The campaign fundraising deadline is a good occasion to look at the state of the governor’s race. Rick Perry remains the favorite, but a good argument can be made that any of the other three major candidates — Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and Kinky Friedman — could finish second.
Perry has already been declared the winner by the conventional wisdom. The most likely scenario for his defeat — a failure by the Legislature to end the school finance crisis — did not come to pass. In a five-candidate race without a runoff, the anti-Perry vote is too divided for any single candidate to exceed the 40 percent of the vote, plus or minus a couple of ticks, that the Republican base ought to provide the governor. For any of the his three major challengers to get 41 percent of the vote, the other two plus Libertarian James Werner would have to be limited to 19 percent. You can juggle Chris, Grandma, and Kinky any way you want; any two of them plus Werner ought to be able to amass 20 percent of the vote. So any strategy for a successful race against Perry must start with the aim of reducing his baseline vote — say, to 35 percent. Is it possible? Sure. Negative ads could depress turnout. Perry fatigue could set in over the prospect of a ten-year governorship from the far right. Is it likely? No. The Republican Party is so dominant that its straight-ticket voters alone should be enough for Perry to post an unbeatable percentage.
For Strayhorn — indeed, for all of Perry’s opponents — the campaign is more like a primary race. Before they can go against Perry head-to-head, they must first win the primary of the Anybody But Perry party to become recognized as his chief rival. So far, it’s a dead heat: all three ABP candidates are clustered around 20 percent. Strayhorn’s protracted bid to be listed on the ballot as “Grandma” was without merit — the term is a political slogan rather than a bona fide nickname — and her pending lawsuit is even sillier. I think the incident was a net-minus for Strayhorn, but I probably know too much, and it is possible that the resulting publicity linking “Grandma” with “Strayhorn” was worth looking foolish. Now to the things that matter: Strayhorn has far more money than Bell or Friedman –e nough to get her message out, if she can figure out what it is. (I have the feeling I’ve used that line before. Well, it was right then and it’s right now.) Come September, the argument goes, she and Perry will be the only two candidates able to afford statewide TV advertising, and she’ll come to be seen as the only realistic alternative to Perry. She has proven adept at stripping constituencies away from Bell (two large teachers groups, for starters, and some well-heeled trial lawyers) and she is soliciting the support of political jefes in South Texas. To break out of the pack, she’ll need to make inroads into Perry’s Republican base as well, by wooing women party activists, who formed the core of her support when she led the GOP ticket in 2002 in winning reelection as state comptroller; fiscal conservatives, who hate all taxes and especially Perry’s business tax; and rural conservatives, who are mad as hell about toll roads — not to mention Republicans who have assorted lesser gripes. Her relentless (and sometimes gratuitous and sometimes contradictory) attacks on Perry over the years, however, alienated many of the party faithful. That damage is irreversible.
The Bell campaign’s analysis of the race is, We’re competitive for second place in the polls now and we have the worst name identification of the challengers, so all we have to do is get our name ID up and we’ll be in second place. Yes, and all President Bush has to do to improve his standing in the polls is to win the war in Iraq. We all know what the solution is. How to achieve it is another matter, especially since Bell has just $655,000 cash on hand to Strayhorn’s $8 million, and the other guy in the race is known to all by his first name. Name identification is a function of money. (We’re going to hear “One tough grandma” this fall until it reverberates in our dreams.) That said, there is a very smart argument to be made that in the end Bell will finish second. In fact, Perry’s top strategists, who put great stock in baseline vote, make it: As the Democratic nominee, Bell will get three-fourths of the party’s 35 percent share of the electorate. And if you’re second, and the frontrunner falters, you might end up first. I don’t agree — the trials aren’t with him, the teachers aren’t with him, some of the minorities aren’t going to be with him, a Democrat can’t get crossover Republican votes — but I’m very conscious that the people I am disagreeing with have a track record of usually being right.
As for Kinky … can that be a tremor on the political Richter scale? Let me put it this way: I got a call the other day from a Strayhorn supporter asking when the media was going to stop giving Kinky a free ride and do some serious research into his past. What are we supposed to find out? The story about his drinking alcohol during a political parade has already made the news. It didn’t cost him any support. In fact, he probably gained votes with his answer: “Yes, but I didn’t swallow.” The fear among the pros is that the regular rules of politics don’t apply to celebrity candidates. He doesn’t have to know the issues. He just has to be a populist and a humorist — in other words, himself. Kinky might break through the 25 percent barrier and establish himself as the “nominee” of the ABP party. It’s no wonder that the Strayhorn campaign has concerns; as the other independent in the race, Kinky is a direct threat to her chances. Her strength is Central Texas — and so is his. He does have a large constituency of folks who think politics is disgusting. That constituency cuts across party lines. If Kinky can connect with it, this race is going to get wild.