoya-Coggins recently attended a cattle auction where some of the talk turned to providing drought relief, which is about as local an issue as there is in North Texas these days.

Regina Montoya-Coggins and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions' race could determine which party rules the House.
AP/Wide World Photo
Regina Montoya-Coggins and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions' race could determine which party rules the House.

Montoya-Coggins' campaign "is a rarity," Sharp says. "We are absolutely local to the core."

For an "absolutely local" race, however, the campaigns have collected a fair amount of money from national donors, and they're going need all of it. Another consequence of having a far-flung district is that candidates can't get elected without bushels of cash, turning campaigns into small businesses that pay rent, hire employees, and last long after the campaign is over. Sessions and Montoya-Coggins had each raised $1.2 million through the end of June, which may seem like a lot. But it wasn't even the most in Texas, and it barely placed them in the top 50 in the country. Pouland spent $600,000 in 1996 and lost by seven percentage points. Victor Morales lost to Sessions by 12 points in 1998, and every pundit in town says the $100,000 Morales spent wasn't nearly enough.

That's because the district's size requires media exposure to reach enough voters, and media exposure means radio and TV. The latter used to be unheard of in a congressional race, but that old rule doesn't apply any more.

"That's part of the change you're seeing in contested races like the 5th," says Cal Jillson, who chairs the political science department at Southern Methodist University. "One million dollars worth of yard signs isn't going to do you any good."

The only way to pay for that exposure is to take money from anyone who will give it, even if their only affiliation with the 5th District is to know it's in Texas. This is not the place for a plea for campaign finance reform; it's sufficient to know that Montoya-Coggins and Sessions have accepted money from a staggering variety of sources.

The National Rifle Association gave Sessions $6,500, while the generous folks at Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and Brown & Williamson had enough money left after the tobacco settlement to pass along checks for $7,000. Sessions' biggest donor was Texas Utilities ($11,250), not surprising given how important electricity deregulation is to the company. He also received almost $60,000 from giant national and multi-national banks such as MBNA, Bank One, J.P. Morgan, and Bank of America (as well as donations from assorted community banks, whose agenda is often completely different, and which demonstrates that the system confuses even those who prop it up).

Montoya-Coggins received more than $120,000 from Emily's List, an activist group that supports mostly liberal women, as well as more than $162,000 from lawyers and law firms. Trade unions added almost $120,000, and she received cash from 10 other congressional campaigns, including that of Barney Frank, the gay congressman from Massachusetts who drives House GOP leader Dick Armey of Denton so crazy.

"It's as if they're raising too much money to run a local campaign, says Jillson. "They end up with so much money that they have to bring people in from outside to help them spend it, and these national people only know national issues."

What they know best, on both sides, is something called the Democratic Leadership Council, which may turn out to be Bill Clinton's true legacy. The DLC is the policy group that moved the Democratic Party to the middle--so far to the middle that Clinton, who once worked for George McGovern, could sign the largest welfare reduction bill in U.S. history. The DLC game plan, which was based on the work the Republicans did when Ronald Reagan was president, is about sending a centrist message.

"The DLC perspective is that it takes national, not necessarily local, issues to swing the key voters," says Tim Reeves, a Dallas political consultant who usually works for Democratic candidates (though not in the 5th District this year). "So you send them a conservative Democratic message in a conservative district instead of what I call retail politics--the shoe leather and other types of grass roots organizing to get the vote out."

Which explains why Montoya-Coggins, who probably would have been a liberal Democrat in the old days, criticizes Sessions for not voting to cut middle class taxes enough and calls herself "fiscally conservative." Sessions, who went to Washington as an all-government-is-evil conservative (despite the fact that his father was a federal judge and director of the FBI), has supported liberal litmus test items like expanded Medicare coverage and adding some sort of prescription drug plan for seniors. Says Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth political consultant who usually works for Republicans: "Pete hasn't lost touch with his district."

This is not to say there aren't differences between the candidates. Sessions is still a hard-line conservative who votes regularly against the National Education Agency, sponsored a constitutional amendment to make it difficult to raise taxes, and voted against campaign finance reform in 1999. Montoya-Coggins worked in the Clinton White House for two years, and when Clinton appeared at a fund-raiser for her in Austin in 1999, it was at the home of Lloyd Doggett, one of the last of the unreconstructed Texas liberal Democrats. But thanks to what passes for political discourse these days, voters in the 5th will have a hard time figuring out those differences.

And everyone else will have to suffer through the commercials.

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