It is shaping up to be an interesting Senatorial race in Texas this year.  First-term Senator, Republican John Cornyn, is starting his re-election bid with lower than expected name recognition for an incumbent and a reputation for showing almost total allegiance to the most unpopular president in the history of public polling.  (Even in his home state, the President’s approval rating has fallen below 50 percent.)  

Adding to the mix is the fact that his challenger, state Representative Rick Noriega (a battalion commander in the Texas National Guard who served 14 months in Afghanistan), has only been four percentage points behind him in the last two polls despite a multi-million dollar disparity in campaign funds.  Moreover, the senior Texas Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, has yet to announce her endorsement of Senator Cornyn.  This may be an oversight on her part, but it is certainly worth noting.

Nonetheless, the aforementioned disparity in campaign funds could be a significant problem.  According to Kevin McLaughlin, Communications Director for Senator Cornyn’s re-election campaign, Rep. Noriega reported raising $330,000 in campaign funds last quarter while Sen. Cornyn reported raising $8.7 million.  With 23 million people in Texas (12.7 million of those are currently registered to vote) and 20 media markets, it costs $1.7 million dollars to saturate the television with advertisements for one week.

Obviously, Sen. Cornyn will be able to do this while Rep. Noriega–with his current campaign funds–will not.

So I called the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and spoke with their Communications Director, Matthew Miller.  Mr. Miller expressed how impressed the DSCC was with Rep. Noriega and his performance and popularity in Texas.  I asked him if the Democratic Party was going to help Rep. Noriega financially.  He replied, “We will support Rep. Noriega in whatever way we can.” 

Was that a yes or a no?  I asked.

To which Mr. Miller repeated, “We will support Rep. Noriega in whatever way we can.”

I am taking that as a no (for now) since Rep. Noriega has less than half a million in cash on hand.

Yet Rep. Noriega shows surprising nationwide recognition and good grassroots support.  According to Hector Niato, spokesperson of the Texas Democratic Party, Noriega won the Democratic primary with than 50 percent of the vote in a three man race.  Additionally, he was the first candidate to avoid a run-off election in several years.

Mr. Niato says that he sees a growing rejection of the Republican platform as the average Texan suffers from the Republican policies.  He says that Texans this year are worried about pocketbook issues, such as the economy, affordable energy, healthcare, college tuition costs (which were deregulated by the Republican Party).  They are also concerned about the war in Iraq. 

When I asked about Rep. Noriega’s appeal with the Hispanic vote in Texas, Mr. Niato felt that would be an over-simplification of Noriega’s success to date, “Rep. Noriega listens to Texans regardless of race or backgrounds and his base of support reflects that.” 

Ultimately, if the Democratic Party doesn’t step up and pay attention to the opportunity that Representative Noriega is giving it, as well as the people of Texas who may want to give another political party a chance to represent them in the Senate, then this opportunity could be lost (at least until 2010 when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson runs for Governor).

“Democrats get excited in March but stay home in November.” 

On the other hand, Hans Klingler, Political and Communications Director of the Texas Republican Party, says that Texas is a “blazingly red state.”  Although 2.8 million Democrats came out to vote in March versus 1.3 million Republicans (there was some disagreement on the Republican voter turnout between Mr. Klingler and Mr. Niato so I am using the numbers provided by the Texas Secretary of State), Mr. Klingler claims that “turn out does not equal results.”

In fact, according to Mr. Klingler, in 5 of the last 8 presidential elections Democrats out-polled Republicans in March but the Republican candidate went on to win the White House anyway.  Thus, according to Mr. Klingler, “[Texas] Democrats get excited in March but stay home in November.” 

Be that as it may, given the stakes of this election, with the economy and the war in Iraq, will this alleged Texan trend (as posited by Mr. Klingler) repeat itself?  And if it doesn’t, could it put a Democrat in the Texas Senate?

“Either Suit Up or Shut Up”

Military.com’s 2008 Election Center features veterans (of both political parties) running for Congress.  Military.com is honoring the service of our veterans by providing them with a national platform for their candidacies while they pursue public office.  Accordingly, we allow them to create their profiles which we in turn place on the Election Center.

Rep. Noriega has spent 25 years in the Texas National Guard, including a fourteen-month combat tour in Afghanistan (12 of which was in-country).  Given Rep. Noriega’s popularity in Texas and his close margins in the polls with the incumbent Senator, he was a veteran candidate that I was looking forward to interviewing.

Rep. Noriega may be a ten-year Texas state Representative, but he is every bit the military man you would expect:  blunt, straight-forward, no-nonsense.

Having actually fought on the ground as an infantry commander in the Global War on Terror, Rep. Noriega, understandably, has strong feelings about the war, our troops, and Senator Cornyn’s positions regarding these. 

Rep. Noriega immediately blasted Senator Cornyn for voting against an expansion of the post-9/11 GI Bill (which Senator Hutchinson actually voted in favor of). 

“Cornyn funds this war but doesn’t fund taking care of the soldiers he sends to fight this war, just like Bush.  He says that the 21st Century GI Bill would hurt retention, but how would he know?  I conduct retention interviews with soldiers every month and you know why they leave the Guard?  Because they can’t take the separations anymore, their families can’t take it anymore.  [Servicemembers] don’t leave because they can get a college education, they are leaving because they aren’t getting enough dwell time between tours, like the Webb amendment that Cornyn voted against!  Cornyn’s comments show a complete lack of understanding for what military families are going through.” 

Rep. Noriega continued, “And I’m sick and tired of folks sending other people’s sons and daughters to fight their wars but not sending their own.  If you are a college Republican, I will tell you to your face: ‘either suit up or shut up.'”

Meanwhile, he says that “in every corner of this state it is agreed upon that this country is on the wrong course, that we have been served poorly by the Bush-Cornyn Administration and we require a change in leadership.”

Noriega also makes an interesting and important connection between the economy and the war.  “Our economy pivots on our foreign policy.  Twelve billion dollars a month in Iraq impacts our economy significantly.  When the war started, oil was 20 gallons a barrel and now it is 135 dollars a barrel.  Gas was $1.35 a gallon and now it is $4 a gallon.  There is uncertainty in the marketplace because of Iraq and because of the Bush-Cornyn leadership.”

Noriega ends the interview with a military analogy.  He explains that in the military they learn about the importance of responsibility and accountability.  “Texans need to hold this incumbent for the job he has done.  I would hold a private more accountable for damage to a piece of equipment than we are holding this Senator for his State.  So think of this election as Cornyn’s Officer Evaluation Report:  ‘Do Not Promote with Peers.’”

To be honest, this interview was refreshing.  It leaves no doubt in one’s mind what Rep. Noriega thinks about a person or an issue.  He doesn’t believe in going to war unnecessarily, which he believes was done in Iraq.  He doesn’t talk in circles and he doesn’t mince words. 

In November, however, will the winning candidate be selected because of his ideas and issues or his war chest and TV ads?  Can Rep. Noriega seriously compete without the financial support of the national Democratic Party?  Is Texas a “blazingly red state” or is there change brewing in the hearts and minds of Texans that Rep. Noriega can tap into–even without greater financial support? 

As with every other question in life worth asking, only time will tell.   

If you want to learn more about Representative Rick Noriega, you can visit his campaign site at www.ricknoriega.com.  If you want to learn more about Senator Cornyn, you can visit his re-election site at www.johncornyn.com.  

Carissa Picard a political correspondent for Military.com.  You can read her op-eds at the Passdown and her political blogs at the 2008 Election Center.  She is also the founder and President of Military Spouses for Change, a non-partisan, non-profit advocacy organization for servicemembers, veterans, and their families.  Her husband is an Army pilot deploying to Iraq. 

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