By Jim Schutze
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Just an hour remains before the polls close on Election Day, but Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman seems remarkably calm. Maybe exhaustion has finally set in after working 13 hours straight, then making last-minute preparations for the Republican Election Night Watch Party at the Radisson Hotel on Central Expressway. This evening represents the culmination of a year's worth of hard work and the committed efforts of thousands of volunteers, donors and candidates attempting to yank the emergency brake on a runaway trend: The county that launched the political fortunes of George W. Bush—one-time Republican-rich Dallas County—was turning dark blue.
Wearing a pinstriped suit, white shirt and red tie and looking every bit the big firm lawyer that he is, Neerman strolls through the hotel ballroom, where guests have yet to arrive. He seems resigned to whatever fate the evening has in store and tends to the few remaining details still under his control, one of which is making certain the Blue Ribbon Band has everything it needs as its members prepare for their sound check. He manages a peek at one of the small TVs set up throughout the large room—each one tuned to the conservative Fox News channel—and looks surprised at an early vote tally showing Barack Obama leading John McCain by 66-33 percent. But when he learns the total is from Maine where only three votes have been counted, he breathes an uncharacteristic sigh of relief before engaging local TV reporters in some pre-game banter.
Being the local GOP's head cheerleader, Neerman exudes confidence, as if he's expecting a Republican sweep instead of hoping to grab a few scraps from another countywide Democratic ass-kicking. His optimism is tempered by his awareness that Obama poses a serious threat to any GOP plan to regain power after the Dems routed the Republicans in 2006, when they won all 42 judicial courthouse races and highly prized contests for district attorney and county judge. But this election cycle, his party has "pounded the hell" out of his grassroots plan, he says, which he's banking on to neutralize the expected surge in Obama voters. "We haven't sat back playing defense."
People slowly trickle into the ballroom, grabbing plates of assorted fruit, cheese and crackers, or a beer before finding a spot near a TV and planting themselves there. It's still early, but attendees have little time to enjoy themselves, as the presidential results pour in from across the country, and Obama takes a solid lead.
Neerman sips on a glass of water and keeps his eyes fixed on his BlackBerry, waiting for word of early voting returns. He figures it's a foregone conclusion that Obama will take Dallas County, but his concerns are more with local races, which will be the measure of his success, or failure.
The county GOP has focused its efforts on reclaiming the sheriff's office from Democratic incumbent Lupe Valdez, an openly gay Hispanic woman whose record of four failed jail inspections makes her vulnerable to the strong contender the Republicans have put up—Lowell Cannaday, a former Irving police chief with 38 years of law enforcement experience. Also crucial is winning state house races in District 102, where Republican incumbent Tony Goolsby is facing a challenge from Richardson School Board member Carol Kent, and District 107, where Bill Keffer is attempting to take back his old seat from Democrat Allen Vaught.
No matter the early numbers, Neerman won't panic. He thinks his local candidates will still run well as long as Obama doesn't have an insurmountable lead in Dallas County.
It's just after 7 p.m. when the early votes are posted on the projection screen in the back of the room. Bad news: Obama has a 20-point lead. But Neerman keeps cool, focusing on incumbent Dan Branch's sizable lead in the race for Texas House District 108, the tight contest between Keffer and Vaught, and room for Goolsby to come back against Kent. Neerman also is comfortable with Cannaday's 13-point deficit, convinced that Republicans will out-vote Democrats on Election Day and offset any early voting disadvantage. The numbers don't look promising, but Neerman is hopeful things will turn his way by the end of the night.
To get the crowd's mind off these toxic returns, he does some damage control, taking the stage with a small group of local Republicans—U.S. Representatives Sam Johnson and Jeb Hensarling, Texas Representative Jim Jackson and Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, whose victories are assured, considering three of them are running with no Democratic opposition. Dickey turns to the county chair and says, "Let's hear it for Jonathan Neerman." She also calls him a "sweetheart" and awkwardly notes that he is handsome. At 9 p.m., Neerman trots out another group of winners—among them U.S. Representative Pete Sessions, state representatives Branch and Will Hartnet and legislative newcomer Angie Chen Button—but that ends the victory parade.
Democrats not only beat the Republicans in Dallas County in early votes by 100,000, they also outvoted them on Election Day. Cannaday lost to Valdez by 10 percentage points, making a concession speech to a thinned-out crowd and a tearful wife right before McCain offered his to a global audience. Goolsby and Keffer were also defeated along with most local Republican candidates.