Has a Democrat Got a Chance of Becoming Governor of Texas?

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From left: Pat Sullivan / AP; Dave Einsel / Getty Images

Texas gubernatorial candidates Bill White, left, and Rick Perry

When Texas Governor Rick Perry scored a convincing win earlier this month over U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, his rival for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, talk of a possible 2012 Perry presidential push began. But before Perry can stride into the national arena, he must win re-election this fall in what some say will be his toughest face-off with a Democrat yet — against former Houston mayor Bill White. Indeed, political analyst Charlie Cook has moved the Texas governor's race from "leaning Republican" to "toss-up" status.

White supporters point to his strong base in Houston (the state's largest city), his family roots in San Antonio and his ability to speak fluent Spanish, which is seen as a draw in the bluest part of the state, South Texas. The most recent poll by Rasmussen showed Perry with a 49%-to-43% lead over White. The popular ex-mayor, who served in the Clinton Administration as Deputy Secretary of Energy, may still be considered an underdog, according to Richard Murray, political scientist at the University of Houston, but he has "a real chance of winning." Murray expects White to have adequate campaign funding because of his connections with deep-pocket donors, support from the Democratic Governors' Association and, perhaps, his own personal resources — he gave his first mayoral campaign a $2 million kick-start. (White, a lawyer, worked for an oil company and then ran a Houston energy investment group after leaving the White House.) Plus, White is a disciplined campaigner who will run a focused campaign, Murray says.

Still, some longtime Texas observers are not buying into the rosy scenarios for Perry's challenger. "It is going to be uphill for White to win," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Texas is the largest red state in the country. It tends to vote Republican by an 8-, 9-, 10-point margin." That is in a normal year, Jillson says, not one in which the political mood is downright rebellious.

That said, Jillson notes it is only March, and a significant Perry stumble or major scandal could yet impact the race. Focus and discipline will be crucial in what will be a long, hot summer. Old Democratic hands like Garry Mauro, the gubernatorial candidate who was crushed at the polls by then governor George W. Bush, are warning White that he must define himself early, before Perry does, and not let Republicans tie him to Washington, a tactic that mortally wounded the campaign of Hutchison in her primary run against the governor. But that mantra has already begun, with the Perry camp dubbing White an Obama adviser and emphasizing his ties to the Clinton Administration.

In an e-mail to supporters, Dave Carney, Perry's longtime political adviser, described White as a "hapless opponent" who has "morphed into a combination of Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry rolled into one who's trying to avoid letting voters know where he really stands." The Perry camp also blasted White for refusing to release his income-tax forms in an attempt to keep voters in the dark about how White "amassed a fortune after years of public service," Carney wrote. That was just the first week of the campaign.

White has tried to take advantage of a potential $11 billion state-budget shortfall, deriding Perry's support for a 5% across-the-board budget scrub as "Soviet-style" management. Unfortunately, his criticism of Perry's style was accompanied with a refusal to rule out tax increases — a position the Perry campaign pounced on. Perry pollster Mike Baselice says White's support for taxes, national health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation help define him as a "McGovern liberal."

Democrats are hoping the campaign of Linda Chavez-Thompson, a Mexican-American activist and union leader who is running for lieutenant governor, will boost the Hispanic turnout — and White's chances. However, the presence of a Hispanic candidate high on the ballot has not proved to be the door opener for Democrats in recent Texas elections. In 2002, Perry handily beat millionaire South Texas businessman Tony Sanchez in the governor's race, 58% to 40%, even after Sanchez spent $75 million, much of it his own money, in the campaign. A Democratic Hispanic candidate for lieutenant governor lost by roughly the same margin in 2006.

And Perry has been courting Hispanic voters in South Texas, Jillson notes, by sending discretionary law-enforcement grants to local sheriffs who are often major players in South Texas politics. The notion that the Hispanic vote is a Democratic bloc is also debatable. A poll commissioned by state legislators across the country who serve on the Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs, released just before the March 7 primary, indicated that 54% of Texas Hispanics identified themselves as conservative and 23% said they might participate in the Republican primary (Perry got the nod 2-to-1 over Hutchison among that group).

State senator Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat and board member, told the Dallas Morning News that Perry does well with some Hispanics because he often visits their communities and has distanced himself from immigration hard-liners by criticizing Washington's push for a border wall and opting for high-tech border controls and boosts to local sheriffs' budgets. He also touts his support for a 2001 bill that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges.

Democrats say Perry has come close to being vulnerable before, citing the 2006 election, when he squeaked back into the governor's mansion with just 39% of the vote. But that was a race that included three other major candidates with widespread appeal — Democrat Chris Bell, who got 28% of the vote; renegade Democrat turned Republican turned independent Carole Strayhorn, who garnered 18%; and songwriter-novelist Kinky Friedman, who won 12%. Short of a scandal, Perry's base seems secure. Democrats are hoping that the election might reflect voter weariness with Perry, who has served almost 10 years in the office. But in the recent primary, Perry won handily by tapping voter discontent with Washington, not Austin.

Perry has cast himself as a champion of Texas "values," and after all, he has spent 25 years in Austin — first as a state legislator, then agriculture commissioner, followed by lieutenant governor and then governor. A recent Texas Politics Project poll showed 88% of Republicans support the notion that Washington and other states could learn something from Texas government, as do a third of Texas Democrats. That's a third Bill White will have to woo, along with attracting independents to his cause in a year when, as Perry pollster Baselice says, "the Republicans have the wind at their backs."