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Yes, Virginia, I Know Exactly How You Feel

The Republican establishment’s propensity to avoid risk and leave good candidates to fend for themselves is nothing new.

Hearing that Ken Cuccinelli lost a winnable race in Virginia due to lack of money has put me on an unpleasant trip down memory lane. Because the GOP establishment’s propensity for leaving strong candidates to fend for themselves is nothing new.

In the late summer of 2001, after leaving my law firm job in Houston, I had accepted a position with Orlando Sanchez, a Cuban-American, limited-government conservative running against the incumbent Mayor Lee Brown. The Sanchez campaign featured a manager, a database manager, a fundraiser, a volunteer coordinator, a bunch of volunteers, when I joined as a scheduler. A little over two months before Election Day, in a city as large and diverse as Houston, and that was it. It was a small, grassroots campaign, or so the conventional wisdom said.

But Houston wasn’t thrilled with Brown, a Democrat who had been shuffled through law enforcement posts from Atlanta to New York to Houston, with controversies clouding his tenure at each stop. His time in Houston also saw law enforcement and firefighter controversies, and a bungled budget. It was so bad that by the 2001 election cycle he had even drawn a Democratic opponent. In fact, when I joined Orlando’s campaign as scheduler in August 2001, the “real” race was between Lee Brown and his intra-party challenger, Chris Bell. (Houston city government races are not formally affiliated with party, so we can have multiple candidates from the same party.)

The thing was that Sanchez connected with voters. Like all candidates, he was a bit quirky. According to his sisters he wore too much makeup. He was self-conscious of his 5 o’clock shadow and carried a razor and compact everywhere. It was easy to tease him about it. But he was an eloquent advocate for limited government, especially in Spanish. That’s what mattered.

To the campaign, the race felt winnable.

So we hired a consultant who tried to approach GOP money and power brokers. But they weren’t interested. Sanchez wasn’t the candidate they were looking for. I don’t remember the specifics–I was tracking the calendar not the money–but I do remember a discussion with him right after he had hung up with some GOP moneyman. He was weary of beating his head against a wall, of being rebuffed for lacking the data to prove his candidacy was legitimate, which of course required money in the first place.

Still Sanchez kept campaigning. People liked him. He won votes with every speech. We couldn’t schedule enough coffee mornings of casual conversations. Our gut told us we were moving up in the polls. The sporadic polling by others confirmed it. So did the shadow campaigns that went into Hispanic neighborhoods to plaster signs informing residents that Orlando wasn’t Mexican, he was a Republican.

Houston’s essential services warmed up to Sanchez. He snatched the firefighters’ endorsement. We had police officers in plain clothes at events. The Houston Chronicle had a harder time ignoring us.

Then came September 11. So much was learned later, of course, but what screamed out at voters in Houston, a strategic target for any enemy, was that security mattered. Suddenly, everything Sanchez had been saying about essential services made more sense.

Challenger Chris Bell faltered and faded. Sanchez not only made it into the runoff, but did so with a 3-point margin in a three way race, 40 percent for Orlando Sanchez, 43 percent for Mayor Lee Brown.

The runoff was winnable, very winnable. We got fundraising in Houston, of course. We got some high profile endorsements in late November — the elder Bushes, Rudy Giuliani, among them. But the GOP establishment mostly sat on the sidelines.

Orlando Sanchez lost the runoff election in early December…by those damnable 3 points. They beat us with a huge get-out-the-vote effort in heavily Democratic Fort Bend County. Not policy, but game day tactics that we couldn’t match won it.

For years I’ve wondered what might have happened if we had gotten more party support. It was only three measly points! But what I’ve seen is that the establishment GOP is too disconnected, too cautious, its gut instinct is risk aversion. And it stinks at reading the final weeks of a campaign, when events can swamp what everyone thinks they know. They just stick to the Conventional Wisdom, the one that says, among other things, a grassroots supported, limited government, Cuban-American Texan isn’t the type of candidate who can win.

So yes, Virginia, I know exactly how you feel.

UPDATE: I wasn’t the only Orlando Sanchez for Mayor veteran remembering. This article has bounced around the Houston network. The old crew “takes umbrage” at my use of the past tense for Orlando’s rhetorical skills. Currently Harris County Treasurer, he is still an eloquent advocate for limited government. I stand corrected. And Orlando reminded me, the Democratic operative who ran the successful GOTV effort for Mayor Brown was none other than Terry McAuliffe.

In 2001, the Democrats sent McAuliffe, one of their best fixers, into a mayoral campaign. That’s how scared they were of Orlando. They understand their threats far better than the GOP understands its strengths.

Follow Leslie Loftis on Twitter.

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