AUSTIN (AP) – Democrats have three top candidates to choose from in the primary race for the U.S. Senate, but their ultimate choice will probably say more about the party’s future in Texas than who goes to Washington next year.
Every candidate says they are running to win the general election, but the odds are long. Former state Rep. Paul Sadler, party activist Sean Hubbard and trial lawyer Jason Gibson all insist they have a fighting chance to replace Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison this November. Those who believe President Barack Obama will win re-election speculate he could carry many down-ballot Democrats on his coattails, even in the red state of Texas.
But Democrats currently hold no statewide office in Texas and polls say that is unlikely to change this year. In the nine statewide races this election cycle, Democrats are only running in three: U.S. Senate, Railroad Commission Place One and chief judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Democrats know they have a long way to go to regaining relevance in statewide races, and Sadler said this race is the first step back to multi-party politics in Texas.
“The Texas Democratic Party was the majority party in this state for 160 years; we are the party that built all of our highways, built our educational institutions, the health care system; we are the party that built this state,” Sadler said. “The independent voter has voted more Republican in recent years, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true every year, and I don’t think that’s true this year.”
Sadler won election five times in State House District 8 to represent the East Texas counties of Harrison, Rusk and Panola between 1992 and 2002. He chaired the public education committee and was considered one of the Legislature’s top experts on schools. Sadler lost a special election to fill an empty seat in the Texas Senate and has worked and lobbied in Austin ever since. But he says he’s ready to serve again.
“I served on the Legislative Budget Board, was named one of the 10 best legislators four sessions in a row and no one else has that kind of experience,” Sadler said. “This is the U.S. Senate, it is the highest legislative office in the country, and I think that kind of background and experience level is not only important, but it’s crucial.”
Jason Gibson has not held elected office, but he has won more than $80 million in settlements and verdicts representing injured workers and consumers. He says he is proud to come from a pro-union, working-class family and for fighting corporations and insurance companies on behalf of average citizens, experiences that many Republicans openly ridicule.
“You’ve got Republicans out there that are really Democrats, they just don’t know it yet,” Gibson said. “You have a lot of people out there whose ears are closed and they aren’t listening. I can get people to open their ears, and at least that’s a start.”
Pushing a more progressive, or liberal, message is Sean Hubbard, a young-looking 31-year-old who helped the Obama Dallas campaign and has worked in small business ever since. He’s been shaking hands at party events and pushing for a starker contrast with Republican candidates.
“I’m neither a lawyer nor a lobbyist … so I can relate better to your average working Texan,” Hubbard said. “We’ve allowed the Republicans here in Texas to define us as gun-takers and baby-killers and what we have to do is get back to reminding folks what being a progressive means, and what being a Democrat is. We’re the party of Social Security and Medicare; we’re the party that fights for civil rights.”
On that point all of the candidates agree. The reason why the party doesn’t do better in Texas is because the Democratic brand is weak and lacks a statewide leader who can rally support. That is perhaps the most important aspect of the Senate primary and the general election, even if recent polls give these candidates little hope of winning.
Hubbard says he is building a statewide campaign organization that will persist after the election on behalf of the party. Gibson, a tall, good-looking fitness buff, said he can spark a party resurgence. Sadler says he knows the history and has the experience.
“The Democratic Party is still here, and we have a great heritage in this state … and I’m not going to run from that and I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m going to remind people of it,” Sadler said. “I think some people will come home (to the party) because of that.”
The primary election will give Democrats the chance to vote for who they think can succeed, not only in the election, but in revitalizing the party.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)