Kirk Watson’s trial balloon is in the air, as he weighs whether to run for governor in 2010. Here are the questions he should be considering.
Q. Can any Democrat win the governorship in 2010, or will the D’s repeat the mistake they made in 2002, when they put fielded what appeared to be a strong slate (Sanchez, Kirk, Sharp, Watson) only to get wiped out?
A. A lot has changed since 2002. The Texas Lyceum poll earlier this week described the electorate at 48% independent, 28% Democratic, 25% Republican. These numbers will not enjoy universal acceptance, but even if you were to flop the D’s and R’s, the Democrats have a good shot – the best since 1990. They have to put a team on the field.
Q. Can the Democrats resolve their internal debate over whether to concentrate their efforts and resources downballot, where they have enjoyed considerable success in less expensive courthouse and state House of Representatives races, or employ them in an expensive race for governor?
A. This shouldn’t even be an issue. If the party has any hope of regaining its credibility, it has to elect a governor. No other office, including a U.S. Senate seat, can have as much impact on how the public views the Democratic party. And Rick Perry is a vulnerable incumbent. To repeat: The Democrats have to put a team on the field.
Q. Is the party infrastructure capable of sustaining a major statewide campaign?
A. The potential exists, but there are too many fiefdoms: the Lone Star Project, the state House and Senate Democratic caucuses, Austin trial lawyers, Houston trial lawyers, labor, and the party itself. “You can’t send out a press release without six people wanting to rewrite it,” a senior Democratic strategist told me. The party should provide the message. It’s ridiculous that the Democrats went through an entire legislative session without having a daily attack on what the Republican leadership was doing – as the Republicans did to Ann Richards when George W. Bush was running for governor. This is easy do do and doesn’t cost a lot of money. Why haven’t they done it?
Q. Can a Democrat keep pace with Republican fundraising?
A. Democrats were able to match or exceed Republicans in targeted legislative races in 2008. The biggest problem is that national D’s keep coming down here and sucking money out of the state that could be used for a gubernatorial campaign. In 2002, Tony Sanchez had to self-fund his race. There is a lot more Democratic money now.
Q. What are Watson’s strengths? What are his vulnerabilities?
A. He’s very smart, very focused, impossible not to like. He can rally a crowd. He knows what it takes to run a statewide campaign, having run unsuccessfully for attorney general in 02. He knows the issues – except, that is, when Chris Matthews asked him to talk about Obama’s legislative accomplishments on Hardball after the February 2008 Texas presidential debate. Another potential problem is that he has the wrong political base: Travis County instead of Harris County or the Metroplex. His Republican opponent will chastise him as an Austin liberal.
Q. Will he have Democratic primary opposition?
A. Tom Schieffer is the only active candidate. But the Democrats have a lot of talent sitting on the sidelines. Henry Cisneros would be a formidable candidate, if he ever finds the will to run. Paul Hobby, who lost a close race for comptroller in 1998, is a possibility. Bill White or John Sharp could enter the governor’s race if Hutchison doesn’t resign her Senate seat.
Q. What is the political situation likely to be in 2010?
A. This is the great unknown. Timing is everything in politics. The situation in Texas is that the Democrats are resurgent, but they have not been able to win over the independents who left the Republican party. The Texas Lyceum poll showed the I’s leaning 4 to 3 (29% to 22%) Republican. Assuming that Perry and Hutchison stay on course to face off in the March 2010 primary (no sure thing), the winner will emerge bloodied. Advantage to the Democrats. But 2010 is also Obama’s first midterm congressional election, in which the president’s party typically loses seats. The political climate depends upon whether the economy has recovered and whether Obama remains popular. It’s too early to hazard a guess.
Q. What is the blueprint for a Democratic victory?
A. The battleground is the suburbs. Why do people live in the suburbs? They want good schools. Perry is vulnerable on education, from inadequate funding to supporting the nutty State Board of Education. They want good roads. Perry is vulnerable for building toll roads that amount to a suburb tax. They want lower home insurance rates. Perry is vulnerable because Texas’s rates are among the highest in the country. They want their kids to go to affordable state schools. Perry is vulnerable because the cost of college has gone way up during his governorship due to tuition increases. And, of course, he is vulnerable because he will have been around for just under ten years by November of 2010.
Q. What are Watson’s prospects if he stays in the Senate?
A. None. Or, if you prefer, he faces the prospect of getting run over every day. The Democrats are nowhere close to having a majority. The Republicans have changed the way the game is played to get around the 2/3 rule whenever they want to. He might as well go for “up or out.”