Saturday, December 30, 2006

"Republicans have begun to panic that the unease in the public is going to be taken out of their hide."

New poll detects a change in the political climate in the Capitol

Dec. 30, 2006

By Bud Kennedy
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

The earth shook in Austin this week, and not only because two of our Republican neighbors decided to try to bring down the overbearing West Texas tyranny in the Texas House.

Early tremors had already jolted House Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland, now rejected by two of his lieutenants and challenged from inside his own party.

Then came The Poll.

Texas Democrats have pulled even with Republicans, and the state is now about half red, half blue. At least, that's according to 1,053 Texans surveyed by an independent Democratic pollster.

The poll's news announcement focused on one specific response: By 46 percent to 35 percent, respondents said Democrats "care" more about "people like me." That's a reversal from two years ago.

But most eyes went immediately to the bottom line of the poll, conducted in early December by Austin-based Montgomery & Associates:

Asked which political party they lean toward, 45 percent chose Democrat.

Only 43 percent chose Republican. If you figure in the poll's margin of error, that's a tie.

Two years ago, in the same Democratic poll, Republicans led by 55 percent to 34 percent.

Pollster Jeff Montgomery returned a phone call Friday from San Antonio, on his way to a bipartisan college football weekend watching the Texas Longhorns in the Alamo Bowl.

The poll doesn't mean Democrats are about to take back the Capitol, he said. He surveyed 1,053 adults, not specifically voters.

"Clearly, Texas is still a Republican state," he said. "But this is the first time people have even shown much interest in calling themselves Democrats."

If Craddick was already on his way out -- and it's beginning to look that way -- the poll certainly helped Plano investor Brian McCall and Waxahachie lawyer Jim Pitts give him a shove. Republicans are slipping in the Texas House under Craddick's leadership, and McCall and Pitts suggest choosing another speaker Jan. 9.

"There is an attitude change nationally that is affecting Texas," said Cal Jillson, the Southern Methodist University political science professor who correctly foresaw a Republican sweep of state offices in the November elections and also the Democratic gains in the Texas House.

"People are increasingly concerned with the results they see from the Republican majority," he said. "In Austin, those numbers are playing themselves out in the hanging of Tom Craddick. Republicans have begun to panic that the unease in the public is going to be taken out of their hide."

Craddick's leadership team has taken a pounding in the last two elections. Arlington voters soundly rejected state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, who had shaped state education policy. Two years earlier, Fort Worth voters bounced state Rep. Glenn Lewis, a Forest Hill Democrat who had lined up with Craddick on school vouchers.

Democrats picked up six Texas House seats this year and have cut Republicans' edge to 80-69, with one seat still to be decided in a special election.

The Republicans couldn't even pick up an open House seat north of Lubbock, where Craddick backed a Plainview Republican who outspent his Democratic opponent 5-to-1 but still lost.

Jillson said the Democrats' success came because voters are unhappy with President Bush, Congress and Washington.

But they're not all that happy with Austin, and particularly not with the Texas House.

"People are looking at [Gov.] Rick Perry" -- re-elected despite drawing only 39 percent of the vote -- "and even more starkly at Craddick, and they're saying, 'I don't see problem-solving. I see a fairly mean-spirited partisanship.'"

Jillson compared Craddick to the deposed U.S. House majority leader, also from Texas: "He's a two-bit Tom DeLay."

Republicans' popularity peaked in 2002 and 2004, Jillson said. The shifting Texas numbers are also affected by demographic changes, with more Texans of Hispanic descent reaching voting age, but the political shift is outpacing the shift in population, he said.

In Dallas on New Year's morning, an entire slate of Democrats will be sworn into office in a ceremony at a hotel, replacing the Republican officials and judges who used to run the Dallas County Courthouse. That was the result of the county's abrupt population change, Jillson said.

"But mostly, it's an attitude change," he said. "Out in East Texas, you're starting to see more people talk about the Democrats."

Montgomery, the Austin pollster, said his poll was not timed with the Texas House speaker's election.

"We didn't think this would have anything to do with the speaker's race," he said. "It's a Texas poll, but I think it's more about Washington."

Maybe. But it's hitting first in Austin.

By the numbers

Political parties Texans say they lean toward:

2006 2005 2004
Democrat 45.1% 37.2% 33.9%
Republican 42.6 49.2 54.7
Independent 6.4 10.5 10.2

SOURCE: Montgomery & Associates
Bud Kennedy's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. 817-390-7538 bud

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