Despite the unlikelihood of a runoff to decide the Republican nominee for Texas governor, sitting Gov. Rick Perry is well-positioned to triumph against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Because the once highly anticipated intraparty battle between the two fizzled out when Hutchison announced that she would forgo previous plans to vacate her Senate seat, we can now look toward a potential general election between Perry and former Houston Mayor Bill White (D), a race that will have important implications for Texas politics.
[IMGCAP(1)]Hutchison’s about-face came from a drastic change of political fortunes. Hutchison has been one of Texas’ most popular leaders since her election to the Senate in 1993. While she has had a mostly unspectacular career, Hutchison appeared politically untouchable, and many observers assumed that she would easily dispatch Perry en route to becoming governor.
Instead Perry, who has experience running difficult races, dug in his boot heels. Perry believed that in a primary dominated by conservatives, he could defeat Hutchison by creating a clear contrast with Hutchison’s long tenure as a perceived insufficiently conservative legislator and Capitol Hill insider.
A late February 2009 primary survey found Hutchison enjoying a 75 percent favorable rating and leading Perry by 25 points. However, as voters became more uneasy with the recession and Washington, D.C., generally, and as Perry’s attacks on Hutchison for her support of the government bank bailout took hold, polls in May showed Perry had caught up. When Perry suggested that Texas could secede from the union, his pronouncement drew national condemnation, but it established Perry as a clear conservative champion. By September, Perry took a double-digit lead, which he still holds.
Hutchison’s decision not to resign her seat was an unmistakable signal that her heart was no longer in the race months ago, in stark contrast to when Hutchison appeared eager to leave the Senate to focus on the contest. But when Perry demonstrated that he would fight aggressively to keep his job, Hutchison, who had not run a hard race in years, was caught off-guard and did not know how to react.
“She never knew what hit her,” a shrewd observer of Texas politics told me last summer.
Assuming Perry does capture the nomination, a Perry-White race will present interesting storylines.
White’s strengths are obvious. As a popular big-city mayor unburdened by a legislative voting record, he has a good voter base, he is an excellent fundraiser, and most importantly, his pro-business background could appeal to fiscally conservative country club Republicans turned off by Perry’s politics. While Texas is still largely inhospitable territory to Democrats and White does not engender charisma comparisons to LBJ or John Connally, he represents Democrats’ best chance to win the governorship because of his own positive attributes and Perry’s vulnerabilities.
Currently, the weak economy is a major hurdle to winning re-election, as many governors have seen their prospects fall as unemployment numbers rise and state budget cuts take hold. Texas voters have rarely retained incumbent governors during a recession.
If the general election becomes a referendum on Perry’s nine-year record, he could be in a precarious position, as he has made his share of unpopular decisions and political enemies.
Perry’s support for mid-decade redistricting and his use of vetoes to defeat various bills passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature were highly controversial, and on issues including immigration, abortion and education, Perry has staked positions to the right of large swaths of the electorate, alienating moderates and the centrist, pro-business community at the expense of bolstering his standing within the Texas Republican Party. The impact of his polarization was evident in 2006 when Perry limped to re-election with just 39 percent in a four-way race.
Whether Perry can be beaten will depend on his standing post-primary. But if Hutchison were to run vigorously against Perry, he would have to maintain — or amplify — his already very conservative emphasis. This would give White an opening to grab support among the business community and independents jittery about the economy and tired of Perry after nearly a decade in office.
For his part, Perry will attempt to nationalize the race, hoping that Texas’ Republican bent will prevent White from getting crossover support. Should voters’ support of President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats continue to remain tenuous next fall, Perry will work assiduously to tie them to White.
A Perry-White matchup could also expose geographical divisions. While West Texas remains Perry’s base, he is strong in the ancestrally Democratic regions of Central and East Texas. White should start with good backing in Hispanic South Texas and El Paso as well as urban Austin and Dallas, and perhaps his native Bexar County and segments of economically populist East Texas. He should be able to maintain crossover support among GOP voters who have supported his previous mayoral campaigns.
The consequences are great. While not terribly strong institutionally, the governorship has considerable control over Congressional redistricting, and with Texas set to gain three or four new seats, the next governor’s affiliation will be key. A White victory coupled with a possible Democratic takeover of the state House could reverse recent GOP Congressional gains.
The outcome could accelerate Texas’ movement toward the Democratic Party. This is clear if White wins, but a Perry victory too could achieve the same result. For example, if Perry were to run on an anti-immigration platform, he could drive away the Hispanic voters who are on track to become a plurality of Texas’ population. This could open the door for Democrats like Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo or state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas to mount strong Senate campaigns in 2012 or 2014. More broadly, an Electoral College map without a red Texas effectively forecloses any chance of a Republican winning the White House.
Given all this, a possible Perry-White contest will be one of the most important races in America next year. Its outcome will play a critical role in Texas over the next decade and perhaps beyond.
Mark Greenbaum, a writer and attorney in Washington, D.C., is a frequent contributor to Roll Call.