With Dallas Republicans in Pain, One Local Leader Believes He Has the Cure

How County Chair Jonathan Neerman Plans to Ease the Dallas GOP's Woes

Ed Valentine, a Dallas-based political analyst, says there's an easy explanation for yet another Republican pasting at the polls: "Two words: Barack Obama." However, he doesn't believe the numbers should have been as bad as they were and says both Mike Anderson, the former mayor of Mesquite who lost a tight race for District 101, and Goolsby should have won their state house races.

"I really think a line should have been drawn in the sand in Tony's house district because Tony fought off the tide two years ago, and everybody should have been on deck to fight that battle," he says.

Valentine also says Lowell Cannaday was the wrong horse in the sheriff's race, calling him a microcosm of what the party offered nationally: "yet another old white guy."

Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman
Hal Samples
Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman
As his wife fought back tears, Lowell Cannaday gave his concession speech after losing the sheriff's race by 10 points to Democratic incumbent Lupe Valdez.
Hal Samples
As his wife fought back tears, Lowell Cannaday gave his concession speech after losing the sheriff's race by 10 points to Democratic incumbent Lupe Valdez.

Had he been running Cannaday's campaign, Valentine says he would have used comments from Hispanic leader and attorney Adelfa Callejo to split the ticket. In February, Callejo told KTVT-Channel 11: "Obama simply has a problem that he happens to be black." She also indicated that Obama wouldn't do anything to help the Hispanic community.

"I would have dangled those comments in front of every stinking Democrat that would listen, and I would have tried to find division there because we've got a Hispanic sheriff and we've got the matriarch of the Hispanic Democrats ripping on this very popular presidential candidate," Valentine explains.

Neerman says he's not a proponent of race-bait politics. He also claims it was difficult to make the sheriff's contest sexy, which raises the question: Could it have had more sex appeal if the Republicans had recruited a minority candidate or a younger one?

"I don't think it would have made a difference in the sheriff's race. I think that Cannaday's big selling point was all of his experience," he says. "If you took that away, there's not that much to talk about."

But when describing his ideal candidate for races beyond sheriff, he says that would be a person "who is younger" and projects the future of the party. "And obviously we want to do outreach into the minority communities," he says. "We're always looking for those kinds of candidates."

But for Cannaday or any of the Republican candidates, the sexiness factor wasn't the real problem. The phenomenal spike in straight-ticket voting was too much for anyone to overcome. As Neerman says, "If we would have had Elvis Presley on the ticket, I'm not sure it would have really mattered."

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A look back at the previous four election cycles reveals that Dallas County Democrats have slowly, consistently increased their winning margins in straight-ticket voting, but nothing could have prepared Republicans for the remarkable 14-point gap between the two parties this year.

Despite favorite son George W. Bush being at the top of the ticket in 2000, local Democrats held a 2,000 straight-ticket edge, with both parties grabbing approximately 30 percent of the vote. Two years later, the difference was about 4,000 votes, and this was followed in 2004 by a 33-31 advantage, and a 30-26 margin two years ago. When the dust cleared this year, 39 percent of the 743,930 ballots cast were straight-ticket Democrat compared to just 25 percent Republican.

Neerman says he tried to target straight-ticket voting, but there was very little enthusiasm in the county for John McCain. The Sarah Palin pick generated a shot of local excitement, he says, with donors stepping up and people asking for Palin (not McCain) yard signs. But there just weren't enough people willing to vote for McCain.

"There's just no way to sugarcoat it," Neerman says. "We were Obama-ed. I'm using that as a verb now."

Darlene Ewing, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, says she doesn't discount the Obama attraction, but stresses it didn't account for all of the Dems' straight-ticket success.

"Two years ago, they said it was a fluke. Now they're saying it's just Obama. I don't think they get it," she says. "The voters in this county are tired of what we've had for the last 25 years, and that's the Republicans."

Ewing says educating people about the benefits of straight-ticket voting was a key part of her strategy, and her efforts paid off. The message was simple: "Don't stop at the top."

Rather than compete in another straight-ticket ballot war in 2010, Neerman supports a bill that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in Texas. In the last legislative session, Republican State Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio sponsored a bill that would have killed the practice. Texas is one of only 17 states where straight-ticket voting is permissible. But the bill received little support, though Wentworth is expected to introduce it again in the 2009 session.

"It will do two things," Neerman says. "One, it will force the electorate to become more educated about the candidates. And, two, which is the better position, it will force the candidates to clearly define what their message is and what they intend on doing."

Neerman also wants to see judicial races changed to nonpartisan elections. The fashion in Dallas County has been for incumbent judges to change parties depending on the prevailing political winds. The electorate seems to accept their argument that being a good judge has little to do with party affiliation. Criminal District Judge John Creuzot was originally appointed to the bench as a Democrat, became a Republican in the mid-1980s during the Reagan revolution, and then flipped back to being a Democrat for this election cycle. Six of the 12 Republican trial judges up for election in 2010 have already announced their intentions to become Democrats, including Judge Kristin Wade, who agrees judicial races should be nonpartisan.

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