All eyes are on Texas this year, as presidential candidates fight for the state's delegates to secure their spot on their party's ticket.
For Democrat Hillary Clinton, a March 4 victory in Texas is do-or-die if she expects to win the delegate count over the charging Barack Obama machine. Republican John McCain wants a win in Texas too, to show his party that he is the clear front-runner over Mike Huckabee.
And although Jefferson County has been a Democratic stronghold in the last four presidential elections in an otherwise Red State, the Republican Party is alive and well.
The Record posed a serious of questions to Dr. Doug Conner, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, about the current campaign and the party's status in Southeast Texas.
The Record: The Texas primaries usually do not get this much attention. Why is it so important this year?
Conner: Neither party has a candidate who has yet clinched the nomination. All of the candidates need strong support in Texas to get as many committed delegates as possible; Texas has the most delegates of any remaining state.
The Record: Does the close race in the Democratic Party hurt or help the Republican Party?
Conner: It helps. The longer the Democrats take in deciding their nominee, the longer the GOP has to raise issues pertinent to the national election, organize our general election message/ support, and raise funds. The continued uncertainty in the Democrat race maintains a level of divisiveness and absorbs funds that could be used in the general election.
The Record: In Jefferson County, are the party members getting behind John McCain? Are there Mike Huckabee supporters locally?
Conner: People are slowly rallying behind Mr. McCain. While he was not the first choice for most conservative Republicans, we are a practical party, and realize that issues important to us would largely be ignored by Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barrack Hussein Obama.
There are grassroots efforts in Jefferson County for both Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. In fact, we have seen a dramatic increase in local party interest thanks to these 2 candidates. Several people, who have never previously been involved in organized politics, have filed as precinct chairs. Many Ron Paul supporters have demonstrated an interest in attending the County and State GOP conventions.
The Record: Are Southeast Texas Republicans still loyal to President George W. Bush?
Conner: Yes. While it is easy to dwell on an administrations shortcomings, we remember the successes of the last 7 years. We are safe. There haven't been ANY further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, largely due to Bush policies. The economy has been strong for many years, until the recent mortgage crisis (which I don't believe is the fault of our president but mainly due to mortgage lending practices). President Bush's tax cuts revived the economy after the recession of 2001.
The Record: What issues are important to Southeast Texans (i.e. the economy, Iraq, healthcare, immigration)?
Conner: All of these issues are important. However, the most important issue which should be addressed by the federal government is our national safety and security. To that end, the federal government needs to do a much better job on border security and immigration reform. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been successful in confronting the war on terror away from our homeland. The federal government should have a limited role in the economy; Tax cuts and less government regulation are the only tools that the government should utilize to help the economy. The federal government shouldn't have a role in healthcare.
The Record: The Republican Party of Jefferson County has grown in recent years. To what do you attribute that growth?
Conner: Historically, Texas was a Democrat stronghold. This is a throwback to the Civil War and the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877, when the Democrats regained power in the South. Many Texans became "yellow-dog Democrats" and taught their children to "never vote for a Republican". Unfortunately, this mentality has persisted to this day.
However, Texans have been, and continue to be, largely conservative and independent, not trusting or relying upon the government.
Several decades ago, enlightened Democrats in Texas began to realize that the party was becoming more and more liberal; most areas of Texas have embraced the conservative platform of the Republican party. Folks in Jefferson County are finally realizing that the Democrat party left them, not vice versa.
That being the case, one would think that the growth of the GOP in Jefferson County should be GREATER. However, our growth has been hindered in several ways.
Jefferson County has the largest percentage of African-Americans in the state, a group largely courted (but poorly served) by the Democrats. We have many Union members due to the amount of heavy industry in the area. Again, Union members are a group largely courted (but poorly served) by the Democrats.
Finally, we have many VERY wealthy trial lawyers in Jefferson County. Trial lawyers who spend their money supporting and influencing Democrat politicians and policy. The chairman of the Jefferson County Democrat Party (Gilbert Adams) is a trial lawyer.
The Record: Aside from the presidential race, what other races should Jefferson County voters pay attention to? (i.e. John Cornyn, Texas Supreme Court)
Conner: All of them. People fail to realize that oftentimes the "down ballot" races and candidates affect them more than the President does. Citizens have an obligation to educate themselves about ALL candidates and issues on the ballot. It's OUR government, it's OUR responsibility to put good people in ALL elected offices.