Tue, 05/01/2007 - 3:01pm
Mikal Watts is regularly among the five most prolific givers to Democratic candidates in Texas. He's 39 years old, with a wife and three kids, and has spent the better part of the last 20 years in Corpus Christi, involving himself in Democratic politics to varying degrees. As a plaintiff's attorney, he's garnered settlements and verdicts for his clients totaling over $2 billion. You may be further interested to know that he's seriously considering a run against John Cornyn.
Here at the Blue, we regularly find ourselves commenting on Texas' political future. In our very first week, we discussed the possibility that Cornyn might be vulnerable in 2008. That vulnerability wasn't a trade secret, but it was worth considering, even if our musings were illustrative rather than exhaustive.
About a month ago, we posed the question of Cornyn's vulnerability again, this time in a more specific manner: what effect, if any, would the netroots have on the race for Cornyn's seat? Specific to that conversation, we discussed State Representative Rick Noriega, as a certain blogger power center had taken a shine to the idea of his candidacy.
Now we turn our attention to Mikal Watts. You may not know who he is, but Mikal Watts has probably thought about you if you've driven a Ford with Firestone tires, or if you ever took Rezulin for diabetes, or had AT&T illegally give your phone records to the federal government. You may not know who Mikal Watts is, but he's probably thought about you if you're a Democratic voter in Texas.
Blood in the water
It is no secret that John Cornyn is vulnerable. Matthew Miller from the DSCC is adamant about the possibilities, saying, “John Cornyn has been largely content to build a Senate profile as a partisan bomb-thrower and explainer-in-chief for everything that has failed in the last few years in Washington. But times have changed, and Texans don’t want a knee-jerk defender of the DC status quo. They want a Senator who will help end the war in Iraq and represent every Texan, not just a select few. Texans aren’t satisfied with what John Cornyn has shown them, and they’re open to a challenge.”
The Texas Democratic Party is also excited by the prospect presented in Cornyn's popularity, or specifically the lack thereof. “During his time in the Senate, John Cornyn has continuously placed party politics over the people of Texas and supported a partisan agenda that is out of touch with Texas voters," said Amber Moon, Communications Director for the TDP. She went on to reinforce the DSCC poll's implications. "[It] confirms Cornyn’s vulnerability, showing a favorability rating of only 41% and a re-elect under 50%, dangerously low for any incumbent Senator. These numbers are certainly encouraging to Texas Democrats, and we are confident a credible Democratic challenger will be running against John Cornyn in 2008.”
And that's really the issue — the numbers. Rick Perry has earned the dubious nickname of "Governor 39%," which has seemingly replaced his former title of "Governor Goodhair." This is likely because his poor showing last November was an abject embarrassment despite being good enough for a win. He was obviously quite vulnerable, and Texans were generally displeased with him — enough so that many of his traditional voters, not to mention a large majority of Texans, actually voted for someone else. He had a credible challenger in former Congressman Chris Bell, which under normal circumstance would have made the race competitive. The difficulty we had in 2006 was the presence of two independent candidates with enough resources to garner more than single digit performances, which threw the balance towards Perry's established base of hard-line conservatives.
Will to power
Will there be a prominent, credible challenger for Cornyn? This is of primary concern among Texas Democrats with an eye toward the future. Fred Baron, a Dallas-based retired plaintiff's attorney who supports Democrats in Texas to the point of what can only be described as political philanthropy, is critical of Cornyn and optimistic about what his performance has wrought. "John Cornyn hasn't represented the values and ideas of most Texans," says Baron, "and recent polls show that he's certainly vulnerable to a well-financed, mainstream, Democratic candidate."
"Well-funded" is a particular sticking point in some Democratic circles, but it is an inexorable reality that the car won't run without gas in the tank. Cornyn is weak, and very little will change that. I suppose I can imagine a situation or two in which he becomes as vaunted as senior Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison: perhaps he rescues a whole orphanage (and their kittens) single-handedly from a massive building fire set by al-Qaeda, during the course of which he also manages to ban taxation all together, "win" the Iraq War, and capture Osama bin Laden. Anything short of that, however, and Cornyn remains wounded and limping towards an uncertain future.
But who might end up running for the Democratic nomination, and what might that eventual candidacy need to look like in order to win? A conservative price tag on the total cost of running a credible campaign against John Cornyn of $15 million has been thrown around, but I'm not sure that gets even a great candidate with a smart campaign over 47%. To really put the shoes to Cornyn, a Democratic challenger is going to need about $25 million over the course of the campaign. They will also need to have broad appeal, and a connection to South Texas wouldn't hurt.
Ways and means
In addressing the funding issue, it is important to point out that Mikal Watts is a man of means. Anyone familiar with Democratic politics in Corpus Christi, or in and around South Texas, knows that he regularly contributes to campaigns, often a great deal. In 2006, he was instrumental in enabling freshman State Representative Juan Garcia's field operation. From the beginning, people called Garcia's race against Republican incumbent Gene Seaman unwinnable, but somehow they pulled it together. I had heard from a number of sources about what is now affectionately referred to as "the Army of Juan," so I asked Christian Archer, Garcia's campaign strategist, about the role Watts had played.
The essential aspect of the field operation was an expansion of what had been put in place on Bill White's campaign for mayor of Houston. Archer explained some mechanics of the operation. "Before field operatives were hired on to the campaign, they had to undergo three days of intensive training and then pass an essay exam on Bill White: who he was, his positions on the issues, what his plans were for taxes, everything imaginable." This system was also used on the Garcia campaign, with help from Watts.
"I had originally gone to Mikal and asked him to raise $50,000 to enable the field operation," says Archer. "Not only did he do that, but after becoming more engaged with Garcia and observing our grassroots operation, he eventually helped us fully fund the effort. Because of that, we were able to knock on 85,000 doors." Watts was engaged in the actual grassroots effort as well. "He would read the exams, and he would pump up the block walkers before they went out. He understands the importance of grassroots politics, and appreciates what it takes to do it right."
Legitimacy via finance
So, we've established that Watts a) has money to give, b) gives it, and c) has a professed and demonstrable interest in grassroots politics. Having money to spend, by itself, does not an effective statewide candidate make. Texas Democrats learned this lesson the hard way with the candidacy of Tony Sanchez, who spent somewhere around $60 million of his own money and was summarily beaten like a blind man in a prize fight. The ability to self-fund, especially in a federal race, can be a mixed blessing.
According to the McCain-Feingold Act, there are some magic numbers for fundraising in federal races. Due to the so-called "Millionaire's amendment," if one Texas candidate puts more than $1.3 million into his own race, his opponent is then able to double up from his donors, meaning the aggregate total they can give to him for the general election increases from $2300 to $4600. (Update: I originally did not mention there are also cases in which limits can triple, or increase by six times — the PDF linked above from the FEC has more.) On the upper echelon, if a candidate puts anything above $8.6 million into his own race, the floodgates are open, and national PACs can essentially dump unlimited funds into his opponent's war chest. In any successful run against Cornyn, discretion and strategy in fundraising and finance are more important than raw financial power.
For these mechanical reasons, were Mikal Watts (or any candidate with a great deal of personal wealth) to run for Senate, it would be important for him to be able to raise money as well. I also happen to think that the ability to raise money is important for the campaign's legitimacy. If a wealthy Democratic candidate is able to move forward confident that the campaign will never have to worry about finance, and yet still manages to raise more money than John Cornyn, then that changes the tenor and the tone of how the story is reported. The story then becomes "Democrats have raised more money than Republicans" rather than "Two rich guys are running for Senate."
Mikal Watts had a fundraiser for the DSCC a few weeks ago, putting together just over $1.1 million for Schumer, as told by the Burnt Orange Report, Roll Call, and other sources. Schumer and the DSCC have taken an interest in Texas that we've not seen in a while, going so far as to commission a poll on Cornyn's vulnerability.
Watts has not himself said that he's getting into the race, but the DSCC event has caused speculation to increase a great deal in the last several days. The significant amount of funds raised for the DSCC piqued my interest, so I called the usual suspects to see what some Texas Democrats thought of the race, of the political environment, and from those willing to be quoted, of the prospective candidate.
Danny Noyola, Jr. is a State Democratic Executive Committeeman from Corpus Christi, where Watts resided until a very recent move to San Antonio. He was quick to cite Watts' level of involvement in Democratic politics in the area. "He's given money to and been involved with many local progressive organizations like LULAC and NAACP, and he's been helping candidates get elected, including both Democrats and candidates for non-partisan offices throughout Nueces County."
Former Texas Land Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro was impressed by Watts' fundraising capability. "It's pretty impressive what Mikal did [at the DSCC fundraiser]. You put that on top of the San Antonio/Bexar County project, and his GOTV effort for Juan Garcia, and he's definitely a player. The question is: does he want to be a candidate? I think he's a long way from deciding to be a Senate candidate, but when you look at everything he's done, he's certainly the most interesting person who's being discussed, and in my mind, of the people that are being discussed, he's the one who would be most likely to win."
Former Texas House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes recognizes Watts' fundraising potential as being a positive aspect to his potential candidacy. “Mikal Watts is a smart guy, and I am excited that such a successful Texan is interested in politics," says Barnes. "He would make a strong candidate because this is going to be an expensive race and Mikal has the ability to raise the necessary funds.”
A potential candidate's personal successes are also a compelling draw for Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project and prominent Democratic strategist. "The fact that somebody of his caliber that's been successful at a very young age is looking at the seat in such a serious way illustrates the vulnerability of John Cornyn. Anybody who knows Mikal Watts knows he is a quality individual. Nick Lampson, also, is a very successful and accomplished individual. The fact that he's also looking at this race means that Democrats in general and Republicans and independents who are tired of failed leadership see the Texas Senate race as an opportunity for real change." Even as this story was being prepared, the Chron ran an article about Lampson's possible bid for the Senate, and that overview is informative.
Some of the superstars in the State Representative corps have ended up on a list or two. Rick Noriega has been discussed in this publication at great length. Pete Gallego and Richard Raymond have also been discussed as possibilities, and they are usually discussed fondly. The thing standing between them and open campaigning (or at least open test-ballooning) is the legislative session, which has been an uncharacteristically successful experience for Democrats thus far. "We all owe Mikal thanks for his fundraising. I understand his event for the DSCC was a great success," said Noriega. "I believe that anyone willing to offer themselves up for public service deserves our respect. Now more than ever we need Texans standing up. That's what I plan on doing for the next 30 plus days until this session is over." Everyone is concentrating on the session, and rightly so: no matter what they end up doing after the session, they won't lose anything by making progress in that chamber.
A Sudden Shift
Mikal Watts' profession is a potential point of concern among some Democrats who've been to this rodeo before: Watts is not just a trial lawyer — he's essentially the trial lawyer, having put serious dents in negligent, multinational corporations on behalf of injured plaintiffs for the last ten years. The identity of being a trial lawyer was once a serious problem for Democratic candidates in this state, but there seems to be a trend away from that.
Polling from various sources indicates that while Republicans who were predisposed against voting for Democrats also wouldn't vote for trial lawyers, swing voters don't show a significant disposition against trial lawyers when it is leveraged as a negative identifier. In short, hard-line Republicans dislike trial lawyers, but most people don't really care any more. That isn't to say a concerted campaign against trial lawyers might not change the current environment, but it may be a harder sell now that the GOP no longer has the wind to its back.
It is also worth mentioning that Republican operatives may engage in the same sort of campaigning built on vitriol and rage that has worked for them for so long, but swing voters and even some traditionally Republican voters might be trending away from that kind of noise. Evidence of that shift was apparent in some of the state House races in 2006. Certainly, general dissatisfaction with failed Republican leadership, demographic shifts, and great campaigns helped elect great candidates like Juan Garcia and Ellen Cohen and Allen Vaught. I would argue, though, that there was also something more fundamental at work, some slight shift away from the collective feeling that made GOP Campaign Rage so effective for so long.
Until something specific happens — a declaration, the opening of an exploratory committee, an unequivocal statement of intent — the strongest language I can use to describe a potential Watts candidacy is "an interesting prospect." To be more specific, Watts' proven ability as a fundraiser, his personal means, and his level of involvement at the grassroots and activism levels indicates a unique, multi-layered identity with a great deal of potential.
In a field which could potentially include well-meaning, qualified, quality Democrats from many different arenas, Watts stands out but is not necessarily inevitable — no one can make that kind of prediction before the entire field is known, and even then there are regularly surprising developments.
About that DSCC fundraiser, Watts said, "We deserve representation in the Senate. We deserve leadership in the Senate. And the truth is, right now we don't have any. Texans are desperate for real leadership. And judging by the showing at my house last week, I'm not the only person in Texas who thinks so."
To me, at least, that sounds less like a host committee recap and more like a stump speech, but only time will tell.
(Correction: Originally, Christian Archer was listed as Juan Garcia's campaign manager; Archer was Garcia's campaign strategist, and his campaign manager was Marc Duchen.)