Retired Iraq commander to seek Texas Senate seat

SAN ANTONIO Wed May 11, 2011 3:09pm EDT

U.S. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, commander on the ground in Iraq, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill about Iraqi prisoner abuse, in this May 19, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

U.S. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, commander on the ground in Iraq, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill about Iraqi prisoner abuse, in this May 19, 2004 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Files

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SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Ricardo Sanchez, who rose from a childhood of grinding poverty in South Texas to become a three-star Army general and commander of coalition forces in the Iraq war, planned to file paperwork on Wednesday to run as a Democrat for a Senate seat.

"Unfortunately, Washington is mostly focused on scoring partisan points and winning elections," Sanchez said in a statement on Wednesday.

"I believe that Texas needs a strong, independent voice to address the enormous challenges we are facing. I can think of no better way to continue my record of public service than to represent Texas in the Senate."

A spokesman said Sanchez plans a formal announcement in the coming weeks, but on Wednesday would file paperwork that would allow him to raise money for a campaign for the seat now held by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is retiring.

Sanchez, who lives in San Antonio, was one of the highest-ranking Hispanics ever in the U.S. military. He retired following the Abu Ghraib Iraq prison scandal, in which the Army cleared him of wrongdoing.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said that despite Sanchez's accomplishments in uniform, the former lieutenant general is facing his toughest battle in Texas, where no Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994.

To say the Democratic Party is in a slump in Texas would be an understatement. Republicans hold all statewide elected offices and solid majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Republican John McCain pounded Barack Obama by nearly 12 percentage points in the 2008 presidential election.

Jillson said the recruitment of a retired general to run for the Senate is an admission the Democrats have no candidates with political experience who could make a legitimate race for the seat.

"But with Sanchez, they've got a candidate who people will look at," he said. "What people will make of him once they do see him, we have to wait and see."

Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser, says Sanchez gives his party a shot.

"He has a lot of background that will be compelling to Texans," Barnes said. "I think this is a man who can unite the Hispanic vote in Texas, which has not been done in recent years."

Despite the fact that 42 percent of the Texas population is Hispanic, Texas has never elected a Hispanic senator or governor. President Obama's appearance in Texas on Tuesday was an attempt to fire up Hispanics, who voted for him by a 67 percent majority in 2008.

But Texas Republicans say they are unimpressed with Sanchez's record.

"No matter who the Democrats choose to be their nominee, that candidate will be at the top of the ticket with Barack Obama," Chris Elam, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas, said on Wednesday.

"We strongly like our nominee's chances against any Senate candidate who has to endure that pairing in this state."

Several prominent Republicans have announced plans to run for the Senate seat, including former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a multi-millionaire, is seen as the frontrunner, although he has said he will wait until the legislative session is over to announce his political plans.

One little-known Democrat, Sean Hubbard, a former campaign staffer for a congressional candidate, has also announced plans to run for the seat.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)

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