Texas Free For All
NOVEMBER 4, 1996
Why this election won't be completely over everywhere on November 6: Betty Ann Bowser reports on the most unusual congressional elections in Texas.
MARJORIE ARSHT, Republican Activist: Thank you all for coming.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eighty-four-year old Marjorie Arsht, a Republican Party activist, can still recall a time when the grand old party in Texas wasn't all that grand.
MARJORIE ARSHT: You see, I remember when we couldn't find one Republican town.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But tomorrow, there will be a total of eight Republican candidates all trying to defeat incumbent Democrat Ken Bentsen in Texas's 25th congressional district. That's because last June, the U.S. Supreme Court declared three congressional districts in Texas had been unconstitutionally drawn based on race. A three-judge panel redrew those districts and in a controversial move changed ten neighboring ones as well. The judges then threw out the results of the primary elections in all 13 areas and opened tomorrow's election to any candidate who wished to run. In most districts, only two or thee new candidates got into the race, but in Houston's 25th, Ken Bentsen's district, nine new candidates jumped in. There's a former radio talk show host--a businessman who brags he can water ski barefoot--there's a perennial office seeker who's never been elected to anything--and that's just for starters. All in all, there are two Democrats, eight Republicans, and a Socialist in the race. Leaders in both political parties say this has all been very confusing for voters. Sue Schechter is the Harris County Democratic campaign coordinator.
SUE SCHECHTER, Harris County Democratic Party's: It's like a free-for-all primary, is basically what it's like, uh, and for voters, it's like learning about ten new folks that they've never heard of, that they've never been involved in the political process, and that suddenly they're on their ballot in November.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Polls show it's unlikely any of the candidates in District 25 will get 50 percent of the vote. The same is true in at least two of the other contested districts, so there will have to be runoff elections in December. And if control of the U.S. House of Representatives is within two or three seats after tomorrow, the nation could have to wait until after the Texas runoffs to learn who has the majority. Political scientist Bob Stein.
BOB STEIN, Rice University: Consider this; that on November 5th, we might elect a President, but we won't know who the Congress--which party will hold the Congress. There's a lot of guessing in this game, and it's imprecise, but the good numbers are that there will be three seats in Texas for which they'll be runoffs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: There hasn't been such a free-for-all in Texas politics since 1961, when 71 candidates entered the U.S. Senate race to replace Lyndon Johnson, who'd been elected Vice President. In that race, there were so many Democratic candidates that they splintered the party vote, and when it was all over, John Tower found himself the first Republican U.S. Senator from Texas since Reconstruction. Marjorie Arsht was a speech writer for Tower in those days. Since then, she has watched the Texas Republican Party grow and gain power. Now she worries that the Republican vote could fracture like it did for Democrats in 1961.
MARJORIE ARSHT: Today, uh, the party, of course, has flourished, and it is beginning, I think, to show the same signs of disarray, if you want, that the Democrats did for so many years.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rice University Political Scientist Stein says having so many Republicans in the race will likely help Bentsen.
BOB STEIN: All this does, of course, is spread the Republican vote out and doesn't necessarily let the most competitive candidate against Ken Bentsen emerge. Again, I think it suggests something of a national problem for the Republicans. Even though they are strong, particularly in the South, they have an ideological split that does not allow them to win in general elections or put forward that candidate that can draw not just from the brace of--base of Republicans, but draw from undecided, independent, and possibly ticket-splitting Democrats.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dolly Madison McKenna, the most moderate Republican in the group, hopes to draw from those kinds of voters. She has twice run for Congress from the 25th but did not run in this year's primary because she felt religious conservatives would defeat her the way they did in the 1994 primary.
DOLLY MADISON McKENNA, Republican Candidate: This for me is a very positive situation because it's not a primary. Being in open election, you're going to have a lot more voters and a lot more centrist voters, and that's to my benefit.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Religious conservative Judge John Devine got into the race to keep someone like McKenna from getting elected and because he didn't think he could win in a primary either. He's conducting a massive phone and mail campaign, targeted specifically at religious conservatives.
JOHN DEVINE, Republican Candidate: We looked at the field of candidates that the Republicans and the Democrats had to offer in the 25th congressional district, and it became obvious to me that there was no true conservative in the race, uh, particularly on the Republican side, who had the political strength to beat Ken Bentsen.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Perhaps the most unhappy Republican in the race is the would-be nominee Brent Perry. He won the primary by putting together a coalition of religious conservatives and moderates, people like McKenna and Devine, who are now hurting him.
BRENT PERRY, Republican Candidate: Honestly, each one comes at me from a different perspective, and they pick at a different part of the coalition that I've built up, but each one of them sort of picks at a different part of my base and, and makes it hard to get a tremendous number of votes, enough votes to show me as a real strong contender.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The job of trying to keep all of these factions together falls on the shoulders of Gary Polland, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party.
GARY POLLAND, Harris County Republican Party: And I've requested all the candidates to sign a pledge to endorse the eventual nominee of the party in this race, and all of them have done so, because if we're not together, we can't beat Bentsen.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: As for Ken Bentsen, all he could do this summer was stand by and watch as the judges reshaped his district from one that favored Democrats to one that slightly favors Republicans. Bentsen thinks he can still win, though, in spite of the disadvantage.
REP. KEN BENTSEN, Democratic Candidate: And I'm running on my record. It's a record that fits this district. It's common sense, fiscally moderate to conservative, socially moderate. That's where this district is. I fit it very well, and I've continued to run on it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bentsen has only one challenger from within his party--former City Councilwoman Beverly Clark. She's a religious conservative who could pick up votes from Republicans.
BEVERLY CLARK, Democratic Candidate: I offer them, uh, my grandmother's values. And I hate to see people tag them Democratic or Republican values. What I own are values that were given to me by my grandparents, my mother--as far back as I can remember. So I don't think any party has entitlement to them.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most analysts agree that with so many candidates fighting for conservative votes, Bentsen is likely to make the runoff just by getting most of the Democratic vote. But the bad news for Bentsen is in the runoff process. University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray.
RICHARD MURRAY, University of Houston: Without question in Texas, runoffs (a) call fewer voters back, Republican voters, who are better educated, probably following the news more closely, maybe feel more passionately, they get back to the polls. That's how we got Sen. John Tower way back in 1961, when Texas was a very Democratic state. Republicans have a long history in this state of winning special elections when there's low turnout.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And if, indeed, the fate of who controls the U.S. Congress is left to be determined by a few districts in Texas, Murray says one can expect hundreds of activists from both political parties and special interest groups to flood the state after tomorrow.
RICHARD MURRAY: We'll see the AFL-CIO that's got their troops scattered over seventy-five districts collapse them into three districts. We'll see on the Republican side every ounce of political muscle and cash that the NRA and the Christian Coalition can muster flowing into districts like the 25th.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The expected runoffs are scheduled for December 10th.