Election Postmortem for Pundits and Pols

This was not such a bad election, particularly considering the campaign that preceded it. Could anybody have stood to hear Jimmy Carter say all we needed was to “make the government half as good as the people,” or Jerry Ford talk about how he “healed” us, or Nancy Judy monotone how she didn’t have any ties to The Special Interests, or Clarence Jones assure us of his management ability much longer?

For the most part, we learned some new things, re-learned some old ones; and, as always, the predictables far outweighed the upsets. If any profound lesson emerged from between the lines of the returns November 2, it is perhaps that we have not changed as much as we all thought we had.

Consider the presidential business. A conservative Democratic precinct chairman wrapped it up pretty well when he said, “I guess there just wasn’t enough of us [moderate to conservative Democrats] who were willing to hold our noses and vote for a Republican this time.” And that is the sum and substance of the Carter win – or the Ford loss, if you wish. The middle-of-the-road Democratic vote – particularly in the South and Southwest – that provided winning margins for Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, remembered where home was. The failed candidacy of Gerald Ford confirmed for us once and for all that a Republican cannot be elected president of this country simply by the votes of other Republicans.

Jimmy Carter, for his part, taught us something too: That the old Democratic coalition of the South, the blue collar East, the ethnic vote, still can be coalesced around the right man; and that when it is, it is still virtually unbeatable. Moreover, the Carter candidacy proved the Democratic Party is still capable of rallying moderate and conservative voters to its fold – despite Walter Mondale and a decidedly McGovern-ish platform.

Statewide and locally, there was a similar reassertion of the old political realities. We learned Texas is, in fact, still a Democratic state, though not with the ferocity it once was. We learned too, that a Republican still has to do a good deal better than Ford’s 56 percent in heavily-Republican Dallas County to have a shot at the state.

We learned that Texans were more than willing to forgive the sins of Lloyd Bentsen and that Alan Steelman remains a good 10 years away from legitimate statewide candidacy. We learned that Jim Mattox is for real and that Dale Milford is a good deal more popular than any of us could have imagined. We learned that the power of incumbency is a very fickle thing: It was more than enough for most of the Dallas County legislative delegation, just barely enough for State Senator Bill Braecklein, who eked out a 700-vote victory over an aggressive and well-organized Republican, Tom Pauken. But it was not nearly enough to salvage the scandal-scarred political career of Dallas County Sheriff Clarence Jones.

The Jones upset at the hands of a singularly underwhelming and underfinanced Carl Thomas undoubtedly is the local story. For the Thomas win represents the second time in as many years that the Republicans literally have backed into a key elective post at the Democrat-dominated courthouse.

In 1974, you will recall, an equally underwhelming and underfinanced John Whittington came from out of nowhere to clobber 20-year incumbent Democratic County Judge Lew Sterrett. In both cases, the Republican ambushes came largely without warning. Thomas, like Whittington two years ago, entered the final week of the election pitifully underexposed, undermonied and in general, without the organizational help he needed from the county GOP machinery. As one Republican leader put it at the time: “There is every reason in the world here for an upset of Jones, but we just don’t seem to have the money to make Thomas a legitimate candidate.” He, like most observers, (including D Magazine), predicted a Jones re-election by default.

What none of us calculated was the peculiar political phenomenon known as “residual disgust,” wherein the electorate absorbs headline upon headline about scandal, hint of scandal, question about scandal and then one day, without warning or specific cause, gets fed up and throws the rascal out. This is clearly the only explanation for Jones’ largely unprophesied repudiation by the voters, as it was for Sterrett’s two years ago.

The significance of this latest Republican foray into the courthouse should not be underestimated. In many ways, the Thomas upset means more to the GOP’s 30-year dream of wresting the county courthouse away from the Democrats than the Whittington win two years ago. For while the position of county sheriff does not carry the ceremonial or titular power of the position of county judge, it does pack a lot of clout on the political bottom line – meaning patronage.

The sheriffs department Thomas inherits is far and away the largest component of county government – over 500 employees and tens of millions in local and federal budget dollars. A smart politician – and there is no way of telling yet if Thomas is one – can do a lot with those kinds of spoils. Like stuff the department payroll with card-carrying Republicans, and pressure subsidiary departments to do likewise, for starters. Poor old Roy Orr thought he’d never see the day.

The Thomas win, though, was precious little solace for the Dallas GOP, which failed in several other hotly-contested local races to loosen the Democratic grip on the state- and county level posts. Chief disappointment, of course, was the 32-year-old Pauken’s narrow failure to unseat Democrat Braecklein in the 16th State Senate District.

Even on election night, Pauken led early balloting, building impressive precinct by precinct leads in the Highland Park and North Dallas sectors of the district. But then the later-reporting black boxes in South Dallas began to flow in, eventually providing Braecklein a 700-vote margin of victory. That, apparently, was not good enough for Pauken, who as of this writing is preparing to ask for an official recount and perhaps to file an official protest of the election. The young Republican will not be specific about allegations of irregularities, but says he feels certain enough of, at the minimum, voting machine malfunctions to pursue the matter further.

Among other notable GOP disappointments: Nancy Judy’s unimpressive showing against Democrat Jim Mattox in the Fifth Congressional District (Republicans had not held any illusions about Judy’s actually beating Mattox, but had privately hoped for a better GOP showing in the district to lay groundwork for Republican challenges in the future); Don Lucky’s failure to unseat Ron Clower in State Senate District 9 (another state house seat the Republicans felt they had a shot at); John Pillow’s mediocre showing against County Clerk Larry Murdoch (a race thought to be another prime opportunity for Republican inroads at the courthouse).

The Democrats had their failures too, though fewer in number, and of less impact. Ray Keller’s loss to incumbent legislator Frank Gaston in District 33-M must be regarded by Democrats as a major disappointment. Keller, a former aide to County Commissioner David Pickett, was an odds-on favorite to unseat Gaston, another of D Magazine’s legislative flunkees in 1975. But like the Republican Pauken, Keller simply could not pound on enough doors in the East Dallas-White Rock area district to offset Gaston’s two-term name identification. And the Democrats (and privately, some Republicans too) have to be disappointed at their failure to unseat Justice of the Peace Robert Cole, the highly-controversial conservative magistrate.

We pundits were not without our setbacks either. This magazine batted only .500 in our four local predictions, and of the seven legislators we flunked in our 1975 Legislative Report Cards, only one, Republican Al Korioth (a GOP primary victim), will not return to Austin this January.

About the only ones who emerged unscathed from this election were the pollsters, who displayed an uncanny scientific accuracy in forecasting the outcomes of most races. Virtually all of the national polls were well within their stated margins of error; Burns Roper, in fact, called the Carter win right on the money.

A colleague suggested the morning after the election that, “If those damned polls get any better, we won’t even need to hold an election in 1980.” Maybe, but Carl Thomas probably disagrees.

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