Former Mayor Ron Kirk of Dallas could become the first African-American to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, after winning the state’s Democratic runoff last week against schoolteacher Victor Morales.
With all districts reporting, Mr. Kirk won 60 percent of the 620,000 votes cast, which was 5.1 percent of registered voters. He will face state Attorney General John Cornyn, a Republican, in the fall.
Mr. Kirk’s margin of victory contrasted with a poll of 625 likely voters conducted the week before the election by The Dallas Morning News that showed Mr. Morales leading Mr. Kirk by 7 percentage points, though the margin of error suggested the race was essentially tied. Mr. Kirk and Mr. Morales were the two top vote-getters in the March 12 Democratic primary election.
The former mayor drew on substantial political and financial assets in his runoff victory. His campaign got a last-minute surge from television and radio advertisements, an election-eve endorsement from Texas businessman Tony Sanchez, the Democratic nominee for governor, and a slew of telephone calls to likely voters.
Also stepping up to help Mr. Kirk’s blitz were former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, and Dallas Cowboys running back Emmit Smith, said Justin Lonen, Mr. Kirk’s press secretary.
Mr. Morales, who teaches world geography at the 430-student Kemp High School, about 40 miles southeast of Dallas, ran a low-budget race and sought to project a populist appeal. By the end of March, Mr. Morales reported that he had raised only $18,000 for his campaign, compared with the $2.7 million Mr. Kirk reported to have raised by the same time.
Though the candidates differed in the amounts of money in their campaign bank accounts, they did not have radically different views on key issues.
“This was not an issue-laden discussion,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “They mostly agreed.”
Mr. Morales, who could not be reached for comment last week, was considered a political outsider, said Mr. Buchanan, even though he gained national attention when he won the Democratic Senate nomination in 1996 before losing to Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican. That year, he also spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
“He was a kind of Don Quixote-like figure, and that appealed to a lot of people,” said Mr. Buchanan. But what stuck in voters’ minds at the polls was who would be able to win against Mr. Cornyn in the fall, he added. It was also the question raised by the Democratic Party leaders who rallied behind Mr. Kirk.
The runoff race grew contentious in its final stretch, as Mr. Morales accused the national party of throwing its weight behind Mr. Kirk, 47.
Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, denied that the national party was at all involved in the primary race. She added, though, that Democratic officials were excited about working with Mr. Kirk. “He is a fabulous candidate and has an overwhelming amount of support in the state,” she said.
Mr. Morales, 52, said in his concession speech that he would return to his career as a teacher and would not run for office again in Texas.
When they square off in November, Mr. Kirk and Mr. Cornyn will be vying for the position being given up by Mr. Gramm, who has held the Senate seat for 18 years and has decided to retire.
His departure from the Senate gives Democrats a better chance of winning the seat, Ms. Ravitz-Meehan said. “I’m sure nine months ago [before Mr. Gramm announced his retirement], not many people thought we would have a real race in Texas,” she said.
The race could prove pivotal as Democrats now control the Senate by only one vote. About a third of the Senate’s 100 seats will be up for election in the fall.
Mr. Lonen predicts that education and health care will be two of the biggest issues in the Texas Senate race. He added that two key pieces of Mr. Kirk’s education campaign are that he advocates the full funding of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, and that he opposes providing government-financed school vouchers. Mr. Cornyn, who supports the president’s education agenda, has said that there should be more local control, and that the federal government should not set national standards.
Mr. Buchanan is predicting a tight race in November: “Kirk is up against a fellow who is well-financed, well-known, strongly endorsed by the president, and is in the president’s home state.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Ex-Dallas Mayor Defeats Teacher In Texas Senate Runoff