Politics 2004Week of March 29


On April 9, something will occur in Texas that would have been regarded as sheer fantasy a generation ago: Republican election run-offs. Not until the 1960s did Texas GOPers even have primaries. Their nominees for office (when they were able to people willing to run in a state where the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election.) were chosen by conventions. Sure, the party did begin to have contested primaries for most offices four decades ago. But crowded contests that required run-offs were few and far between. The first statewide runoff for the GOP was in 1964, when Houston oilman and first-time candidate George H. W. Bush was nominated for the U.S. Senate with 62%, following a runoff with Democrat-turned-Republican Jack Cox, who had been the GOP’s ’62 gubernatorial candidate. The second was in 1972, when State Sen. Hank Grover captured the gubernatorial standard after a run-off with fellow Houston conservative stalwart and businessman Albert Bel Fay.

Times have changed. These days, run-offs for the Republican nomination–which, in some parts of George W. Bush’s Texas spells certain election this fall–are quite common. Possibly the most heated runoff next month will take place in the new Republican 10th District between mortgage banker Ben Streusand and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike McCaul, son-in-law of the head of the Clear Channel radio empire. The significance of a Republican congressman in the 10th is clear: Once considered a nationwide bastion of Democratic liberalism, this Austin-based district was represented in the House for 57 years by three Democrats who were close friends: Lyndon B. Johnson (1937-48), longtime Johnson aide and eventual federal judge and doomed Supreme Court nominee Homer Thornberry (1948-63), and his fellow Johnson aide Jake Pickle (1963-94), who was one seat away from the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time of his retirement.

“Lyndon’s boys” had a tight fraternity. When top LBJ staffer John B. Connally became engaged in 1940, he asked the congressman to serve as best man at his Austin wedding. While most men would consider such a request a great honor, Johnson declined because he felt he could not get away from his duties in Washington for the wedding. Fellow staffer Pickle thereupon stood up for the future governor of Texas.


When Pickle retired in 1994, the seat was won by the leader of a new generation of liberals: Lloyd Doggett, onetime University of Texas student body president, leader of the “Killer Bees” (liberals) in the state senate, Democratic U.S. Senate nominee in 1984, and state supreme court justice. But Republican-ruled redistricting this year dramatically changed this capital district of Texas liberalism, expanding it from the Northeast part of Travis County (Austin) to the Harris County (Houston) suburbs. Getting the message, Doggett (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 7%) moved and was nominated this year in the neighboring, strongly Latino 25th District, which stretches from Austin to the Mexican border.

So the former turf of LBJ and Doggett is now one of the most securely Republican of all 33 House districts in Texas. Eight Republicans competed in the primary earlier this month, with Streusand and McCaul emerging on top. At this point, 46-year-old mortgage banker, Streusand is the strong favorite of most GOP conservatives. A graduate of George Washington University and a former congressional staffer, Streusand launched his Home Loan Corp. with five employees and guided it to becoming a major business in 15 states with 35 branches and 650 employees.

Even though, Doggett and McCaul have relatively few differences on political issues, the businessman-candidate is gaining ground on the right because–he makes key conservative causes focal points of his campaign rather than just saying he would vote for them and thus reminds many voters more of the crusading “Gingrich class” of Republicans who took control of the House a decade ago than of the mainly less feisty Republicans who have been elected to the House since. On the 2nd Amendment, for example, life National Rifle Association member Streusand not only supports gun rights but vows to introduce legislation to repeal the 1993 Brady Instant Check. Similarly, he wants to change laws to empower local officials to deport illegal immigrants and, in supporting a national sales tax, calls for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.

“And I’m the only candidate who can say he helped tens of thousands of district families achieve their dreams of home-ownership,” says Streusand. Although McCaul styles himself a conservative and does not disagree with his opponent on most issues, Streusand supporters cite that McCaul worked for Bill Clinton and then-Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in the Justice Department. Where McCaul has never been a Republican convention delegate, Streusand backers argue, their man has not only been a delegate at numerous conventions but has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican causes and candidates.

(Streusand for Congress, 6046 FM 2920, Suite #309, Spring, Tex. 77379; 281-668-9470.)


Less than three weeks after Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R.-Colo.) made his surprise retirement announcement, Centennial State Republicans appeared to have rallied around a likely nominee: former Rep. (1996-2002) Bob Schaffer, a stalwart conservative in Congress and now a Ft. Collins businessman and radio talk show host. Last week, present Republican Representatives Tom Tancredo and Marilyn Musgrave–strong conservatives and friends of Schaffer–announced they would remain in the House rather than run for the Senate. Their announcements came on the heels of similar “no-goes” by Rep. Scott McInnis (who had earlier announced his retirement from Congress and is reportedly negotiating for a position with a major law firm) and State Treasurer Mike Coffman. Also deciding against the Senate race last week was U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, a Coloradan and former Republican National Chairman.

For his part, the 41-year-old Schaffer told me days after Campbell’s announced exit that “I will run if [Republican Gov.] Bill Owens doesn’t.” By the end of the week, the popular Owens was out of the race and Schaffer was in. Just last week, a Who’s Who of leading right-of-center Republican House members led by Republican Study Committee Chairman Sue Myrick (N.C.) hosted a fund-raising breakfast in Washington for their former colleague from Colorado. In addition, Sen. John Ensign (R.-Nev.) hosted an event in Las Vegas for Schaffer and eight other Republican Senate candidates.

As state legislator and congressman, Schaffer (lifetime ACU rating: 99%) was a hero to his state’s conservatives for his stands on issues ranging from his refusal to attend the State of the Union address in 1999 after voting to impeach Bill Clinton to his honoring his “three-terms-I’m out” pledge in ’02 by retiring from Congress. It was that latter stand that won Schaffer the encouragement and critical early support from the conservative who is easily Colorado’s most revered Republican: former Sen. (1978-90) Bill Armstrong.

Fourteen years after leaving office for the private sector, Armstrong remains a major influence within his state’s party. According to the Capitol Hill periodical Roll Call, the former senator “played a major role in securing behind-the-scenes support for the former congressman.” Armstrong, perhaps one of the most vigorous proponents of term limits, was particularly fond of Schaffer because he honored the pledge he had signed when he first ran for Congress to step down after three terms. (In contrast, both Tancredo and McInnis had broken the same pledge and, while this has not hurt their re-elections, which have been easy, it might well have made them targets for intense negative media broadsides from U.S. Term Limits in a Senate race.)