Matthew Dowd on how an independent (maybe him) could beat Ted Cruz in 2018


Good morning Austin:

I had a story in Sunday’s paper about the early action in the 2018 race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Cruz, with Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman from El Paso, getting a head start last week with his spur-of-the-moment, sieze-the-day bipartisan San Antonio-to-Washington, D.C., road trip with his Republican colleague Will Hurd.

O’Rourke has yet to formally announce his candidacy, but his intentions seem unmistakable. Meanwhile, Joaquin Castro, the Democratic congressman from San Antonio, is also considering making the race, though his candidacy seems less likely.

Either way, for Texas Democrats it seems a heartening development that two young and attractive candidates are seriously interested in taking on Cruz.

But, just before O’Rourke set out on his road trip, I talked to another potential candidate for the Cruz seat, whose path would seem an even longer shot than O’Rourke’s or Castro’s.

That is Matthew Dowd.

Dowd these days is probably best known as an ABC political analyst and frequent member of the Sunday panel of folks who tell you what’s really going on on This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

But Dowd’s  remarkable trajectory in Texas politics is its own bipartisan road trip. He has gone from political director of the Texas Democratic Party, and strategist for Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, to serving as a top strategist for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, to his ultimate, very public disenchantment with President Bush, to the place he is now, no longer a partisan or a consultant, but an independent seriously considering running for the Senate in 2018.

On the face of it, it seems an unlikely venture, but considering Dowd’s background, track record and knowledge of Texas and American politics, what he does warrants being taken seriously.

Here from an NPR story by Eric Weiner almost exactly ten years ago.

Unlike Karl Rove, Matthew Dowd is not a household name. He is not a regular source of fodder for late-night comedians. He does not have an office in the White House. He doesn’t even live in Washington, D.C. Yet Dowd, 45, was arguably just as important as Rove in getting President Bush elected to the White House. Twice.

Dowd played a key role as a pollster in 2000 and was appointed the president’s chief strategist during the 2004 campaign. He has also worked as an adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has even advised the NBA, which was trying to repair its image after a brawl between players and fans in 2005.

Dowd is considered an expert at interpreting polls, someone with a sixth sense for which way the political winds are blowing. During the 2004 campaign, Dowd was one of those responsible for painting Democratic Sen. John Kerry as a flip-flopper who could not be trusted with matters of national security.

The NPR story came as a result of an interview Dowd had given to Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times: Ex-Aide Says He’s Lost Faith in Bush

And here is another good story on Dowd’s anguished split with Bush from Mark Z. Barabak at the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, back in September 2015, when most political commentators were still in deep, deep denial, Dowd predicted that Trump would be the Republican nominee for president.

MATTHEW DOWD, ABC POLITICAL ANALYST: If you look at where the race is today and you look at some level of history, this race is way beyond anything we’ve seen. I think Donald Trump as of today is the Republican nominee for president.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The Republican nominee?

DOWD: The Republican nominee for president.

He leads nationally in every single poll for more than two months. He leads every single state, including favorite son states like Florida where he leads Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush is third. And any Republican that has lead for two months and lead every state has won the GOP nomination.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Bill Kristol, what do you think of that?

BILL KRISTOL, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Won’t happen. Won’t happen.

Of course, like virtually every other pundit and analyst, Dowd thought Clinton would prevail in the end.

Just after the new year, Dowd signaled his interest in running for the Senate.

I talked to him about it a week ago Sunday.

Here is our conversation.

DOWD: We’ve basically innovated every aspect of our American culture, economy, but for politics and governance, and governance won’t be innovated until  politics is innovated.

Both major parties are disliked simultaneously. That’s both nationally and actually in Texas too. The Republicans are liked more than the Democrats but a plurality dislike the Republicans in Texas as they dislike the Democrats, though the Democrats is higher..

Much of what happened in 2016, it’s been coming for a while. This increasing frustration that the choice is limited, and it doesn’t represent where the majority of the country is because both political parties don’t  represent what the country looks like as a whole. Neither political party.

One party, urban-centered, driven by the coasts, is different than the country as a whole. The Democrats. The other party is much more rural, small town, suburban-centered, no coastal stuff, no urban strength, predominately white and people that are churched.

When you look, a majority of the country is a hybrid of that and there is no choice, and they keep getting less and less representative of the country as a whole, and that leaves a whole lot of people, a whole lot of voters unrepresented. And I think Texas is a perfect place to understand this. The number of disenfranchised voters is probably as great as anywhere in the country.

What I mean by that is, the Democrats have no power, the entire state is red, every statewide office since 1998 has been held by a Republican, and so all the Democrats have no real power so they are disenfranchised. Independents don’t want to participate because they don’t feel they fit, so they are disenfranchised, because they don’t want to play in the primary system. And then about a third of Republicans, who I would call mainstream, chamber of commerce types, the leadership of the Republican Party doesn’t represent them. So a third of Republicans, independents and Democrats, and independents, interestingly enough, I think for the first time on election day in Texas was a bigger share of the vote than Democrats.

When you have this scenario, it’s like … people have a choice between Yellow Cab and whatever, American Cab, and people say they want something else, and then somebody keeps saying, no, you’ve got to pick Yellow Cab or American Cab, and the party solution is we’ll repaint the cab or we’ll  put a stereo system in the cab, but people want Uber or Lyft.

It’s like a bookstore or a hotel, where people want Amazon, or Airbnb, or Uber, and I think that’s what’s increasing and the parties are holding on, it’s like a utility monopoly, they are holding on, holding on, holding on, and hoping they can keep lasting.

One of two things will happen. Either one of them will fundamentally change and adapt to where we are today, which I think is unlikely, or something else will arise that will give people another choice, that will either take the place of one of those, or force one of those in the market to adapt.

I think we’re at that time. I think every other time we’ve talked about this it’s been about, let’s find us an independent candidate for president, and that never works. It’s like imposing democracy top down. Change always comes from Austin or from Des Moines or from Boise or from Dallas or from some small town and then moves up, because ultimately our leaders in Washington, they don’t lead they follow, they sense where the country is going and the good ones get about a half a step in front of it, and so that’s what I think is growing.

And I think what you are going to see. I would bet a lot of my resources that you are going to see a whole  bunch of people run, either outside the system as independents for Congress or statewide office or state legislature in 2018, or they are going to do what Bernie Sanders or Trump did, which is basically run as an independent in the system, and try to crack within the system, so run as Republican or run as a Democrat but basically run against the inherent system.

I think that’s coming and I think the question is, when does the wave hit the beach, and I don’t know that.

(Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez. Matthew Dowd posses for a portrait at his house in Wimberley, Texas, on Tuesday, September 12, 2007.


FR: Are you going to be part of that wave.

DOWD: I don’t know what I’m going to do. I  mean a number of folks have talked to me. And, I want to make it clear, I have not made any moves, I have not done anything, not made any decisions.

I appreciate everyone who has talked to me, Republicans who have talked to me, Democrats who have talked to me, independents who have talked to me about it. I’m weighing things. One – does this fit into where I want to be in my life and how I want to be and my daughter is going into high school next year and all those parts of my life, that’s one part.

And two, I want to be a voice and part of changing it. I love politics. I got interested in it during the Watergate when I grew up in Detroit, watching the Watergate hearings, and just got fascinated ever since I was 12 or 13, it became something I loved, and I basically started  reading, volunteering, doing stuff.

Evan Smith’s Feb. 14, 2013 TribTalk with Dowd and his former partner in business and bush, Mark McKinnon.

DOWD: I worked both sides. I’ve done Democrats. I worked for Lloyd Bentsen here, for Bob Bullock here, worked for (George W.) Bush, worked for Schwarzenegger.

Now both parties, there are good people, but they don’t represent the country as a whole, and the other thing about the system is, I’ve met a lot of great people that get involved and are really good, well-intentioned people, but it’s like a sick building with lead pipes and mold and you’re a healthy person and you go into that building, no matter how healthy you are, it will make you sick over time and I think that’s what our system is doing, is that good, healthy, well-intentioned people either end up sick or saying `I’m leaving and I don’t want any part of it, I can’t stand politics,’ and they become cynical about it.

So I don’t know. I want to use my voice in the best way. I think we need change. I love this country. I love politics. I think the majority of the country is unrepresented. I think the lack of ability to come to consensus is hurting democracy. I think democracy, any democracy, depends on the ability to get to the common good, and our ability to get to the common good is going away because of the tribes who won’t come out of their shells, and we don’t even have a common set of facts, which is a huge problem.


(ERICH SCHLEGEL for The New York Times. March 31, 2007)

FR: Would you need to feel you had a shot at winning to run?

DOWD: For me, it’s not that I need to win. I think the question is how do you push down or crack the wall that keeps this from happening, that’s preventing our democracy from being healthy.

I don’t mind running into the wall and putting a crack into it and the woman behind me breaking it down. I don’t have any problem with that. So would I want to do a kamikaze, fool’s errand with no chance of success? No, I’m not interested in that. But nothing that I do is contingent on a high probability of success. It needs enough probability of success that it’s possible. I’m not interested in doing whatever I do just for the sake of saying I did it.

FR: How serious a barrier is the two-party system to an independent candidacy?

DOWD: The two huge barriers to success have gone away. The gate-keeper qualities of the two political parties are gone because of technology and the ability of party leaders to stop something is less, and money matters less. Now, on your computer, you can talk to 100,000 or a million people basically with no cost. Before, ten, fifteen years ago it would take $10 million, $5 million.

But I think people have to stand up say, `I want to do this and I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it outside the system and try to achieve success in individual jurisdictions.’


(Photo courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. 4/14/05.)

FR: What about ballot access, and the habit of straight-ticket voting?

DOWD: I think all those things are a barrier, but they are not the biggest barrier. Those can be overcome.

The biggest barrier is psychological which is people, in the end, thinking, `Well, I really want to consider something else, but one of those two are going to win so I better pick.’ That is the psychological barrier. Once you break that, once people think, `Oh, there is another option that can win, it’s going to be like a flood.’ A flood’s coming.

FR: You think there are other people across the country thinking about doing what you’re thinking about doing?

DOWD: Oh yeah. There are a bunch of people out there who are thinking the exact same thing I am, that are thinking of running, that are thinking, how do I serve, that are frustrated.

And the funny thing is much of the mistake has been, `Oh, it’s going to occur in purple states.’ No, it’s going to happen in the monopoly states because that’s where the greatest number of people are disenfranchised. In a purple state, there’s competition in the general election. In a state like California, New York, Texas, New Jersey to a large degree, they are dominated by one political thing and at that point there are a larger number of people left out.

FR: But the Republican Party in Texas seems quite happy with how it’s doing.

DOWD: But there are a lot of people beneath that who don’t feel like that.

For me, my own political ideology, I’m a conservative in preserving traditional values that matter to people, but I”m also progressive to the idea that we all have to adapt and evolve to a better place. So fiscally we ought to live within our means, do things and not waste money, but I also believe in social tolerance, people ought to be able to do what they want. The two parties don’t give you an avenue for that choice, right? That’s where most people are.

FR: Does Ted Cruz present a particularly inviting target?

DOWD: The first drive of it is mission oriented. It’s not about the person, It’s not about the place. It’s the idea that we need to do this because our democracy is at stake, if we don’t change it and innovate it in that way.

The second is are there real opportunities to prove that, and I believe that Ted Cruz provides, whether ir’s me or somebody else, a great opportunity.

He is disliked by a majority and if not a majority at least a plurality  of the state. He is a poster child for a broken, unprincipled system. Just watching his behavior with Trump, you could put together five clips of him, from he’s his best friend, to calling Trump morally corrupt and a pathological liar, to his convention thing, to making phone calls for Trump.

There are a  chunk of Republicans who don’t feel represented by him. They think he is out of the mainstream. they don’t’ think he’s successful. Then there’s a huge group of voters win the state who don’t think he does anything for the state. The practical effect is Texas has one U.S. senator that actually really deals with the, that’s  John Cornyn. So Texas is unrepresented by him and he’s much more interested in his national profile.

So I think there’s a number of factors that lend itself to him particularly being vulnerable, but the problem, and why this is important, is he can win the Republican primary, it doesn’t matter who runs. The typical Democratic candidate – the state’s still red – a traditional Democrat in that mold can’t win. So the question, can an independent candidate run and win in that scenario? There has to be a lot of factors in play for that to work.


(COX Photo by Rick McKay/Washington Bureau)

FR: What about the Democrats?

DOWD: They’re fooling themselves again, which they happen to do every two or four years in this state, where they all of a sudden get convinced that, people don’t like Trump in Texas  therefore Democrats are going to win.

In my view, if it’s Beto O’Rourke against Cruz, Cruz win and probably wins by double digits. if it’s Joaquin Castro vs. Ted Cruz, it’s basically the same thing, and instead of losing by 14 points he might lose by 10 points. When you’re given that choice, a Hillary Clinton supported Democrat, with all of that ideology associated with it, against Ted, Ted is going to win. I mean Texas is still a right-of-center state broadly. It’s not like Ted, but if they have the choice between a very left of center Democrat and Ted, they’re going to pick Ted.

FR: Have you thought of running for office before?

DOWD: Yeah, I’ve considered it off and on, I’ve just never. I came back here

I went up to (Washington) to do Bush’s re-elect in 2003, was there for a year-and-a-half, when I came back a whole bunch of folks talked about me running statewide as a Republican for comptroller.

I considered it very momentarily. I had a lot of stuff going on. I had lost a daughter, I had another daughter in the hospital. I was coming out of that. I got a divorce, so it just didn’t work.

So I’ve considered it. Ever since I was young, it was what can I do in politics to have an effect, so I have weighed different things and I don’t know if this is the place and I have not decided whether this is the place to do it or not.

FR: When do you have to decide by?

DOWD: The practical legal deadline is December to decide if you’re running, but you can’t even start collecting signatures until after the primaries in March and then you have 60 days to get around 47,000 signatures.

I enjoy what I’m doing. I have a great platform with all the things I’m doing.

I just moved back out to Wimberley – I lived there for five years, but I moved back out this week, which I love. I have a place on the Blanco River, that I built after the flood. I love the town, I love the community, and decided to go back out there after the flood to sort of say, Wimberley can come back.

I’m probably in Washington seven or days a month. I started this social venture fund called Paradox Capital to invest in for-profit companies. I’ve done four investments in Austin and one in California. All trying to do good stuff bur have a financial upside to it for the companies to prove you can use capitalism for good. That’s sort of my premise.

FR: Does Trump signal a new type of candidate?

DOWD: What I think we’re going to see – this is my theory of the case – is that the  pendulum has swung so far, Trump represents a large swing of the pendulum, understandably, a lot of fears and frustrations of a lot of voters and I understand it very well having grown up in Michigan and I have ten brothers and sisters.

But it’s swung so far to this sort of narcissistic reality TV, I think the pendulum is going to go to a humble servant leader. People think, `oh let’s go get our own version of a narcissistic reality TV star.’ Everybody thinks that’s the way to succeed.

I think you hold a mirror up to where it is today and the opposite is where people are going to go back to. That’s what I think. Sort of the Pope Francis model.

When this change comes I’m talking about, I would say Donald Trump would be on that list of people  you have to give credit to. He revealed the system and how it’s broken. He revealed how you can go around a broken system, you don’t have to go through it. He helped give birth to it.

FR: What about Schwarzenegger?

DOWD: Schwarzenegger was Trump before Trump. Here is somebody who was a celebrity candidate, who ran as Republican but wasn’t really a Republican. He was a sign that this kid of thing was coming.

But for the fact that Arnold was born in Austria he would have run for president in a similar manner.

For us, for you, for me, for other, is is a great time, a fascinating time. I mean it’s disruptive, it’s probably destructive of many of our institutions, obviously, as it unfolds, and it’s scary to a lot of people, but change doesn’t come when everything is fine. Change comes when things are destructive and people say, `We can’t do this.’ So I think it’s exciting. It’s exciting for journalists. It’s exciting for anybody who wants to create change.

FR: Can Trump save newspapers?

DOWD: They have to have self-reflection. What’s the best way to approach this? What’s the best model?

I think the days – I mean I was part of this and I fault myself in this –  we have to get as far away  from you know, covering politics like a game – war rooms, that it’s a circus, all of those things have helped create where we are today. Beccause Donald Trump is all about the game, it’s all about the circus, it’s all about that.

We have to move back to, this is important stuff and this matters,  and we’ve got to stop – too much cable, too much of journalism covers this like it’s a big fun game, entertainment. I’ve come to that place with a lot of soul-searching and understanding and  life changes, that that’s just not good for our country.

Programing note:

Showtimes The Circus, featuring Mark McKinnon and Bloomberg Politics’ John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, returned for its second season last night.






Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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