Two Democrats Square Off Versus Cornyn

Posted August 1, 2007 at 5:57pm

To hear Democrats talk about the 2008 Texas Senate race, they’re just happy to have not one, but two candidates deemed capable of mounting a credible challenge to first-term Sen. John Cornyn (R).

But talk to the candidates themselves — state Rep. Rick Noriega and wealthy trial attorney Mikal Watts — and it becomes clear a contentious Democratic primary could be in the offing, with Watts suggesting Noriega isn’t up to the task of beating Cornyn, and Noriega hinting Watts is trying to use his wealth to buy a Senate seat.

“I think we will outwork him,” said Watts, a Corpus Christi native who now lives in San Antonio, during a telephone interview last week. “He’s a nice guy, but I intend to win the nomination, and the Senate seat.”

Watts already is on the road and campaigning hard to secure the support of a broad coalition of Texas Democrats, having since dumped $10 million of his own money into the race: $3.8 million for the primary and $6.2 million for the general election.

Noriega didn’t sound too impressed, noting that while Watts was busy making a mint as a trial attorney, he was serving the public in the trenches — both as a state legislator and an officer in the Texas National Guard whose service included a deployment to Afghanistan.

“I think everyone recognizes that my candidacy contrasts with the incumbent, and that’s what wins; not just somebody who has a fat wallet,” Noriega, of Houston, said last week in a telephone interview. “We’ve tried that model before and it hasn’t proven to be a winning model. There are just some things that you just can’t buy.”

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has a record of intervening in primary contests, although thus far there have been no signs that he is playing in Texas.

But that could change.

In the previous cycle, Schumer took sides in Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania and Virginia on behalf of now-Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.) and Jim Webb (Va.). The high cost of running a competitive statewide race in Texas could spur the DSCC chairman to side with Watts — particularly considering the two have an existing relationship.

In April, Watts hosted a DSCC fundraiser at his San Antonio home that Schumer headlined, with the event bringing in $1.1 million for the committee.

With a cadre of Texas Democratic activists having urged Noriega to run for Senate early on, and Watts’ connection to the DSCC, the primary could unfold as a battle between the Democratic Party’s grass roots and its political elite.

But despite the tension that exists between the two campaigns, Democrats generally don’t appear too divided.

Rather, they are encouraged at the prospect of a potentially competitive primary contest, arguing that it proves the Democratic Party is in the midst of a resurgence in Texas, which for statewide races has been solid Republican territory since the early 1990s.

In 2006, GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison cruised to re-election over nominal Democratic opposition despite the favorable political environment for Democrats nationwide.

Some Democratic operatives with extensive experience in Texas politics say next year’s early March primary contest will be a battle of two individuals, each with their own unique personal story and political style, as well as a few differences on key policy issues.

They argue that socioeconomic class and ethnicity — Watts is a white millionaire, Noriega a Latino of more modest means — will not play a significant role in the outcome of the primary.

“Rick Noriega is a very attractive candidate, not just to the activists but to many other people. The real question is whether people who look at politics in a coldblooded fashion can see him raising the money he’ll need to win in the fall,” said one Democratic operative.

“With Mikal it’s the flip side,” the operative continued. “Clearly he has the resources to compete all the way through the end. The question is whether a guy who’s never been elected to public office before” can run an effective campaign.

With Watts raising more than $1 million in just weeks toward the end of the second quarter — in addition to the personal money he’s already thrown in — Noriega has some catch-up to play on the financial front. But if Noriega can raise the funds he needs to compete with Watts, as he vows he will, then the race could boil down to an argument over key issues.

In their interviews with Roll Call, the two candidates attacked each other, with Noriega hitting Watts for his position on abortion and Watts criticizing Noriega for his stance on the Iraq War.

Watts said he is against abortion rights, except in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is at stake.

But when pressed to explain how this position would color his approach to abortion as a matter of public policy, Watts sought to differentiate his personal beliefs from his views on what the law should be, indicating that he has no desire to see the procedure criminalized or outlawed.

“I have a personal position on abortion. But I don’t intend to get involved in driving wedges where no policy change is possible,” Watts said.

Noriega, who described himself as favoring abortion rights, said Watts is out of step with Democratic primary voters on this issue. Noriega said it is an issue that he expects to benefit from politically as the primary race develops.

“We’re diametrically opposed 180 degrees on women’s human rights,” Noriega said. “Women’s organizations in the state are supporting me.”

For his part, Watts signaled that he might seek to make Noriega’s position on the Iraq War an issue. Watts said he supports an amendment to a bill offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that called for most troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by a fixed date next year, while arguing that Noriega’s position on the war is unclear.

“Rick supports the Iraq Study Group. But that’s outdated, so it’s hard to figure out where he stands on that,” Watts said.

Noriega countered that the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations are still operable, adding that he also supports the Reid-Levin amendment.