In 2015, Republican-leaning tax consultant Bill King came within a few thousand votes of defeating Sylvester Turner in a runoff election for Houston mayor. This year, he explored a possible independent run for U.S. Senate, challenging the re-election of incumbent Ted Cruz. King believes voters are fed up with both political parties, thus his decision to run outside of them, but ultimately decided against running. I talked to King about why he thought of running as an independent, and why he thinks that candidates outside of either party might soon have a shot in Texas.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bill King: You know the polling is similar in Texas as it is to every place else in the country. There’s a growing plurality—maybe a majority of people—that don’t identify with either political party, and a pretty significant majority think it would be nice to have an alternative. And I think that the middle part of the electorate doesn’t feel like they are represented by either party these days. That’s true in Texas, probably more true in some other states than Texas.
R.G. Ratcliffe: Well, where do we go from here? I mean obviously for some reason you ruled out an independent run. Is there any real reason to believe that the state will change in either of the upcoming primaries?
BK: I think there are a couple of things going on. For one, in 2020 we will not have straight party voting anymore. We, of course, are one of the last states to actually have it. And I think that’s one of those institutional advantages the two-party system had that is not going to exist after 2018. I just think that as these parties continue to careen to the edge, more and more people are going to find themselves not feeling like they’re being represented. I think that happened with [House Speaker Joe] Straus stepping down. I didn’t always agree with Straus, but obviously he decided he can’t live with the Republican party anymore.
I was surprised because I think he felt like he represented a big chunk of the Republican electorate that was more moderate in nature. Unfortunately, those people tend to not go vote in the primaries. So, you have a point of view on the primaries that he didn’t really represent.
RGR: And what made you decide against running as an independent for Senate?
BK: The straight-party ticket voting in 2018, and I also just decided I’d gotten started too late. I’m pretty well known in Houston, and my numbers are pretty good there. But, basically, I’ve got zero name ID outside of Houston, and I don’t think that between now and 2018 you have enough time to build a statewide network and get your name out there. It’s a big state. There’s so many media markets. So, I just didn’t feel like I had enough time to put together a credible campaign.
RGR: Do you think if someone like Straus doesn’t run for governor that the state going to get just that much more conservative?
BK: I think it’s going to go pretty far that direction. And then there’s going to be a snapback at some point in time where people say, ‘This doesn’t represent me.’ You’re already seeing it a little bit right now, I mean in Houston. All of a sudden the Republicans aren’t talking about bathrooms or sanctuary cities, they’re talking about, ‘How do we solve this flooding problem?’ Which is something that’s actually a good thing for government to be talking about, because you know the people are sitting here with flooded houses. They’re really not that concerned about who goes in whose bathroom, they’d really like to know that their house is not going to be flooded again.
RGR: Has the hurricane helped Governor Greg Abbott or his image in Houston?
BK: You know, I think any time you have a disaster whoever is in charge gets a bump in the polls. I think historically that’s been pretty true, and we did some polling and his numbers were pretty good really across the board.
RGR: How about Cruz?
BK: Cruz has a very loyal following of about something in the high 20s low 30s. He’s got about that same number of people that desperately dislike him. But you’ve got a lot of other people in the middle. People keep saying that there are really no independents, there are really no moderates. These people say they are, but they end up voting for one side or the other. It’s kind of like if you go into a restaurant and they have chicken and steak, but you would like to have lobster—and they don’t serve lobster. Well, you’ve got to either order chicken or steak.
And I think the 2006 race for governor was a very interesting case study. You know in 2006, if you recall, that’s the year that Perry and Bell ran as the Republican and Democrat. Carol Rylander and Kinky Friedman both qualify for the ballot as independents which, by the way, is not easy to do in Texas. And they combined got more votes than Chris [Bell, the Democrat] got. So, you think about how the world has changed since 2006. If you have somebody who’s got some name ID in the state already, I think that they could be very competitive as an independent and especially in an environment that we’re living in today.
Most people are locked into this dynamic that there’s really only two sides out there. And I think that’s what I’m really calling into question: Are there really only two sides? I think what the polling shows you is that a bunch of Americans are not satisfied with their being a duopoly anymore.
RGR: So where does it go from here? Part of the problem here in Texas is it’s almost impossible for a new party to get on the ballot. As hard as it is for an independent to get on, it’s even harder for a new party.
BK: It will get worse before it gets better. And I think at some point in time the rubber band snaps and either one of the two parties will come back to the middle or they’ll be some kind of a third alternative. You cannot leave the majority of American people feeling like they’re unrepresented for very long. Sooner or later they are not going to put up with that. The American people are slow to get fed up with something, but once they get fed up they get fed up in a hurry. I think they’re getting very close to that right now.