As the electorate's disgust with its leadership deepens and the general election approaches, Republicans, even in Texas, are suiting up to defend their posts. Face-offs are unfolding in numerous local and statewide contests, but the showdown between Senator John Cornyn and state Representative Lieutenant Colonel Rick Noriega—and the recent seesawing polls on the race—provide a revealing glimpse into the state's shifting political makeup and what it would take for Democrats to take ground in statewide contests this fall.
A Rasmussen poll created a stir in May when it put Noriega, a Houston Democrat, just 4 points behind Cornyn, who garnered slightly less than the 50 percent support required to be considered solidly re-electable. While the Cornyn camp dismissed the results as unreliable, the Noriega campaign rejoiced and touted the poll as confirmation of voters' demand for change. Yet in late May, Rasmussen released a second poll, this one with wildly different results. Cornyn showed a whopping 17-point lead, with 52 percent support compared to Noriega's 35 percent. A separate poll conducted by Austin-based GOP pollster Mike Baselice showed Cornyn leading Noriega by 16 points, though the incumbent's support, at 49 percent, fell below the magical 50-percent threshold.
What does all this mean? Political observers such as Southern Methodist University's Cal Jillson guess that Cornyn's lead is somewhere between 4 and 17 points but closer to 17, and they see a well-known and well-funded Republican incumbent who—as the closest senator to President Bush—may be more vulnerable than his campaign cares to admit. Yet for Noriega to capitalize on Texas' shifting demographics and Republican malaise, he'll have to serve up a much broader and stronger campaign than he's dished out so far.
"A generic Republican running against a generic Democrat in Texas has a 10-point advantage. As an incumbent Cornyn has advantages with name recognition, and more importantly, he has $7.5 million in the bank and Noriega has $750,000," says Jillson, a political science professor. "The thing you look at now is whether Noriega begins to raise any significant money in Texas. He needs a minimum of $10 million to make a credible race."
To pull that off and attract national Democratic Party funds, Noriega, who served in Afghanistan and is currently on active duty with the Texas Army National Guard, had better jumpstart his campaign.
"Noriega has to become a better speaker and broaden his message," Harvey Kronberg of the political newsletter The Quorum Report, says. "Right now he's talking mostly about veterans, and that's an OK constituency, but there's not enough votes there. He needs to get more media and raise his name recognition from 10 to 25 percent." The first Rasmussen poll showed the Democrat with 80 percent name recognition, a number that indicated to Kronberg and others that the poll was dead wrong. "Noriega doesn't have an 80 percent name ID in his district, let alone in the real world," Kronberg says.
The largest force working against Noriega is the fact that while Texas' demographic shift toward a more racially diverse and liberal electorate is making for pockets of Democratic voters able to turn local races, as happened in Dallas County in 2006, they won't have the clout to swing many statewide races for another decade or more, Jillson says. To make matters worse, though Noriega boasts a Hispanic name, a number of South Texas Hispanic leaders like McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez have endorsed Cornyn in spite of his support for the border wall and his opposition to bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform.
Yet Kronberg thinks Noriega has a chance. "I think Democrats have finally broken the code on how to organize, and Republicans can't figure out why they should go vote," he says. "If the facts today are the same facts in November, I don't think it's too difficult at all...All he really has to do is show some forward motion, and if everything's breaking right for Democrats, they'll find the money for it."
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The question is whether Noriega can forge ahead. Not surprisingly, his campaign says he will.
"We've seen an overwhelming attitude from Texans all over the state wanting new leadership," says Noriega campaign spokesperson Holly Shulman. "I think this recent poll is a testament showing Cornyn's weakness. We've consistently seen him polling under 50 percent."
Kevin McLaughlin, a Cornyn campaign spokesperson, dismissed the polls. "There's not a poll that could come out that would change our game plan," he says. "Senator Cornyn has a record that's in line with Texas and Texans—we're running on what he's done and what he wants to do."
To build momentum, Noriega aims to expand his campaign discussions to Medicare and Social Security, as well as reach out to young voters online. He'll also maintain and expand his focus on benefits and improved care for soldiers and veterans. Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and former Marine who sponsored a bill expanding education benefits for veterans that Cornyn opposed, has endorsed Noriega and is campaigning on his behalf while the candidate is on duty with the National Guard. Once he returns, Shulman says, Noriega will hit the campaign trail.