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Departure of Wealthy Lawyer Relieves GOP

Considering their luck of late, Senate Republicans had to feel relieved on Tuesday when wealthy attorney Mikal Watts (D) made the surprising announcement that he was dropping out of the Texas Senate race.

Watts was never favored to oust incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R) in 2008, and the Republicans must still contend with state Rep. Rick Noriega, now the presumed Democratic nominee and potentially formidable in a state where Latino voters make up a huge voting bloc.

But Watts was prepared to match Cornyn dollar-for-dollar in campaign spending — using his own funds if necessary — in an expensive state where deep coffers are a prerequisite for competitive candidates. And with 22 Senate seats to defend this cycle compared with just 12 for the Democrats, the GOP could ill afford to add to their list of worries a race that should easily go their way.

“This bit of news is one more example that Republicans can point to and say: ‘The environment might be bad, but what Democrats are pointing to [when it comes to the prospect of expanding their Senate majority] is easier said than done,’” said one Republican consultant who advises Senate candidates. “You can’t just talk, you have to run.”

Watts had generously loaned his campaign money and even raised some cash from individual donors. He closed September with $8.3 million on hand — more than Cornyn’s $6.6 million — and regularly bragged that most of that money was being hoarded in a general election account for the campaign to come.

Some Democrats, however, dismissed Watts’ claims that he dropped out of the race for family concerns. They speculated that the first-time candidate discovered that defeating Noriega in the March 4 Democratic primary would not be easy, despite the fact that the state lawmaker closed the third quarter with only $510,000 on hand.

“Something obviously made them see that, regardless of money, they weren’t going to be able to pull it out,” said one Texas-based Democratic strategist. “A Hispanic surname in Texas is very hard to beat, no matter how much money you have.”

With Watts out of the race, Texas Democrats should unify behind Noriega in short order. Noriega is an Army veteran with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, and he served in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. His wife recently was elected to the Houston City Council.

The state Democratic Party will probably remain neutral through the Jan. 2 filing deadline, as another Democrat could jump into the primary against Noriega and the party does not endorse in primaries as a matter of policy.

But should Noriega remain the lone primary candidate through early January, he’ll be able to get a two-month head start on fundraising for the general election. Watts’ exit could cool the interest in the Texas Senate race of Democrats based in Washington, D.C., but Cornyn is expected to remain a top target of the the state Democratic Party.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have long believed Cornyn is beatable if he faces a challenger who is adequately funded, which is what initially prompted their interest in Watts.

“John Cornyn is starting his re-election campaign with an approval rating in the 40s running against a Democratic candidate with a great record, a compelling personal story, and a clear contrast on the issue of who will stand up for Texas,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matthew Miller said.

Watts began calling supporters on Monday and announced early Tuesday that he was dropping out of the race, citing the need to spend more time with his wife of 14 years and his three children, ages 9, 11 and 13. Watts campaign spokesman Kim Devlin said the decision was made over the weekend.

Devlin said Watts did not realize just how much time the campaign was going to demand of him. Watts first tried to adjust his campaign schedule to allow for more family time but ultimately determined that to run a winning campaign his family would have to make sacrifices he deemed untenable, Devlin said.

Watts did not immediately endorse Noriega on Tuesday, although the two spoke.

“Mikal and I made plans to sit down together in the next couple of weeks,” Noriega said in a statement. “In the meantime, I’ll continue the campaign that we started together and fight for the vision for a better Texas that we continue to share.”

Republicans declined to gloat upon hearing of Watts’ decision. But clearly there was some sense of relief after months of difficult news that could imperil the GOP’s chances of maintaining their 49-seat minority, let alone recapturing the majority.

Recently, Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and John Warner (R-Va.) announced they would retire, leaving competitive races in their wake where previously none existed. Also, Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R) reign in Alaska could be on thin ice because of a federal investigation into his Congressional dealings. Whether he retires or seeks re-election, Alaska could be another competitive state.

Earlier this year, Watts hosted a fundraiser at his San Antonio home for the DSCC that brought in more than $1 million. The committee was hoping Watts would win the primary and threaten Cornyn while simultaneously forcing the National Republican Senatorial Committee to play even more defense than it already is in a solid GOP state.

Democrats still argue that Cornyn is vulnerable, saying his poll numbers are weaker than they should be for an individual who has been a statewide elected official for a dozen years (Cornyn previously served as elected state Supreme Court judge and state attorney general).

But Republicans on Tuesday were even more confident of victory in a race they had predicted they would win when Watts was still in the running.

“We are happy to see that Democrats in Texas have come to the same conclusion as we have had all along: Sen. Cornyn is unbeatable and will be easily re-elected,” NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said.