Texas Senate Race: Ron Kirk v. John Cornyn

Under Gov. George Bush, Republicans owned Texas politics, winning nearly every statewide office each year during the future president's six-year tenure as governor. This year, that dominance is being threatened.

Bush's candidate in the race to replace GOP Sen. Phil Gramm is John Cornyn, a Republican in a state where being a Republican during the Bush years meant being a winner. Cornyn is the state's attorney general.

Cornyn's opponent is Ron Kirk, the former Democratic mayor of Dallas who wants to be the first African-American elected to the Senate from Dallas.

This race is closer than anyone expected. An important reason is the changing demographics of Texas, where the minority population, particularly Latinos, is exploding.

Politicians of both parties like to play down racial patterns in politics. But Texans, like the rest of the nation, still vote largely along racial lines, with Republicans dominating the white vote, and Democrats doing better with minority voters.

Kirk: Friend or Foe to Bush?

In the future, Republicans will have a tougher time winning elections if they can't attract a larger share of the minority vote, particularly from Hispanics. And Kirk is threatening to make that happen this year.

When Kirk was the mayor of Dallas, and George W. Bush was the governor of Texas, they were friends. In the good old days, when Bush was running for the White House, he even once jokingly referred to the mayor as "Vice President Kirk."

But now that Kirk has become the Democrat's high-profile and high-potential candidate for the Senate, the president sounds anything but friendly.

"He's not the right man for the United State Senate as far as I'm concerned," Bush has said of Kirk. "I don't need an obstructionist I need a positive influence."

Changing Face of Texas

Democrats have a tough, but not impossible, task of turning out more minority voters than ever before on election day. It helps that Kirk is running in the company of a Democratic Latino candidate for governor.

This state is on the leading edge of change for the entire country. "We expect that out of every 100 persons added to the Texas population, 78 will be Hispanic, only 4 will be Anglo," says Texas demographer Steve Murdoch. The emerging demographic is a huge political challenge.

"One thing the two parties have to do is to figure out how to appeal to exploding voter groups like Hispanics. And both parties are scrambling mightily to do that now," says Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas.

Cornyn certainly isn't conceding the minority vote to Democrats.

"We're making a concerted effort to reach out to Hispanic voters and African-American voters," Cornyn said.

At the same time, Kirk is competing for the white vote, building on his record as mayor.

"You've got to have an agenda and have some ability to attract support ethnic groups ideological groups outside your base," Kirk said.

Ethnic Appeals Surface

But ethnic appeals have emerged, particularly in the final weeks.

Kirk has been criticized for suggesting that more minorities and poor people would die in a war with Iraq than whites.

"I wonder how excited they'd be if I get to the United States Senate and I put forth a resolution that says the next time we go to war, the first 500,000 kids have to come from families who earn $1 million or more," he told a black audience.

And Cornyn's campaign has been questioned about its assertions that Kirk's appearance with a rap group was inappropriate; the group has links to another who sung disdainfully about the police.

The Texas secretary of state's office reported last week that the number of registered voters grew by roughly 200,000 during the last two years, a number far short of the one million new voters that registration advocates on both sides sought for this election.

While demographics may be increasingly favorable to Kirk, history still casts a long shadow over his campaign. There hasn't been a black senator from the South since 1879, but Kirk implores his supporters to settle for nothing less than a victory.

"Don't take this for granted. Don't believe if we don't do it this time, we can get it the next time," Kirk said.

Results of a poll conducted last week by The Dallas Morning News show Cornyn leading Kirk by 10 percentage points.

Texas may not have changed enough yet for this to be Ron Kirk's time. But if demographics are destiny, then it is just a matter of time.