Down But Not Out

The chance of a Democratic upset in the 2006 governor’s race is as likely as, well, Bill Clements winning in ’78. Or Mark White winning in ’82. Or Ann Richards winning in ’90. Or …

May 2005By Comments

“But, Peter, how do we get to Neverland?”

“Fly, of course.…It’s easy.…All it takes is faith…and trust and a little bit of pixie dust. Now think of the happiest things. It’s the same as having wings.”

From the Walt Disney film Peter Pan

SPEAKING OF FLIGHTS OF FANCY, is there any better way to describe a Democratic quest to win back the governorship of Texas in 2006? It would seem easier to defy gravity. Texas is the reddest of red states these days, with Republicans in control of every power base “from the courthouse to the White House,” as the saying went in LBJ’s heyday. Democrats have no statewide officeholders, no source of money, no obvious candidates. Meanwhile, the lone announced challenger to incumbent governor Rick Perry is singer-novelist-humorist Kinky Friedman, who will run as an independent, but only if he can get the necessary 45,539 signatures of registered voters who didn’t participate in either party’s primary.

The first question that comes to mind is, Should the Democrats just forget the whole thing? “We’re not ready to win yet,” says Austin-based political consultant George Shipley, the leading Democratic consultant in the glory days of the Democratic party, who helped elect the likes of Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock, and Ann Richards. “The numbers aren’t right.” But no serious political party can allow the opposition a free pass at the top of the ticket. Even if a Democratic victory is next to impossible, there are still local candidates for Congress, for the Legislature, and for county offices who need a standard-bearer to articulate the party’s message. And the way the current legislative session is going, there may be a lot to articulate, such as putting tax cuts ahead of education.

Another reason the Democrats have to field a candidate is that Texas gubernatorial elections have been nothing if not unpredictable. In 1972 the backlash from the Sharpstown scandal wiped out Preston Smith in the Democratic primary and elected Dolph Briscoe. Six years later John Hill upset Briscoe in the primary and was poised to waltz into the Governor’s Mansion until Bill Clements exploited Jimmy Carter’s unpopularity to become the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Clements was regarded as a shoo-in for reelection, but Democratic attorney general Mark White rode the crest of a national anti-Republican fervor to oust him in 1982. Clements returned the favor in ’86. And who could forget how GOP oilman Claytie Williams had the 1990 race sewn up, until Ann Richards reaped the benefits of his self-inflicted wounds? That surprise was matched in ’94 when a certain political newcomer with a certain famous name beat Richards despite her widespread popularity. But the past two elections have produced the expected easy victories for George W. Bush and Perry.

So let the search for a sacrificial lamb begin. The strongest Democratic candidate would be one of the big-city mayors: Laura Miller, of Dallas, who insists she has no interest in state politics, or Houston mayor Bill White, who likewise says he is running for reelection, not statewide office. White has a large political base, a business background, personal wealth, and bipartisan support (albeit for a nonpartisan office). But he is still in his first term, and he would be foolhardy to rush into a race while the Republicans are at the peak of their strength. He can afford to serve three 2-year terms and take another look at political trends in 2010, which should be more favorable to Democrats.

Thus far, only one Democrat has been willing to test the water in public: former Houston congressman Chris Bell, who was defeated in the 2004 primary after the Tom DeLay–inspired congressional redistricting map redrew his district to make it predominantly black. After announcing an exploratory effort to consider the race, the tall, silver-haired Bell has been traveling the state, practicing a traditional Democratic stump speech, cracking jokes about DeLay on Al Franken’s radio show, hiring consultants, and raising money. On a recent spring morning, I dropped in to see Bell sip coffee with about 85 west Houston party faithful at the Tracy Gee Community Center. He elicited appreciative laughter when he mentioned the ethics complaint he had filed against DeLay, which resulted in an official admonishment for DeLay’s conduct. But he also drew gasps from the crowd as he recounted the tale of a San Antonio child who had starved to death because state budget cuts had left Child Protective Services too shorthanded to make a timely intervention. “Budgets are moral documents,” Bell told the group, taking a swipe at Perry. “They reflect our shared priorities. What would Jesus do? I don’t think he would balance the budget on poor children.”

It is not unheard of for a Texas congressman to win a statewide race: Lyndon Johnson won a Senate seat in 1948, and Phil Gramm did likewise in 1984. Far more have tried and failed—Kent Hance, Jim Chapman, John Bryant, and Ken Bentsen, to name a few. The problem is that congressmen get little publicity back home (Gramm, a national figure, was the exception) and lack the statewide name recognition that a gubernatorial candidate must have. Name recognition can be bought, but at a price—say, $10 million.

The rest of the Democratic field consists of familiar veterans. Billionaire banker Tony Sanchez, a big loser to Perry in 2002, has said publicly that he’s considering another run. (Don’t bet on it.) Former state comptroller John Sharp, who lost close races for lieutenant governor in 1998 (to Perry) and 2002 (to David Dewhurst), isn’t talking publicly, but supporters believe he’s interested in making the race. Jim Turner, another former congressman who lost his seat in redistricting, has expressed interest in a statewide race, and former Austin mayor (and 2002 attorney general nominee) Kirk Watson won’t rule one out, though each is likely to seek an office other than governor. Another name that gets tossed around is Roy Spence, an Austin advertising executive, giving birth to the jest that his firm’s name, GSD&M, really stands for “Get Sanchez to Donate Money.”

Although political pros believe that Republicans start out with a built-in ten-point advantage over Democrats in any statewide race, a battle for governor is so high-profile that it can transcend party loyalties. It happened in Texas when Republicans were on the way up, and it could happen now that the shoe is on the Democrats’ foot. Deeply red states like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, and Oklahoma have recently elected Democratic governors. “It’s a high-visibility race,” notes pollster Richard Murray, of the University of Houston. “There’s more independent voting for governor. Independents can swing one way or another, and voters don’t like living in a one-party state. The minority party can win.”

Texas Democrats can take heart in nascent signs that Texas may begin tilting in the other direction. Buried in the 2004 election returns were a few hopeful events that Democrats believe they can build upon: Congressman Chet Edwards’s defeat of former Texas lawmaker Arlene Wohlgemuth in a district that was drawn to elect a Republican; Hubert Vo’s defeat of House Appropriations chairman Talmadge Heflin in an ethnically dynamic Houston legislative district; and Mark Strama’s defeat of Republican incumbent Jack Stick in a Republican-leaning Austin legislative district. Their common trait? Criticizing Republican priorities: redrawing congressional boundaries at the behest of DeLay instead of focusing on school finance and voting for budget cuts over health insurance for poor children. There’s also recent evidence that Democrats can raise money in Texas: Hillary Clinton netted half a million dollars in a two-day campaign swing in March. But there’s a big difference between donating to a potential future president and donating to a little-known candidate for governor.

The biggest issue for Democrats is not really who but when. Consultants on both sides of the aisle agree that it’s only a matter of time before Democrats become competitive again, with the help of the expected surge in the Hispanic vote and, if the Vo race is an indicator, the Asian vote as well. The unanswered question is whether the polarizing fights of the Perry years—tort reform, redistricting, school finance, budget cuts—have laid the groundwork for a new Democratic constituency of minorities and moderates so that Democrats can accelerate the demographic timeline and become capable of winning a statewide election as early as 2010—or even 2006.

“It is happening now. The pendulum is already heading back,” says Kelly Fero, a consultant who is close to Sharp. “Our chances are good and getting better every day with this legislative session. It’s kinda like watching a train wreck—interesting to watch until you remember that somebody got hurt.”

All of these Democratic scenarios depend upon the Republicans choosing Perry as their nominee, which means that the Democrats’ prospects lie outside their control. Perry, of course, could face a challenge from U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in what would be a pom-pom primary between a onetime Aggie yell leader and a former Longhorns cheerleader. “If Hutchison wins, she would be the very heavy favorite in November,” says Murray. “The Democratic nomination isn’t worth much. But if he beats her, he’s vulnerable, and the Democratic nomination could be worth something now. It really forces the Democrats to roll the dice.”

Hutchison’s entrance into the governor’s race would open up a U.S. Senate seat and draw some Democratic contenders away from challenging Perry. One idea that has made the rounds is to get state representative Rick Noriega, of Houston, to run for the Senate from Iraq, where his Reserve unit is currently serving. What could be better to jack up voter interest than a Hispanic war hero on the ballot?

Perhaps the most intriguing—but far-fetched—scenario is that Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican, might switch parties to run for governor. Speculation about this possibility has circulated freely through the Capitol during the legislative session. The theory is that she has angered the GOP base with her frequent criticism of the governor and can’t win a primary. But she might be able to beat him in a general election with the help of Democrats and independents to go along with moderate Republicans. Like many rumors, this one has a factual component, which is that her fund-raising from Republican donors has dropped off, and, in its stead, she has accepted contributions from trial lawyers, a traditional source of Democratic funds. But two of her four sons are prominent officials in the Bush administration (press secretary Scott McClellan and Medicare/Medicaid chief Mark McClellan). Could they campaign for dear old mom if she were taking on a Republican in Bush’s home state?

The most likely scenario, of course, is that the 2006 gubernatorial election will end with the Republican nominee winning by a comfortable majority—say, close to 60 percent. One thing that could change that forecast is the Kinky factor. The former Texas Monthly columnist has destabilized the field by declaring his independent candidacy for the job with a logical query: How hard could it be? Before you dismiss him as a joke, remember that there were few Minnesotans who ever thought they would elect a governor with his own action figure in toy stores. But in 1998 Jesse Ventura, running as a Reform party candidate, beat the “real” politicians at their own game with a paltry 37 percent of the vote. Is it possible that Texas has enough iconoclasts—the sort of voters who, when in high school, elected the school mascot homecoming queen—to win the election? Not really. Minnesota allows instant voter registration, and Ventura was aided by long lines of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old wrestling fans who were first-time voters. But could Kinky siphon enough votes from Perry that an underdog Democrat could squeak in with less than 40 percent of the vote?

Why not? All it takes is faith and trust. And a little bit of pixie dust.

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