Did national Democrats' recruitment of former Iraq commander Ricardo Sanchez transform the Texas Senate race from a blow-out into a marquee 2012 contest? Not a chance, say Republicans eyeing the race.
For deep red Texas GOP'ers, the most significant task is clearing the primary field, which includes former solicitor general Ted Cruz, ex-railroad commish Michael Williams, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and car dealer-turned-secretary of state Roger Williams. Sanchez, whose military career took an unceremonious dive after those below his command were charged with prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib detention center, registers a distant second for these Senate hopefuls.
Despite news that Democrats have finally fielded a challenger for the open seat, Cruz and Leppert are riding high. Aides to both campaigns circulated earlier this week fundraising figures indicating both had posted north of $1 million a piece in the first quarter. Williams reported a slimmer half-million haul for the same period.
Even beyond fundraising, a Sanchez candidacy isn't without its serious hurdles.
The legacy of Abu Ghraib -- the enduring images of naked prisoners bound and tortured -- and the outrage it sparked on Capitol Hill wasn't lost on one Republican operative with ties to the race.
A 2004 panel that investigated prisoner abuse found Sanchez, once the nation's highest-ranking Hispanic officer, was derelict in overseeing Iraqi detention. According to a classified report by three Army generals, Sanchez approved the use of harsh military interrogation techniques that were once limited to prisoners held at facilities in Cuba and Afghanistan.
The irony that Democrats who once raked the lieutenant general over the coals now view Sanchez as their savior will no doubt be a hallmark of the campaign.
Senator Patty Murray, who steers the Democrats' Senate campaign arm and vaguely teased reporters earlier this week of a top Texas recruit, said in 2004 that all those responsible for Abu Ghraib -- no matter where they fell in the chain of command -- must be held to account for their actions.
"These actions are a disservice to the thousands of American soldiers in the region who serve us honorably each and every day, and, sadly, are likely to make their efforts to calm a troubled region even harder," Murray said of the controversy.
When former President George Bush tapped then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to fill the nation's top law enforcement post, Murray joined Senator Maria Cantwell in opposing the nomination over his green-lighting of Sanchez's interrogation techniques.
In a 2004 statement, Senator Patrick Leahy accused Sanchez of authorizing "the use of techniques that were contrary to both U.S. military manuals but also international law.” "Given this incredible overstepping of bounds, I find it incredible that the reports generated thus far have not recommended punishment of any kind for high-level officials," he added.
The onslaught of Congressional criticism came as military brass looked to give Sanchez his fourth star. The promotion never materialized and months later he retired.
And in January 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the Central Intelligence Agency immediately cease using many of the interrogation techniques earlier approved by Sanchez in Iraq.
"Senate Democrats forced Ricardo Sanchez into retirement over his performance in Iraq and now they're recruiting him to run for the Senate?," one top GOP strategist mused to Beltway Whispers. "Republicans will look forward to hearing what Patrick Leahy, Carl Levin and Patty Murray have to say about his candidacy because it speaks volumes about how desperate the Democrats are to hold onto a Senate majority."