To: Senator Hutchison
From: Your political consultants
Re: 2006 Republican primary
OUR FIRM IS VERY EXCITED about the prospect of representing you in your upcoming race for … well, to be perfectly frank, that’s why we have taken this opportunity to write you. Now that we’ve signed up with your campaign, we sure would like to know exactly what office you will be campaigning for. The governorship? A third term in the Senate? The vice presidency in 2008? Can’t you give us just a little hint about what you plan to do? After all, the primary is less than a year away.
We’re not the only ones who want to know. All those ambitious pols down in Texas are twiddling their thumbs while you make up your mind. Not that you owe them anything; most of the statewide officials—except Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who may run for governor herself—have already endorsed Rick Perry. It’s a toss-up who’s more craven: Perry for asking them this early or them for doing it. Now you’re holding up their game of musical chairs, especially in the case of David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor. He wants to succeed Perry in 2010, but if you beat Perry, he’s stuck in his current job for eight more years. So he might opt to run for your Senate seat, leaving his job open and touching off another mad scramble. Congressman Henry Bonilla, of San Antonio, has already said he’ll run for the Senate if you don’t. Strayhorn and Attorney General Greg Abbott would look at the lite gov’s office Dewhurst would be vacating, and railroad commissioner Michael Williams and Texas Supreme Court justice Harriet O’Neill are said to be interested in the AG’s job. Yes, all eyes are on you right now.
But that’s not necessarily a good thing. It may be the smart political play for you to keep your options open: Run for governor if Perry has a bad legislative session; run for reelection to the Senate if he has a good one. But you need to think about the message your coyness sends to the Republican primary electorate. You’ve been talking about running for governor for four years now. We’re worried that voters have already begun to doubt your commitment. They’ve heard a lot of talk, but they haven’t seen any evidence that you want to be governor badly enough to put your career on the line. And you haven’t told them why you want the job. Where’s the fire in the belly? Telling Texas Monthly, as you did last November, “We have some very basic issues that need addressing, and I don’t think they’re being addressed right now” is about as fiery as last week’s ashes.
Don’t think that the Perry people aren’t taking advantage of your hesitancy. They’re telling everybody that you’re not going to run. They say you don’t have the stomach for a tough race in which most of the Republican establishment will be against you. They say that politicians who are going to run, run and that politicians who aren’t going to run, talk. And they’re making some headway. A couple of months ago, most Republicans around the Capitol thought you would run. That consensus changed after your meeting with big Republican campaign contributors from El Paso, who told you that they were with Perry. According to newspaper reports, leaked by the Perry supporters, you lost your cool and lectured them. After that episode, our operatives in the Capitol began hearing a lot of folks express doubts about whether you would make the leap.
The reason people’s opinions changed is that the El Paso debacle called your political acumen into question. You’ve been around long enough to know that big contributors stick with the incumbent as long as the incumbent sticks with them. You can bet Perry knows it. He gave them tort reform, and now he’s working on property tax cuts. Everything he does is calculated to get himself reelected. Perry is a resourceful, relentless, ruthless campaigner. It’s what he does best. He is disciplined as only an Aggie can be disciplined. He looks great in a TV spot. He has defeated two Democratic opponents who many thought would beat him—Jim Hightower, for agriculture commissioner in 1990, and John Sharp, for lieutenant governor in 1998—and routed Tony Sanchez for governor in 2002 in a race that should have been closer. Remember the Perry TV ad that accused Sanchez of complicity in the murder of a drug enforcement agent? Get ready for round two. He will stop at nothing to paint you as a liberal pro-choice feminist: He’ll turn your position on abortion—that you’re for reasonable restrictions—against you. Even now his handlers are spreading the word about how you have voted for proposals offered by that paragon of California liberalism, Barbara Boxer; how you made nice with Hillary Clinton (they sent an e-mail to GOP leaders that included a video segment, taped by two Perry campaign workers, of Clinton saying, “Kay is my partner on so many important fronts”); how you voted against a Bush judicial appointee (they won’t mention that your reason was his Precambrian views on women’s issues, such as this doozy of a comment: “The concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.”) When the Perry campaign polled likely Republican primary voters and informed them of stories like these, the result was that your disapproval rate shot up and 72 percent of the respondents favored Perry.
That’s not all. They say that they have the base of the Republican party—the far right—locked up, and the base is the majority of the vote in the primary. They talk about how they are trying to duplicate the Bush campaign’s success last fall in registering new evangelical voters, hoping to add as many as 300,000 names to the rolls. They give the impression of being supremely confident that they are going to win.
The most important advice we can give you is: Stay cool. They want to get inside your head and conjure up memories of your 1982 congressional race against Dallas mayor Steve Bartlett, when you led going into the runoff but suffered a devastating defeat when you were attacked viciously and personally by abortion foes. To borrow a phrase from boxing, they think that loss gave you a “glass jaw”: Hit you hard and you’ll shatter. The idea is to drive you out of the race before it begins, as they did in 2002. They’re generating calls from people who tell you what a wonderful job you’re doing in the Senate and how much they want you to stay there. Don’t get rattled. Don’t get stampeded. Forget about the big shots. You can’t expect them to support you. They have invested lots of money in Perry. It isn’t personal; it’s strictly politics. They would have to start all over again with you—and they will, if you win.
There is a lot more to this race than whom the big shots support. First, you have enough money to run without them, thanks to the last-minute revision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which allows you to transfer the money you raised as a senator to a state race; and second, the advantage of Perry’s incumbency isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. You’re an incumbent too, in a statewide office that is just as important as his, if not more so. This is a battle of equals, and you start out with a higher job approval rating, a lower negative rating, and more star power. In Texas, that quality really makes a difference. Ann Richards capitalized on it in beating Clayton Williams in 1990, and Bush capitalized on it four years later in defeating Richards.
So don’t underestimate yourself. Remember, there are pockets of the state where Perry has angered Republican voters: places like Abilene, which lost its congressman in redistricting; the Dallas suburbs and Austin, where toll roads are unpopular; South Texas, which has not benefited from the largesse Perry has showered on companies to entice them to Texas; and the medical community generally, which didn’t like his health care cuts. You can make inroads into these constituencies, although you’ll have to “me too” the ideological stuff.
His critics see him as a do-nothing governor, but he’s really more of a do-the-wrong-things governor. The first priority of Texas governors has always been education; Perry imposed budget cuts on both public and higher education in 2003, notwithstanding that education was one of his original areas of emphasis (along with the border, which he has likewise given short shrift). Instead, he has thrown his efforts into the aforementioned economic development and toll roads. And yet the long-standing view in Texas, under Republican and Democratic governors alike, is that improving education is the best economic development program there is.
Let’s talk numbers. The Republican primary is the only race that matters. No Democrat can win, and Kinky Friedman isn’t Jesse Ventura. The conventional wisdom among the political pros in Austin is that a standard Republican primary turnout in the range of, say, 650,000 would heavily favor Perry, because the majority of regular Republican primary voters come from the conservative base. So you need to attract at least 200,000 nontraditional primary voters—“November Republicans” who vote GOP in general elections but don’t care about all those local races, as well as some crossover Democrats and independents (but we advise against any “Democrats for Kay” effort, because it would antagonize the party faithful). The closer the primary gets to a million voters, the greater are your chances of winning.
But only if it’s a two-person race. Your waiting until summer to announce your plans runs the risk that Strayhorn might throw her hat in the ring first. In a three-way race, the likelihood is that you and Perry would end up in a runoff, but then the danger would be that those November Republicans and crossover Democrats might not return for the runoff, while the party faithful will. Advantage Perry.
As we said in the beginning, we sure would like to know what you’re running for. The sooner you demonstrate your commitment to leading Texas, the quicker we can implement our game plan. Where Perry is weakest is where you are strongest: stature and personality. Republicans are satisfied with him, but they don’t respect him. By 2006 Perry will have been governor for six years. Add another four if he is reelected: ten years, two and a half more than Allan Shivers (1949—1957), the current record holder. Your job is to exploit the latent “Perry fatigue” among voters, to contrast your vision and leadership with his.
It shouldn’t be hard.