Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Texas Governor Race

Race of the Day

October 4, 2006
34 Days Until Election Day

Texas Governor

Status: Republican Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Likely Republican

Thanks in large part to the efforts made over the last decade and a half by Republicans such as Karl Rove and Tom DeLay; the GOP thoroughly dominates the political landscape of the Lone Star State. The situation is such where the current Republican Governor has become fairly unpopular but still seems poised to win reelection by a reasonably comfortable margin due to the fact that he has three main opponents who will split the vote and likely allow the incumbent to win reelection with a plurality that may not even hit 40 percent of the total vote. In fact, his main opponent may even turn out to be a fellow Republican constitutional officer. The Republican hegemony of Texas is such where the main battle for Governor could basically be an intra-party affair and such that the Democrats’ nominee could conceivably finish in fourth place.

For starters, incumbent Republican Rick Perry is seeking a second full term, after having ascended to the Governorship in late 2000 upon the election of George W. Bush as President of the United States. Perry, who began his political life as a Democrat, was seriously challenged in 2002 but managed to win fairly easily, but in the past couple of years, his popularity has taken some hits due to his governance style and proposals on several state issues to the extent that his job disapproval numbers have inched up to over a majority of the state. Those numbers for Perry do actually seem to be a little better though than where they once were.

Traditionally, Texas Governors have not had great success in winning reelection, and if Perry is able to accomplish the task, he will actually go on to become the longest serving Governor in his state’s history. While Perry’s political problems have largely been the result of many Republicans souring on him, he will be able to count on the support this election year of most of the state’s many conservative voters as well as the extremely effective and well-organized state GOP party machinery.

Perry received a big break when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison decided to run for reelection rather than challenge the Governor in a Republican primary, as many expected her to. It might have proven very difficult for Perry to be able to hold on to his job against perhaps the most popular politician in the state. The Texans working in the White House were believed to have played some part in keeping Hutchison from challenging Perry as they hoped to have as much party unity as possible in the President’s home state.
As Hutchison bowed out, State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn quickly announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination. Another former Democrat, who had been elected to office in her hometown of Austin and statewide, Strayhorn, who fashions herself as “One Tough Grandma”, jumped into the race against Perry with a series of very tough attacks against her former ally. However, Perry criticized Strayhorn for the support she had accepted in her race for Governor from some prominent Democrats, and as the more conservative candidate, appeared very likely to be a solid favorite in the GOP primary. Thus, Strayhorn angered many by eventually deciding to forgo the Republican primary and instead mount an effort to run for Governor as an Independent. Many expected that her campaign would fall short of the very high threshold required in Texas to make the ballot in that fashion but she was able to do it and is currently polling well in the state among a coalition of many of the state’s traditionally conservative Democrats and a good deal of moderate Republicans who are dissatisfied with Perry. In spite of running as an Independent, Strayhorn has made it clear that the still considers herself a Republican, but is running as an Independent in Texas in order to best oppose the Governor. Interestingly enough, two of Strayhorn’s sons served recently in important positions in the Bush Administration in Washington, but have both since left those posts. Despite this open Republican civil war in Texas, the President has made it clear that he favors the incumbent and the man who was once his Lt. Governor, while others such as Senator Hutchison have taken far less of a firm position as to whom they are backing.

It is worth noting that the party that formerly dominated Texas politics for many years also will have a candidate on the ballot. The Democrat nominee is Chris Bell, who most recently served one term as a Congressman. After the 2002 election, in which Republicans gained complete control of the state, the legislature redrew the Congressional districts in an effort to help elect more Republicans in a way that the party saw as better representing the will of Texans in recent elections, and the freshman Bell’s district, was made significantly more African-American, and thus the white Congressman was defeated in a 2004 Democrat primary by a landslide margin to an African-American challenger. Bell chose to blame his defeat on Tom DeLay, who helped engineer the re-map, and who has since been driven from Congress due to legal and political difficulties. Without an elected office to focus on defending, Bell set out to run for Governor and was the victor in a March primary over a more experienced opponent, who some believed would have been a stronger contender in the general election. The Democrat nominee, who most would admit is a little too far to the left for the taste of most in the state, will reply on the support of Democrat Party loyalists, which is clearly a waning group in Texas a whole, but still counts significant support among the state’s African-American and Hispanic communities.

The fourth major contender for the Governorship is the most colorful candidate and at times, one has to wonder if he is truly serious about wanting the job or if his campaign is just one pretty elaborate publicity stunt. Humorist Kinky Friedman, who in recent elections had openly supported Republicans in some high profile races, has also been successful in managing to get on the Texas ballot as an Independent. Friedman’s campaign stances and positions are a mix of populism, liberalism, and political incorrectness. His campaign appeal is largely based on the candidate’s personality and the support he enjoys from such celebrities as Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks. Friedman seems at times to be emulating the surprisingly successful 1998 Gubernatorial campaign of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. Some of the people who helped the former professional wrestler get elected that year are on board with Friedman this time and the ex-Governor of Minnesota has just recently campaigned in Texas with this year’s high-profile maverick underdog.

It is worth noting that Friedman, who has for years made a living based on his music and comedy has a habit of saying things, including past use of the explosive n word, and a present day defense of a less offensive variation of that word, which would be considered far more outrageous and racially insensitive if said by just about any other candidate and would probably be fatal for just about any traditional politician. It is certainly possible that the scrutiny surrounding Friedman’s mouth and other aspects of his unorthodox campaign could mean that he will fizzle at the ballot box on Election Day, but in the meantime, he has managed to maintain the support of many of the state’s liberals, as well as younger voters who might otherwise not be very inclined to vote this year. The fact that Friedman has been able to consistently poll in the double digits has essentially completely prevented the Democrat Bell, from having a shot at having even much of an outside shot of winning. Friedman (and to a lesser extent Strayhorn) is taking most of the anti-Perry vote away from the nominee of one of one of the major parties. That factor alone speaks volumes about the weak status of the Democrat Party in Texas.

There have been many polls on this race over several months now and in one regard, they all show one consistent result. Despite struggling to break 40 percent, Perry finishes in first in every poll by double digits over his nearest competitor. Who that nearest competitor is though is far more up in the air. Some polls have shown all three challengers in second place and in third place, although Bell has tended to be least likely to be in the number two slot and his campaign seems to celebrate any poll result which does not show him running fourth. It is safe to say that Bell, Strayhorn, and Friedman might all finish in either second, third, or fourth place when the votes are counted. However, Strayhorn is still the most well known and is the best funded out of the trio. It appears very unlikely that any of the three will drop out at this late date, but if anybody is going to be able to consolidate enough of the anti-Perry vote to edge past the incumbent in an election where the possibility of a runoff is not a factor, it would appear to be Strayhorn. Therefore, a come from behind victory by her would seem to essentially keep the Governorship in Republican hands, although Strayhorn is viewed as being more moderate and having better relationships with Democrats than Perry. If this were a one on one general election between Perry and Strayhorn, she might very well be able to unseat him due to bipartisan support, but his opposition is so fractured, that it would be a very big surprise if the Governor is not reelected by a solid double digit margin.

So, in what might be described as a very intriguing foregone conclusion, the embattled “Governor Goodhair” is on a collision course to Election Day against “One Tough Grandma” a “Jewish Cowboy” and a fairly bland Democrat who seems to be overshadowed by the overall oddity of the race. While Bell may indeed wind up with a second place finish, his strongest polling numbers have had him barely surpassing 20 percent of the total vote against three opponents who have at one point all counted themselves as friends and supporters of Dubya. While Friedman and Strayhorn are both likely to be applauded at the end for any showing they make running without the support of a political party, a third place finish for the Democrat would be a disappointment to many in that party and finishing off the proverbial medal stand would really be embarrassing.

In spite of lacking the political success and popularity of his two most recent predecessors as Governor of the nation’ second largest state (one of whom was actually defeated for reelection), Perry is likely to ride into another four years in Austin due to the strength of his party within the state and the lucky coincidence of so many opponents more than canceling each other out.

While Perry may no longer have legitimate Presidential aspirations, the man who became Governor just a little under six years ago, will come to lay claim as his state’s longest serving Chief Executive in history, and also next year as the longest serving current Governor in America.

Perry campaign link:

2006 Governor races predicted thus far: 13 D, 20 R
Post-election total of Governors predicted thus far: 21 D, 26 R