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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

DGA's Daschle draws wrong lessons from Texas primaries: White has a chance in November, but it's despite (not due to) Obama and the national Dems

“Tonight’s results are a stark reminder that Republicans’ giddiness about 2010 is premature,” Daschle said. “Rick Perry is our nation’s longest serving Republican governor and yet he barely won 50 percent of the vote in his own primary. We need no more evidence to know that this is not a pro-Republican electorate; it’s an electorate that wants results over rhetoric, optimism over pessimism, and success over secession. I can only assume that tonight’s results send chills down the spine of Rick Perry’s campaign manager.”

So reads a congratulatory press release — celebrating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White's overwhelming victory with 76% of the votes in the Texas Democratic Primary — issued tonight by the Democratic Governor's Association. The "Daschle" being quoted is not long-time U.S. Senator Tom Daschle (D-ND), whom John Thune beat in 2004, and who was last seen in early 2009 under the rear wheels of the Obama Administration's bus (when a tax scandal obliged him to withdraw from further consideration as Obama's nominee for H&HS Secretary). Rather, it's Tom's son Nathan, a 2002 Harvard Law grad who worked briefly as a litigation associate for Covington & Burling before joining the DGA in 2005. Now the DGA's Executive Director, we're told by its website that "Nathan previously served as the DGA’s Counsel and Director of Policy, a position in which he coordinated DGA’s legal efforts and advised governors and candidates on a wide range of policy matters," and that he "has also served in the legislative affairs office of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Natural Resources Defense Council [and] also worked on the [unsuccessful] 1996 U.S. Senate campaign of Tom Strickland (CO)."

So do these credentials qualify Daschle the Younger as an expert on Texas politics? Could he be right in insisting that Bill White actually has a chance against Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, whose 51% tally in Tuesday's primary won him renomination without a run-off in a three-way race against sitting U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and the vaguely Tea Party-affiliated newcomer Debra Medina?

I think the 2010 Texas gubernatorial race will indeed be interesting, and it may be closer than a lot of people are predicting — but if so, I'm very, very certain that won't be for the reasons spewed out by the likes of Nathan Daschle or other Washington Democratic machine politicians. And indeed, the message of this primary for the Democrats, if they're smart enough to heed it, was that so long as they keep quietly sending lots of money, career politicos like Daschle probably ought to stay the hell away from Texas in general and from Bill White's campaign in particular.

*******

Perhaps only a Harvard Law-trained Democratic spin-meister could mock Perry for "barely [winning] 50 percent of the vote in his own primary." If confronted with that claim, I'm quite sure that Perry's first reaction — echoing Scott Brown's devastating point in the Massachusetts special election last month — would be to insist that this wasn't his primary, but rather the Texas GOP's primary. Only an idiot — or, perhaps, a Harvard Law-trained Democratic spin-meister — could trivialize a primary-election clash between a state's sitting governor (since December 2000) and its senior U.S. senator (since 1993). And indeed, this time last year, Perry trailed Hutchison by double digits in early polling for this race.

From Perry's 51% showing, Daschle argues that "[w]e need no more evidence to know that this is not a pro-Republican electorate." But surely even a Harvard Law-trained Democratic spin-meister wouldn't dispute that a GOP primary is indeed, by definition (even outside of Texas), a "pro-Republican electorate," so Daschle must have been talking about the combination of the two primaries held on Tuesday. So how does that work out for his argument? As of this moment, with 99.63% of the vote reported, the Texas SecState's tallies show that for the seven candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, a total of 676,795 have been cast, amounting to 5.19% of just over 13 million registered voters in Texas. In the GOP primary, by contrast, the corresponding numbers are 1,471,429 votes totaled for the three Republican candidates, amounting to 11.29% of the state's 13 million voters. Well over twice as many Texans came out to vote as part of the "pro-Republican electorate," in other words, as did in the "pro-Democratic electorate." ("Registered voters" here means all who are registered to vote in the general election, regardless of party; Texas has open primaries that aren't limited to "registered Democrats" or "registered Republicans," there being no such party-based registration here.)

Those figures compare to the March 2006 turn-out figures of 5 and 4 percent, respectively, for the GOP and Democratic primaries — so a bare one percent more of registered voters turned out for this year's Democratic primary, compared to a more than doubling of the percentage for registered voters who turned out for this year's GOP primary. The Dems actually had much more excitement in their 2002 primary, when they got over 8% of registered voters to vote in a slug-out between Dan Morales, Tony Sanchez, and two lesser-known candidates. (Yes, there actually were lesser known candidates.) Sanchez won the Dem primary with 62%, but then was crushed by Perry in the general election by a 58% to 40% margin.

No, Nathan, if there are "chills running down the spine" of Perry's campaign manager tonight, they're the good kind of chills — the very well-satisfied ones. Perry not only came from behind against a formidable, universally known, and well-financed opponent, but he managed what was probably, in context and overall, a substantially greater challenge as well: Perry effectively co-opted enough of the Texas Tea Partiers — or those generally sympathetic to the Tea Party's protests, which I think amounts to a vastly larger number of people than those who've actually attended a rally or protest — to prevent a "None of the Above"-candidate like Debra Medina from forcing a run-off.

And — with due, which is to say, not very much, respect to her — that's all Ms. Medina's candidacy ever was. She had no political track record. She had a laughable absence of credentials to demonstrate a basic capacity to serve adequately as the state's chief executive. When she was asked, in effect, "Whatcha think about them Truthers and them Birthers?" she couldn't even maintain enough discipline in her talking points to pass what's become, for better or worse, a political litmus test now used to identify the farthest fringes of the political fray. She confessed, in other words, to a fondness for fruitcakes, and if she's not a fruitcake herself, she offered no convincing proof to that effect.

(NB: I do very emphatically respect those who are thoroughly fed up with politics as usual, and especially Washington politics as usual, and whose rage opens them to careful consideration of non-incumbents. But she was a poor choice, a wholly inadequate vessel, for their hopes and beliefs. If new political voices are to inject new leadership into state and national politics, they can't just skip the "basic competency" category of qualifications.)

That Ms. Medina, despite her utter lack of credible credentials or experience, ended up polling 18.5% (to Hutchison's 30% and Perry's 51%) is still an incredibly important result from Tuesday's vote — something that should indeed grab the attention of incumbent politicians of both parties whether in blue, red, or purple states. But by calibrating his campaign rhetoric to run mostly congruent to the Tea Partiers' protests — and entirely congruent with the Tea Partiers' anti-Washington, anti-federal government themes — Perry was able not only to keep "None of the Above" from forcing a run-off, he was able to win the nomination outright with a majority vote in the first primary round.

And by doing that, Perry not only shored up his standing with a voting populace that will indeed be naturally skeptical of a former Clinton Administration cabinet undersecretary in November's general election, he eliminated the substantial risks of a runoff that he almost certainly was destined to win anyway. The risks were that he'd have to spend more time and money fighting Hutchison — and being tarred, perhaps indelibly, by Hutchison's negative advertising. (Some of Hutchison's ads were pretty effective, much moreso, I thought, than Perry's Democratic opponents have managed to put together in past races.)

It's not that Hutchison wanted to run against the Tea Partiers! Heavens, no, she would have loved to cuddle up with them, and she tried to remind them that she was preaching "limited government" and "fiscal responsibility" back in the 1960s, when John Tower and George H.W. Bush were about the only Texas Republicans who'd gathered any national prominence from a state still dominated by LBJ and what was then a very conservative Democratic Party. But she was indeed vulnerable to charges of being a pork-grabber, and Perry lashed her mercilessly (if, in my judgment, not entirely fairly) with her pro-TARP vote from the fall of 2008.

Can Republicans from less deeply red states win in November with the same model Perry has just used — one in which he never quite sought, and certainly never became, the "nominee" or "official candidate" of a movement that isn't quite yet an actual political party, but with whose sentiments he very diligently and aggressively and unashamedly identified himself? Obviously, Perry would have had a much harder time of this strategy if he himself had been an incumbent in a federal office rather than a state one. Thank goodness none of the scoundrels who make their livings in the legislative and administrative back alleys of Austin have figured out yet what a "trillion" means; as a result, most of the Tea Partiers' ire is still being directed, quite appropriately, at Washington. But in other states — can you say "Kah-lee-VORN-ee-ya"? — without the budget surpluses or economic prosperity that Texas continues to enjoy, the Tea Partiers' anti-incumbency mood may well blanket both state and federal politicians. And indeed, it should.

*******

So why, then — after roundly mocking Daschle the Younger for being thoroughly out of touch with, at least, Texas voters — would I agree with Daschle's main point, i.e., that a Bill White win in November is at least imaginable?

Well, friends and neighbors, it's this: I happen to know that unlike Barack Obama and Nathan Daschle, Bill White didn't go to Harvard Law School. Instead, he went to good ol' Texas Law School — where he was editor in chief of the Texas Law Review, he actually did write and publish a fine student note for the Review, and he was the Grand Chancellor in Spring 1978 (meaning academically first in his class as of the end of their second year). He's a San Antonio native who's never lost his drawl or had to fake one. He will draw heavily, and with considerable appeal, on his record as a multi-term (and multi-hurricane) nonpartisan mayor of Houston. And he will fight tooth and nail against Perry's attempts to keep the focus on Washington and its single most prominent symbol, who's also quite probably the single most unpopular person among conservative and moderate Texas voters — Barack Obama. Tonight's exchanges from the two campaigns, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, are already sounding the themes we'll be hearing and reading for the next eight months:

White told supporters in Houston he expects Perry to try to “perpetuate” himself with politics of division and distraction to avoid talking about Texas issues, such as high unemployment, state government growth and unfunded mandates for local governments.

“Texans deserve a new governor,” a leader who is “more interested in the jobs of Texans than in preserving his own job,” White said.

White said he believes Perry will continue trying to put voters’ attention on political debates in Washington.

“They’ll point fingers at Washington and talk about the alarming growth in government in Washington so you won’t notice the alarming growth in government in Austin,” the Democratic nominee said.

Perry, speaking to supporters at the Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Driftwood, signaled that he fully intends to continue the anti-Washington rhetoric.

“From Driftwood, Texas, to Washington, D.C., we are sending you a message tonight: Stop messing with Texas!” Perry said.

Perry said his challenges are to tell the story of a successful Texas, “defend the conservative values that made them possible” and “remain attuned to the threat of a federal government that continues to overreach,” as well as increasing its spending. “It is clear the Obama administration and their allies already have Texas in their cross hairs,” Perry said, referring to his expectations that national Democrats will support White.

In short, White will run away from Obama. He'll have all the money he could possibly want in order to fine-tune that image. He's objectively better qualified, with a more substantial record of public service, than anyone the Dems have run for state-wide office in years. And Perry does have some high negatives (some of which he's earned), even though he's now been spared the ordeal of further sniping from Hutchison in a run-off.

Do I think a White victory is likely? No — and I think that by dodging the run-off, Perry has indeed made a giant stride toward reelection in November. But could a White win in November happen, even in Texas, even without some sort of miracle in Washington that makes Barack Obama suddenly beloved of all Texans? Yeah, it could happen. White will have to avoid drawing the wrath of those who voted "None of the Above" (i.e., for Medina) yesterday, which he can mostly do by not looking or sounding like Obama, by staying well clear of the national Democratic Party, and by continuing to at least mouth platitudes that are pro-business, anti-taxation, and fiscally responsible. And Perry will need to shoot off a few of his own toes — or perhaps get caught in bed with the proverbial dead girl or live boy.

Posted by Beldar at 05:33 AM in 2010 Election, Politics (2010), Politics (Texas) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Brad S made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 7:54:49 AM | Permalink

From my comfortable perch on the Colorado Front Range, I'm able to draw two conclusions about this "superstar" TXGOP Primary:

1. There is established value in a Sarah Palin endorsement, and that value can only grow. As JD Hayworth in AZ is about to find out.

2. Rick Perry is a political survivor who has an uncanny knack for knowing when to avoid getting in front of a speeding bus. If it were any other TX politician pushing Toll Roads, for example, that politician would've been sent to an early political grave. Yet Perry just keeps trucking along.

It's probably a good thing Rick Perry knows enough about TX politics and its relation to the rest of the nation that he's not interested in a Presidential run.

(2) ech made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 2:31:48 PM | Permalink

Gov. Perry's victory speech last night was the first salvo of the 2012 campaign for President, IMHO. Apparently, Texas Monthly thinks Perry is positioning for a run at the White House.

(3) retire05 made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 8:49:33 PM | Permalink

While White's record as mayor of Houston may be important to Houstonians, it will play little importance to other ciies. And while White will try to distance himself from D.C., don't think that Perry will not tie White to the D.C. Democrats, and point out that White was definately a D.C. insider.

The country is moving right. But not necessarily because of Obama, although Obama has been the catalyst, but because the actions of D.C., on both sides, has met flood level.

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