Early voting starts Monday. How does the governor’s race stand on election eve? The same way it has stood for months, with Rick Perry ahead but vulnerable and his three major challengers trying to break out of the pack but unable to do so.

The four most crucial days in this election were:
June 17, 2005
January 2, 2006
June 21, 2006
October 6, 2006

What happened on each of these dates to ensure Rick Perry’s reelection as governor?

6/17/05: Kay Bailey Hutchison announces that she will run for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Hutchison made no secret of her desire to be governor. But when support from big Republican donors failed to materialize, she decided to stay in the Senate. At the time, polls showed Hutchison defeating Perry among every group of Republican voters, including a constituency that has not always been friendly to Hutchison, pro-life voters. She would have defeated Perry in a primary by at least 60-40.

1/2/06: The filing deadline for party primaries passes without a well known Democrat entering the governor’s race. The party’s nomination is a battle between a has-been, former congressman and Texas Supreme Court Justice Bob Gammage, and a never-was, one-term congressman Chris Bell. No John Sharp, no Bill White, no Paul Hobby, and, other than Bell, none of the congressmen who lost their seats in Tom DeLay’s congressional redistricting.

6/21/06: Kinky Friedman is certified as an independent candidate for governor (as is Carole Keeton Strayhorn). Friedman has no chance to win the race, but his candidacy takes all the attention away from Bell and Strayhorn. What’s more, Friedman has a profound effect on the mathematics of the race: He changes the odds to Perry’s advantage. Let’s take the most recent Rasmussen poll, which has Perry at 34%. In a three-person race, the only way Perry can win is if Bell and Strayhorn divide the remaining 66% evenly. Any other result leads to a Perry loss. (Yes, I know there’s a libertarian in the race so the results could have be 34-33-32-1. Don’t quibble. And some may argue that Kinky’s supporters include Republicans who would return to Perry if Kinky weren’t in the race. Wrong. Once incumbents lose voters, they rarely get them back.)

10/6/06: John O’Quinn promises to fund Chris Bell’s race. If the Democratic party were stronger in this state, and if Bell were better known and a little bit charismatic, and if pigs could fly, this development could have been bad for Perry. Instead, O’Quinn, like Kinky, helps ensure Perry’s reelection. The only challenger with a realistic chance to beat Perry was Strayhorn because she could draw Republican voters (only 56% of whom favor Perry, in polls I have seen) away from Perry. A Democrat couldn’t. Strayhorn has run a terrible race–we’re talking historically stinko, like Bob Krueger against Hutchison in the 1993 special election for the U.S. Senate–but as long as Bell lacked the funding to get on TV, Strayhorn had the prospect of being the magnet for the anti-Perry vote. Once Bell got enough money to be on television, Strayhorn’s scenario for victory was ruined.

And so, irony of ironies, Kinky Friedman and John O’Quinn have probably assured Rick Perry’s reelection, which was the last thing they wanted.