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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Beldar on Fund on Perry's success in "nationalizing" a state race

With a sub-head reading "Texas governor Rick Perry's victory last night shows that nationalizing local races can work," John Fund of the Wall Street Journal — yet another analyst whose work and opinions I respect greatly — wrote this yesterday afternoon about Tuesday's Texas primary results:

The late House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said "all politics is local." Texas Governor Rick Perry won last night's GOP primary by standing that adage on its head and nationalizing the race. He pounded his main rival, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, as a Washington insider and tagged her as "Kay Bailout" for her support of the 2008 rescue of major financial institutions.

Mr. Perry said the results were a triumph for conservative principles: "Texas voters said 'no." They said 'no' to Washington bureaucrats making decisions that state leaders and citizens should be making for themselves." He won 51% of the vote, with Tea Party activist Debra Medina pulling in another 18% of the vote. By avoiding a runoff, Mr. Perry put himself in a good position to take on former Houston Mayor Bill White in the fall.

I agree with that as far as it goes, but — perhaps aided by the sub-headline, which Mr. Fund probably didn't write — there may be an implication that the same tactic of "nationalizing" a statewide race can work for Perry against Bill White in the general election, too. I'm not convinced of that, although I think it's certain that Perry will indeed try to make that happen.

As I've written repeatedly recently, I'm quite sure that Perry is going to do his very best to try to keep the focus not on Bill White's performance as Houston's (nominally nonpartisan) mayor, but on his service as Bill Clinton's Undersecretary of Energy. I've known Bill since the late 1970s when we were at Texas Law School together, and he's always been a mainstream Democrat, and he had a long-standing professional interest (even passion) on the topic of energy (and particularly natural gas) regulation even before he went to law school. Given that, I was utterly unsurprised to see him show up in that post. But I don't claim to know much about what he did in it — much less any specific things he did that would be particularly sensitive or objectionable if reconsidered now in the context of a Texas gubernatorial race. Nevertheless, for me, the mere fact that he was "one of them" — a "Clintonista," a committed Democrat, a volunteer and not a draftee — would be ample all by itself to prompt me to withhold my vote for him in any state-wide or federal election.

I'd guess that not many of the Houstonians who voted to elect or re-elect White as mayor knew about his service in the Clinton Administration. I'd further guess that — for that purpose, i.e., the mayoral race — most of them didn't care, and for that purpose, I didn't either. But being governor is different than being mayor. There are quite a few conservative Texans who, like me, consider themselves Republicans and believe in the two-party political system instead of believing in empty, ridiculously insincere promises about "crossing the aisle" and "being bipartisan" — like that's actually going to happen when it comes time for the 2011 redistricting, hah! White isn't going to get our votes for governor, regardless of how good a mayor he was, as long as he's a Democrat. (And yes, he is one.)

White is, however, objectively the best qualified and most attractive candidate the Dems have run in a state-wide race in more than a decade. He's going to get pretty much all of the Dem votes that are out there. White's going to benefit, oddly enough, from the fact that Barack Obama isn't on the ballot in 2010, because if Obama were, that fact alone would drive a huge surge of Texas conservatives to the polls for the sole purpose of voting against Obama. (I frankly suspect this was a factor in White's decision to switch to the 2010 governor's race instead of following his original post-mayoral plan to run for U.S. Senate in 2012.) White will easily pick up, then, most of the "reliable" Democrat votes, and he has enormous incentives to invest in targeted "get out the vote" activities from now until November.

Texas still being a red state, however, that won't be enough. White can't win unless he can persuade, and then motivate to vote, a sizable contingent from the "middle" — and yes, there is a vague and large (albeit not as "vast" as sometimes assumed) "middle" in Texas who don't regularly turn out to vote for Republicans and who might possibly be persuaded to vote for what they perceived to be an exceptional Democrat. By "exceptional," I mean exceptionally well qualified in terms of his credentials and experience, a standard that White can legitimately claim to meet, and "exceptional" in the sense of standing somewhat apart from conventional Democrats (especially as now typified by Obama, Reid, Pelosi, and the national Democratic Party).

And here, friends and neighbors, is where I think we must consider again the lesson of Debra Medina. I mean no offense to the good folks of Wharton County, whose local GOP Ms. Medina apparently was once the head of, but it's not exaggerating much to say that Ms. Medina's candidacy came out of nowhere. There was essentially nothing in her background or history to distinguish her from anyone picked at random from within the entire State of Texas. But by tapping into the same mostly inchoate rage and dissatisfaction that has found some expression in the Tea Party movement, she — even though she wasn't an "official Tea Party nominee" and was in fact opposed by some Austin Tea Partiers — went from zero to 18.5% of the GOP primary vote in the political blink of an eye. That's precisely why I've referred to her here as the "Neither of the Above" Candidate.

While Perry will rigorously and consistently attempt to frame the November general election in the same manner as he did the GOP primary — that is, as a battle between an untrustworthy Washington insider (White instead of Hutchison) against a down-home anti-Washington conservative (himself) — White's frankly a lot harder to put in that box than Hutchison was. During almost the whole of this decade, White's been attending Houston City Council meetings, not going to Capitol Hill or the White House. He's been quite literally handing out MREs to Hurricane Ike refugees and working on bayou drainage projects, not passing TARP or plotting the nationalization of American healthcare.

Some of my commenters have expressed grave skepticism over my assertion that White's service as Houston mayor will help him in other parts of the state. They argue that other parts of the state haven't watched the local TV news feeds during the hurricanes or seen the local headlines, and they're right about that. But White has between now and November to educate non-Houstonians about his performance as mayor, and I'm here to tell you, folks, he got enough accomplished that it's going to take a while for him to run out of things to talk about. It was not an accident that White won re-election with more than 80% of the vote in an extremely conservative city, and if you think he won't get any traction in the rest of the state from his record here, I respectfully suggest that (a) you have no real basis for that assumption, and (b) you've failed to account for the efforts the liberal media will make to assist White on this score between now and November.

Indeed, the obvious jiu-jitsu move for White to pull off will be to resist Perry's attempt to "nationalize" the Texas governor's race by turning it instead into a referendum on incumbency: By virtue of his ascension to the governorship when Dubya resigned in December 2000 plus his elections in 2002 and 2006 to two four-year terms in his own right, Perry is already the longest-serving Texas governor in history. Now, there's nowhere close to as much general dissatisfaction among Texans with what's been going on in Austin as there is with what's been going on in Washington. But that's not to say that Texans necessarily give much credit for that to Rick Perry in particular, either.

Perry, in short, had a perfect opportunity in this year's primary to exploit the Tea Partiers' anti-Washington rage in particular, and Hutchison's own efforts to make Perry's long incumbency never stuck (in part because of her own long incumbency as a U.S. senator). "Nationalizing" the primary race against Hutchison was easy, and Perry was successful in sidestepping the Tea Partiers' potential rage against himself. But White's not as vulnerable to that ploy as Hutchison was, and White may be far better positioned to use Perry's long incumbency against him.

When it comes to that one-in-five or so Texans whose votes are up for grabs, and whose votes could result in a GOP loss if all or most of them broke decisively for White, this is a new ball game, gentle readers. The November general election is not going to be like the 2002 or 2006 election — indeed, the 2006 election was so weird and exceptional that it's not much use as a predictor of anything — and it's not going to be like the 2010 primary elections were, either.

Posted by Beldar at 09:28 AM in 2010 Election, Politics (2010), Politics (Texas) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Dustin made the following comment | Mar 4, 2010 4:21:24 PM | Permalink

Wow. You really make a thorough case. I also won't vote for White, simply because I think Rick Perry is part of why Texas is doing well (not the biggest part, but enough of a part that I think now's not the time to change). Not to mention the redistricting issue you bring up. I do not want a Clintonista having power over that, obviously (as a Republican).

but Bill White sounds like a really good candidate. I'm not in tune with Houston, but I guess I will be in a few months. Good for him for doing a great job for Houston and (in the future) giving Rick Perry a run for his money, and I'm glad some conservatives are willing to be fair in their appraisal of a democrat they still aren't going to vote for.

But I assume this will go beyond their records. Bill White will have to have some kind of agenda, going forward, to present a reason to oust a good governor who just trounced KBH (and that's an accomplishment... she's been popular for a long time). Bill White is painted in a corner. How can he propose programs without being ridiculed as a spender? If he doesn't propose programs, will democrats turn out for him on the basis of his apparent competence? That won't be enough by a long shot.

(2) My Boaz's Ruth made the following comment | Mar 5, 2010 3:55:28 PM | Permalink

I completely agree with you.

I would NOT vote for Kay bailey Hutchinson because, having not heard a single ad from Rick Perry, I just don't like what she has done since she's been Senator. My intuiton meter says "liberal"

Debra Medina was interesting because my intuition meter doesn't really like Rick Perry either (I kind of feel "he's been there long enough") But she totally lost our vote when she gave credence to perhaps the US was behind 9-11. We just stopped looking at her. That put her in the "don't let her anywhere near the governor's chair" seat.

Between Perry and White, I honestly do lean White, with what he has done for Houston, except for one thing -- the Democrat label. I don't know what we will do in the fall when it comes time to vote. I can remember once saying I'd rather vote for Obama than McCain but never ever Hillary -- but by the time the election rolled around I'd changed my mind there too.

(3) Ned made the following comment | Mar 5, 2010 5:11:04 PM | Permalink

Nobody is talking about how very angry rural Texans are with Rick Perry and his pitiful record on eminent domain, not to mention his determined attempt to take massive amounts of Texas' best farmland to build the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The farmboy who was once a popular Ag Commissioner turned his back on his roots, so much so that even the Texas Farm Bureau endorsed Hutchison in the primary, something that would never have happened had Perry been looking out for his folks. Those angry crowds who packed meeting halls and, in some instances, even forced additional public transportation hearings a couple of years ago won't soon forget how he tried to pave over their family farms.

Medina's success was a result of anger at Perry and distrust of Hutchison.

True, there aren't enough rural votes to overcome the metropolitan majority, and there are many of us who are furious with Perry but who will vote for him because he will likely stand up during critical redistricting next year. But we'll hold our nose when we mark that ballot.

(4) Jim Hu made the following comment | Mar 9, 2010 10:11:52 AM | Permalink

The limitations on the power of the governor of Texas limit the damage that can be done to the state overall. Unfortunately, the places where the governor does have a lot of power via appointments - e.g. the university boards of regents, the forensics commission, etc. are places where I am not happy with Perry and am willing to take a chance on White, his D label notwithstanding.

I agree that most Texans won't see it that way and Perry has to be the favorite. Perry has been smart in how he uses cronyism in ways that fit the notion of distributed costs and concentrated benefits. Only a few Rs or independents would vote for the proverbial yellow dog instead of Perry due to his effects on Texas A&M. I wish more would, but I'm not holding my breath.

(5) The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk made the following comment | Mar 11, 2010 12:57:40 PM | Permalink

Absent significant self-inflicted wounds on the governor's part (which I do not expect), there simply is no way that Bill White will prevail -- or even come close. We heard much the same narrative when Ron Kirk ran for an open Senate seat in 2002 (i.e., how a well-respected big-city Democratic mayor had a real shot in the race). In his last election for Dallas's mayoral office, Kirk had won over 70% of the vote. Cornyn, who has been a good senator, but who is not really regarded as a political operator in the same vein as Perry, decisively beat Kirk (by more than 10 points as I recall). I do not see any reason why Bill White's statewide prospects are any better in 2010. I'm also unconvinced that it would be a mistake for the governor to "nationalize" the race. What Bill White has or has not done during his tenure as Houston's mayor may not be that important, given the damage Democrats on the national stage have done to their party's brand over the past year.

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