Eager to expand the electoral map in their effort to maintain control of the Senate, national Democrats are recruiting Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to run for the open seat in Texas in 2012.
Sanchez, a retired Army lieutenant general, has not made a final decision on the race, but Democrats in Texas and Washington say he's giving it serious consideration.
During a briefing with reporters last week, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chair Patty Murray of Washington teased that the party may have a top-tier recruit in the Lone Star State. She listed Texas among her "6 for '12" — six Republican-held seats Democrats planned to target in the 2012 campaign.
"General Sanchez has spent his entire life serving our country, and there's no question he would be a strong candidate if he decides to continue to serve his country in the U.S. Senate," DSCC spokesman Matt Canter said in a statement Monday. "He's exactly the kind of independent leader who can win in Texas."
Asked why the party included the solidly Republican state on its early target list, Murray offered: "Two-word response: changing demographics." New census data show that the Latino population jumped in Texas jump 42% from 2000 to 2010. Latinos now account for 38% of the state’s population.
But will Latinos vote? In 2008, exit polls showed that Latino voters accounted for just 20% of the final turnout, skewing heavily toward President Obama over John McCain. No exit polling was conducted in the state in 2010.
Democrats are defending 23 seats in 2012, compared with 10 held by Republicans. The party currently holds a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning Republicans must win at least three seats (depending on the outcome of the presidential contest) to take full control of Congress.
As a political novice, Sanchez would have to prove himself before the seat would be considered in play. As the top general in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, his leadership was harshly criticized by some of the same lawmakers he would caucus with if elected, particularly over the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
An Inspector General report largely cleared Sanchez of wrongdoing, but he wrote in his own 2008 book that he was denied a fourth star in part because "Senate Democrats were intentionally putting pressure" on the Bush administration "not to send my nomination forward."
In 2010, Democrats thought they had found a top-flight candidate in former Houston Mayor Bill White to run for governor. At various points in the race, polls showed White within striking distance of 10-year incumbent Rick Perry. But ultimately White could not withstand the red tide sweeping the nation, especially in Texas. He lost by 13 percentage points.
In an interview with McClatchy News Service, Sanchez described himself as a social progressive and fiscal conservative, "and a strong supporter, obviously, of national defense." He stopped short of confirming his candidacy, however.
Democrats have seen a wave of top recruits entering open-seat races, including Rep. Shelley Berkley in Nevada, former Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia and Rep. Martin Heinrich in New Mexico.
Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced earlier this year she would not seek reelection, creating the open seat. The party has a deep bench of candidates looking to replace her, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz.
Republicans cast doubt on whether Democrats c succeed in Texas.
"Whomever the Democrats ultimately nominate, Republicans can only hope that person campaigns side-by-side with Barack Obama in Texas and national Democrats decide to spend millions of dollars," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said.