Noriega takes up Dem mantle in Texas following Watts’s exit

Attorney Mikal Watts’s (D) decision to end his exploratory campaign for the seat of Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump's NASA nominee advances after floor drama Senate GOP wary of new tax cut sequel Amid struggle for votes, GOP plows ahead with Cabinet picks MORE (R-Texas) on Tuesday leaves state Rep. Rick Noriega as the Democratic standard-bearer in his party’s quest to make the seat competitive in 2008.

Watts drew the attention of national Democrats and the media after holding a $1.1 million fundraiser at his home earlier this year. As a wealthy self-funder in an uphill battle, he appeared a good fit for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in the state.

But Tuesday morning, he said the strain on his family had become too great for him to press on.

“After spending the last several months putting everything into this campaign, I have seen the toll this effort has taken on my young children,” Watts said. “For these reasons, my wife and I have made the decision that I will not be seeking the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 2008.”

Noriega, conversely, has built support as the candidate of the grass roots and netroots. He lacks the vast personal resources of Watts, who had already self-funded more than $7 million, but he raised a decent $580,000 between June 1 and Sept. 30.

It remains to be seen to what extent national Democrats would fund and rally around Noriega’s candidacy. His compelling résumé includes serving in Iraq and on the U.S. border as well as running relief operations in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center after Hurricane Katrina.

Watts’s money was a particular draw against Cornyn, whose $6.6 million cash on hand after the third quarter puts him in the top three among the 34 incumbents up for reelection in 2008. Watts already had more cash on hand than the incumbent, while Noriega has about $510,000 in cash.

Republicans say Noriega is a credible candidate but that he won’t be able to compete financially.

While admitting Watts’s money was a feather in his cap, national Democrats insist they kept their powder dry in the primary and say Noriega would be a strong candidate against Cornyn.

“John Cornyn is starting his reelection campaign with an approval rating in the 40s, and Rick Noriega brings to the race a great record, a compelling personal story and a clear contrast on the issue of who will stand up for Texas,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said.

Democratic consultant Kelly Fero, who has been working for Watts, said the “main question” about Noriega is whether he can raise the necessary resources to get his message out.

Fero, who has run a number of statewide races, said this one will require $17-20 million and noted the increasing alternative opportunities for Democrats in newly open seats in states like New Mexico and Virginia.

He also suggested the Democratic field might not yet be complete, but said prospective candidates are wary about how much help they’ll get from Washington.

“There’s a skepticism in Texas based on recent history over the last couple of decades that the national money that is sometimes talked about and sometimes even promised will actually be there in the end,” Fero said.

Watts’s exit should help Democrats avoid an intra-party battle that could have turned ugly and taken the focus off of Cornyn. At the same time, the coverage generated by a contested primary could have helped both improve on their low name recognition.

Noriega praised Watts after his exit Tuesday for his work to take down Cornyn.

“Mikal and I made plans to sit down together in the next couple of weeks,” Noriega said. “In the meantime, I’ll continue the campaign that we started together and fight for the vision for a better Texas that we continue to share.”

Democrats have made that case that Cornyn is vulnerable based on his job approval and favorability ratings, both of which have generally been below 50 percent.

But a poll commissioned by the liberal DailyKos blog last month showed Noriega has work to do, beginning the campaign in a 51-35 hole.
A Rasmussen poll from last month showed Cornyn leading Noriega and Watts by 23 and 24 points, respectively.

Republicans chalked up Watts’s exit to the difficulty of the task at hand.

“We are happy to see that Democrats in Texas have come to the same conclusion as we have had all along — Sen. Cornyn is unbeatable and will easily win reelection,” said a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rebecca Fisher.

Watts, 40, has three children, all between 9 and 13 years old. Once they are older, he suggested, he might well run for political office again.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said last week that she will not run for reelection in 2012 and might leave office early to run for governor in 2010.

“I was brought up to believe that public service is a noble endeavor, and I will continue to be involved at some level in the future,” Watts said.
Cornyn campaign manager Rob Jesmer said Cornyn “respects Mikal Watts’s decision and … looks forward to running on [his] record regardless of who his opponent is.”