Campaign '06: A Texas-Size Race for Governor

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Texas has had some pretty famous leaders over the last century, from Lyndon Baines Johnson to John Connally and more recently, of course, George W. Bush. But Rick Perry, the man who slid into office when Bush decamped for Washington six years ago, could easily become the longest-serving governor in the history of Texas even if a majority of voters cast their ballots against him on Nov. 7 — and recent polls show they plan on doing just that. Perry is leading a gubernatorial pack of five, but with the support of less than 40% of likely voters.

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How could this happen in the resolutely Red State that propelled the Bush family, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and Karl Rove into national politics, fueling the Republican revolution? The simple answer is that there are just too many contenders this go-around. The more complicated answer lies inside the Republican Party of Texas, where Perry has nurtured issues dear to social conservatives but alienated the older wing by pushing a new business tax and a privatized toll road plan. Republican voters, as a result, will split their vote this year between Perry and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the 67-year-old Republican state comptroller who is running as an independent.

Strayhorn, who bills herself as "One Tough Grandma" and is the mother of ex-White House spokesman Scott McClellan, has turned Perry's toll road "fiasco," as she calls it, into the centerpiece of her campaign while attracting teachers upset about school finance. But even Strayhorn, one of the state's most popular officeholders, has been unable to break out from the "anti-Perry" pack. She stumbled during the lone gubernatorial debate, leaving an opening for the little-known Democratic candidate Chris Bell. The 46-year-old Bell, a former U.S. Congressman who filed the first ethics complaint against DeLay, hit all the talking points that so anger the state's Democratic minority, from school finance to failing health care and underfunded state parks. But a post-debate infusion of $2.5 million in cash and loans from a single trial lawyer still left his $5 million campaign treasury far short of Strayhorn's $15 million and the governor's $30 million. The Libertarian candidate, James Werner, wasn't even invited to the debate.

That leaves the wild card of the election: Jewish cowboy Kinky Friedman, 61, the singer/songwriter/novelist who is trying to recreate a southern-fried version of wrestler Jesse Ventura's 1998 unlikely gubernatorial win in Minnesota. Friedman, also running as an independent, has outpolled both Bell and Strayhorn at times, but his bad prep and repetitive one-liners ("Why the hell not?" is his campaign slogan) are beginning to seem stale and tired. He has come under attack for his flip remarks, like one calling Katrina evacuees in Houston "crackheads and thugs", but he has refused Bell's calls to withdraw. "This is not an election. This is a moment in history," he tells supporters. "This is what Davey Crockett died for at the Alamo."

With such a divided field, the governor's job has always been Perry's to lose. Thanks to Texas law, he only needs to win a plurality, not a majority, of votes. He certainly looks the part: rugged (he grew up on a West Texas ranch), athletic (he does triathlons) and telegenic. But the 56-year-old Perry, dubbed "Governor Good Hair" early on in his tenure, struggles to get respect. He preaches to the party choir (literally in some cases) on issues like God, guns and gays. He has advocated for — and won — a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He has kept taxes low, attracted record numbers of new jobs to the state, and rammed through tort reform. In September, the conservative Cato Institute ranked him as No. 2 governor in the nation on fiscal responsibility — "a better governor," they said, than Bush.

The Texas race, however, is raising larger questions about the Republican Party's ability to govern, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, the alma mater of First Lady Laura Bush. After Hurricane Katrina and the state's embrace of evacuees from New Orleans, Perry was touted as a possible vice presidential material for 2008 and jumped in the polls (to 52% approval). But this summer, his ratings sank over a variety of issues, ranging from school finance (a perennial problem in Texas) to his vision of toll roads speeding NAFTA goodies through the border. The realization that a changing Texas faces a new set of problems — working-class people struggling to make ends meet, health care costs rising, tuition up 40% at the University of Texas — has hurt the governor, according to Jillson. "Republicans will still rise to the defense of George Bush but you don't find people defending Perry. They are sullenly supporting him," says Jillson.

Perry, like the President, is now in negative territory, attracting more disapproval than approval among Texans polled, including over 50% for both men, according to SurveyUSA in October. "This suggests Texas is not impervious to national trends," says Bruce Buchanan, government professor at the University of Texas. And the loudest complaining comes from within Perry's own party. Some moderate Republicans remain angry about a new gross receipts tax on business that Perry pushed so the state could cut property taxes — a cut that, in turn, has failed to register with homeowners yet. "It's unimaginable that a Republican in Texas would pass the biggest tax increase in history," says Steven Hotze, a long-time Republican fundraiser and Perry supporter who's sitting on the sidelines for this gubernatorial race. "It's caused a rift in the state party."

Ironically, Perry's greatest vision — a 4,000-mile network of highways, truckways and railway called the Trans-Texas Corridor — is drawing the most heat. The state party's platform has twice rejected the idea because of the land required to build it. Conservative bloggers are angry because the plans would let foreign companies run the for-profit toll roads for 50 years and would open up the border to Mexican truckers. Oil woman Anne Holland, a member of the Republican Inner Circle for years, is so irate she is voting independent for Strayhorn. "I have been a staunch Republican supporter for many, many years. The upcoming Texas governor's race is about to change that!" she says.

Some Republican activists, however, think Perry's woes are less indicative of the national scene, than his own background — as a former Texas rural Democrat. "He's a farmer from Haskell. Pragmatically, he is a conservative Democrat," says former Texas G.O.P. political director Royal Massett. "They don't see him as John Connally with that charisma, or Lyndon Johnson with his sense of get it done." But what Perry loses from the corporate Republican crowd in Dallas and Houston, he gains in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley and in rural areas. While his TV ads stress border security, he works hard on relationships with Mexico and calls the idea of a border wall "ludicrous."

In recent polls, the Democrat Bell has picked up steam, Friedman has started to fade fast and some 20% of voters remain undecided — an unusually high number for so late in the race. The problem for Perry's opponents is that Texans traditionally vote straight ticket 60% of the time. This year, the entrance of two independents into the race, however, has thrown old political calculations to the wind. "If this was a two-person race, he'd probably be in trouble, but as long as there's a four-person race, Perry wins with unimpressive numbers," says UT's Buchanan. Perry, defying all the negativity, is now talking about running for a third term. If he wins this time, he will already own a place in the history books, right up there with Lyndon Johnson.