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February 8th, 2019:

The Whitley hearing

Not a great day at the office for our Secretary of State and his advisory-ing ways.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Almost two weeks after calling into question the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, Texas’ new chief elections officer, David Whitley, defended his office’s decision to hand over those voters’ names to law enforcement around the same time his office was also acknowledging to local election officials that the list of names could contain mistakes.

At a Senate hearing to consider his confirmation as secretary of state, Whitley vacillated between telling lawmakers he referred the list of voters to the attorney general’s office because his office had no power to investigate them for illegal voting and describing the citizenship review efforts as an ongoing process based on a list that still needed to be reviewed by local officials. But he made clear is that his office knew from the start that the data could be faulty.

He stated that in response to a question from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, who asked whether the secretary of state’s office had “cautioned the counties that there may be mistakes on the data.”

“Yes,” Whitley responded.

But when he was pressed by Democrats over his decision to send the list to the statewide office that handles criminal voter fraud prosecutions before the list was fully vetted, Whitley responded he wanted to get the data “in the hands of someone who could do something with it,” given that the secretary of state’s office had no power to investigate. That prompted follow-up questions about whether he should have waited until the list was scrubbed by local election officials, and Whitley doubled down with his defense, despite describing the data as “preliminary.”

“I can tell you senator that 100 percent my reason for transmitting this data to the attorney general’s office was to ensure that these lists were as accurate as possible,” Whitley said to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Sitting before senators in a packed committee room, Whitley faced blistering questions from Democrats for the better part of two hours. After brief opening remarks in which he touted his long career as a public servant, he somberly defended the controversial citizenship review efforts he ordered. But at times he struggled to answer technical questions about the flawed data at the heart of it.

At one point, Watson asked Whitley whether he’d consider asking the attorney general to hold off on investigating voters until the list was cleaned up. Whitley responded it was a “reasonable request” but said he was unsure “that it’s appropriate coming from my office.”

“You were the one who made the referral and blasted it all over the state,” Watson said.

See here for the background. It goes from there, and it never gets any better for Whitley, who mostly comes across as unprepared. As discussed, he will need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be confirmed, and right now he doesn’t look to be on track to win over any Democrats, from whom he will need at least one vote to clear the bar. As I understand it, if he does not get confirmed, he will serve till the end of the legislative session, then Abbott will have to name someone else. The last time I can recall such an appointment getting scuttled was in 2011, when we had the fortunately-doomed nomination of David Bradley to the Forensic Sciences Commission. Before that was the 2009 nomination of Don McLeroy as Chair of the SBOE. I don’t care who you are in Texas politics, those are not names you want to be associated with.

Anyway. It’s still early to say what will happen for sure, but David Whitley didn’t win anyone over yesterday. See Progress Texas’ Twitter feed for in-the-moment coverage, and the Chron editorial board, which calls for Whitley to be rejected, has more.

Cornyn’s 2020 strategy

I have three things to say about this.

Big John Cornyn

As the Texas GOP Party chairman from 2010 to 2015, Steve Munisteri warned that Republicans could no longer take the Lone Star State for granted and that the party needed to reach out to the state’s burgeoning minority population.

“I’ve consistently said since I first ran for state party chair that Texas should be considered a competitive swing state,” he said. “That was my whole schtick when I ran.”

On Wednesday, as he announced he would be leaving his White House job to join U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s 2020 reelection campaign, Munisteri again sounded the alarm, joining other state GOP leaders in warning that once reliably red Texas could be in play in the next presidential election.

“Texas is not as solidly Republican as people think,” he said. “You need to treat this as a swing state.”

Munisteri cited U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s narrow win over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, as well as a history of Democratic advances in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio going back to the 2008 presidential election.

“A decade ago, we lost the urban areas,” said Munisteri, who will be returning to Texas after two years in the Trump administration, where he serves as deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison.

[…]

“The Democrats are still riding the splash of the 2018 elections in hopes that it will carry over into 2020,” Dickey told the Chronicle. “But the reality is, they have shown Texas Republicans what can happen if any Republican stays home during these crucial elections. We are engaging a massive campaign effort which started the day after the election to ensure we not only will successfully defend Republican seats, we regain the seats Democrats won from the Beto bump of 2018.”

[…]

The Cornyn campaign said Munisteri will serve as chief liaison to the state party and its “2020 Victory” effort. As party chairman, Munisteri was credited with helping encourage minority outreach, hiring Spanish speaking staffers, and increasing the number of Republican office holders in the state by nearly 70 percent.

“I gained a great deal of respect for Steve when he successfully led our party to new heights as chairman of the (Texas Republican Party) and have been proud to work with him in Washington as he’s served President Trump in the White House,” Cornyn said in a statement Wednesday.

[…]

Despite Cornyn’s seemingly clear path to a fourth term, Munisteri, like other top Republican Party officials, warns that the Texas GOP cannot glide into 2020, despite the party’s generational dominance.

“It’s a competitive state,” he said. “It’s just that we keep winning the competition.” To continue that dominance, he believes that Cornyn is committed to campaigning in the Hispanic community, the fastest-growing segment of the Texas electorate.

In a minority-majority state, Munisteri said, Republicans have little choice but to find messages that resonate with minority voters, particularly Hispanics. “If the party doesn’t look on the inside the way it looks on the outside, it means that we have work to do. I also believe in the depths of my bones this is not just about being pragmatic and trying to win votes. There’s a moral element to that.”

One challenge facing Republican outreach to Latinos in Texas in 2020 could be Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on illegal immigration and his continuing campaign for a border wall – the central sticking point in a 35-day partial government shutdown.

But Munisteri noted that despite Trump’s focus on illegal immigration, exit polls showed that he won nearly 29 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2016, a slightly larger share than that of Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee. Trump did slightly better with Hispanics in Texas, though he only beat Hillary Clinton by 9 points – a margin that raised the eyebrows of strategists in both parties.

1. Everyone’s fully on board with the idea that Republicans were spooked by what happened last year, right?

2. The bit where Munisteri talks about what happens when Republicans don’t turn out is the most interesting part of the story. Turnout, at least statewide, wasn’t the Republicans’ problem last year. Greg Abbott got almost as many votes as Donald Trump did in 2016. They clearly left some votes on the table – I believe Dems did as well, despite blowing past all previous high-water marks – which leads me to wonder what Munisteri thinks the GOP’s natural level of turnout should be for a Presidential election. Eva Guzman was the high scorer in 2016, with almost 4.9 million votes (Trump got just under 4.7 million). What does Munisteri think the top of the Republican ticket – which is to say, Trump and Cornyn – will get in an “all things being equal” context? GOP Presidential candidates ranged between 4.4 million and 4.7 million from 2004 to 2016. I think Guzman’s total is a perfectly reasonable target for next year; it would mean Dems would have to exceed Beto’s total by nearly a million votes in order to win. Does Steve Munsteri think they can do better than that? I’d be interested to hear it.

The challenge Munisteri and the GOP faces is that as we saw in 2018, Dems had a majority in the most populous parts of the state, which is also where all the growth has been. They achieved that by turning out reliable voters, bringing in a ton of new voters, and getting a significant number of votes from people who had previously been voting Republican. Republicans can get some growth from new voters and irregular voters, though that pool is much shallower for them than it is for Dems. They will probably get a few of the pre-2018 voters who abandoned them last year back; surely the mainstream, establishment man Cornyn will do better with that crowd than Ted Cruz did. They might be able to woo a few disgruntled or disillusioned Dems. I don’t think any of that will amount to much, but they do start out with a lead, so they don’t need it to be too much. How much potential does Steve Munisteri think there is for growth? Again, I’d love to know.

3. This again is why I will base my vote in the primary in part on who I think will do the most to fight for Texas in 2020. We can and should build on what we did in 2018, but it’s not going to happen on its own, and it’s not going to happen without a fight from the Republicans. Republicans think Texas is a swing state now. Dems need to act accordingly. Politico has more.

Another AstroWorld auction

Warm up your credit cards.

Could be yours

If your wallet is as deep as your love for Houston’s AstroWorld, you’re in luck.

An online auction is selling off a little more than 300 items from the theme park that closed its gates in 2005. From character statues to giant welcome signs, now is the time to grab your piece of Houston history.

The number of items available is expected to at least double in the coming days, according to Ken Spicer, president and head auctioneer of SITE Auction Services.

[…]

SITE Auction Services is selling the items through an online venue but plans on holding a live, in-person auction on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Emiliano’s Sports Bark at 7710 East Freeway.

The bar will have the items on display during the week leading up to the auction.

The online auction catalog is here. We last had an AstroWorld auction back in 2006. Who knows when you may get another chance? Don’t miss out.