Second Thought: Wednesday, October 15, 2008
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Signs of the Times

The red party may be getting the blues around here.

By DAN MCGRAW

Like baseball geeks and fantasy football players, those of us addicted to politics love the numbers. And with the hottest election in decades coming up next month, some of the stats coming out of the national presidential campaign are affecting the local races here in Tarrant County.
Take the vice-presidential debate between U.S. Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram hosted an online poll after the debate, and, with more than 11,000 responses, 70 percent said Biden won.
Those numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, since, theoretically, Barack Obama’s campaign workers from around the country could have weighed in. But the Biden numbers aren’t as interesting as the overall number of people who took the time to vote. The turnout for these online polls is usually measured in hundreds, not thousands.
And it is that level of interest that could shift Tarrant County over the line from red to blue, if not in this election then very soon. Voter registration here is now at record levels, with about 70,000 new voters added since the 2004 general election. Though the party affiliations of these new voters are unkown, my guess is that a majority are registering with Obama/Biden in mind.
In Tarrant County for the past 20 years or so, anyone on the ballot with an “R” after their name could stroll to victory without much effort. It was tough for the “Ds” to even get anyone to run. But the numbers are ticking toward the left, and in response, local Republicans are getting more aggressive.
Take the race for Texas House District 96, which runs along Interstate 20 from southwest Arlington to Crowley, where veteran Republican incumbent Bill Zedler is running against Democrat Chris Turner. Zedler’s campaign has centered on “free enterprise, limited government, limited taxes, and family values,” according to his campaign literature. Turner, who ran U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards’ local office for many years, favors more state money for schools and a regional commuter rail system.
Turner has matched Zedler in fund raising, and the incumbent is now under official scrutiny for allegedly violating campaign finance rules. The Federal Election Commission is investigating Zedler for improperly using the names of his fellow Republicans in Congress — Kay Granger and Joe Barton — to raise money at one event. The Texas Values in Action Coalition, an advisory group for North Texas Democratic candidates, has also filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against Zedler for failing to make proper disclosures in his campaign materials — that is, for allegedly moving money around through an unregistered political action committee.
Zedler did not respond to calls for comment. And while the campaign law violations being alleged are fairly serious, punishment, if he is found guilty, will likely be wrist-slap fines.
Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Texas Democratic Party research group in Washington, thinks the landscape has changed for local Republicans and that the party in power is worried.
“They aren’t used to anyone fighting back or anyone raising money against them,” he said, and he believes that has led some to use questionable fund-raising tactics. “They are worried because they haven’t been challenged in a long time.”
You can see it in other races. Republican State Sen. Kim Brimer has spent much of this campaign season in court, trying to keep his Democratic opponent, former Fort Worth City Council member Wendy Davis, off the ballot. Brimer has lost every time.
Jerry Lee Phillips, a Democrat running for Tarrant County commissioner, said he began this summer to see unusual signs for his opponent. Republican incumbent Gary Fickes. Instead of the traditional small yard signs, he said, Fickes was campaigning with 4’ x 8’ metal signs at the edge of road construction projects, giving Fickes credit for the improvements being done. These signs were paid for by the county, Phillips said.
Fickes wouldn’t comment on the signs. But Phillips thinks the commissioner must be worried. “These are more than seven feet off the ground, and [Fickes’] name is in bigger letters than anything else,” Phillips said. “What all this tells me is that Democratic candidates in this county have a good chance this time, and the Republicans know that.”
Democrats, no doubt, have a somewhat biased view of what all this means. But it’s also true that some of the trends are pointing their way: a strong presidential candidate on the top of the ticket, dissatisfaction with Republican leadership in Austin, and lots of new voters who will tend to sway toward the blues.
That’s why you have Republicans trying to get rid of an opponent in court, possibly bending campaign finance laws to raise money, and taking big credit for some new asphalt.
Their party didn’t have to resort to such tactics in the past, because victory, in most races, was assured. The return of a two-party system around here could be fun — at least it should give journalists a little more to write about.


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