WHEN I LOOK BACK AT THE RECENT HISTORY of Texas politics, I can hardly believe the strange turns it has taken. The first time I noticed Rick Perry was in 1987, when the price of oil was in the teens and the state budget was very tight. He was a second-term conservative Democrat back then—one of a   group of like-minded lawmakers, known as the Pit Bulls, who reveled in cutting the budgets of state agencies. (Well, at least that part hasn’t changed.) Geniality, not substance, was his strong suit. (Nor has that part.) But one night, a couple of years later, I was surprised to get a phone call from Perry. He was switching parties, he said, to run for agriculture commissioner on the Republican ticket against Democratic incumbent Jim Hightower. His career in the House had stalled, and his political acumen told him that if he had any future, it was in the Republican party.

I did not recognize the importance of the moment: This was the launching point of a political career that will, in all likelihood, lead to the longest governorship in Texas history. In 1990 Texas was very much a Democratic state, with only one statewide Republican officeholder, Governor Bill Clements—and he was already a lame duck, as he had said his second term would be his last. Who could foresee that Hightower would run such a poor race? That Perry, despite holding an obscure office, would have the inside track to be his party’s nominee for lieutenant governor eight years later? That John Sharp, his formidable Democratic opponent in that race, would be unable to send him packing? That Perry would ascend to the governorship in 2000, when Bush became president, without having to run for the job? No Texas politician has led such a charmed life.

Now, almost twenty years after the Pit Bulls had their brief day in the sun, one more race—destined to be the weirdest one of all time, at least at the top of the ballot—stands between Perry and a record-smashing ten years in the Governor’s Mansion. Why him? There are many reasons for longevity in politics, but none of the usual ones apply in this case. Personal popularity? His has never approached the level enjoyed by his predecessor, or even that of Ann Richards. His job approval rating has generally languished below 50 percent; in a much-discussed May 2006 SurveyUSA poll, he stood at 40 percent favorable and 54 percent unfavorable, a finding that would make him unelectable in a true two-party state. Legislative record? The new school finance plan he pushed through the Legislature in the recently concluded special session is the closest thing you could find to a significant achievement, and it has drawn criticism from one end of the political spectrum to the other, especially for its revision of the way the state taxes business. How about great teamwork with the rest of the Republican leadership—Speaker Tom Craddick, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn? As everyone knows, none of them get along. Respect from lawmakers? Two years ago, House members voted down a Perry school finance plan 126—0.

So what accounts for his unprecedented success? To repeat: No Texas politician has led such a charmed life. Twice, in 2002 and again in 2006, U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was on the verge of challenging him in the Republican primary (“Texas needs a grown-up for governor,” she had told friends, when mulling the 2002 race), only to back down from races she would have been favored to win. The Democratic party finds itself reduced to irrelevancy. In Republican-dominated Texas, the only election that matters is the GOP primary—with around 650,000 voters—and the only primary voters who matter are the majority on the far right. So long as Perry remains in good standing with the most ideological primary voters and with the party’s major fund-raisers, he can govern a state of 22 million. Never have so few done so little for so many.

Uh-oh. This is the kind of offhand remark about Perry that several months ago led his chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, to ask for an audience with Texas Monthly’s political writers and its editor, Evan Smith. The meeting took place at a crowded Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin; it went on for more than an hour, and it was no fun. Delisi began by complaining, “I think Texas Monthly has made up its mind about Rick Perry,” and proceeded to list assorted grievances. Evan’s response was something like, “We’re journalists; it’s our job to report; we have to keep an open mind about everything.” I nodded. “Nothing would please me more,” I said, “than for Rick Perry to be a great governor of Texas.” I meant it—not for Perry’s sake but for Texas’s.

Yet I knew that the space separating us across the table was symbolic of something more: the unbridgeable divide that puts politicians and their close associates at a distance from the media. We would never agree on what it meant to be a great governor. Perry’s boosters insist that he has proved himself to be a leader with his toll road plan and his deregulation of college tuition. They point to tort reform passed on his watch—the strongest such measure in the country, and the model for others—and now they are touting his tax cuts. Even I would acknowledge that he did Texas proud by opening the Astrodome to Katrina evacuees and sending Department of Public Safety troopers to the border to meet the threat of violence from Mexican drug cartels. But I would also say that being a great governor means principled governance on behalf of everybody, not just slavish obeisance to your biggest campaign contributors. I would say that it means putting policy ahead of ideology, that it means addressing problems by doing what has to be done but not going overboard, that it means giving everybody a place at the table. In short, I believe that if the process is fair, the outcome will be fair, and that is about all that can be asked of politicians. This is not as hard as it sounds. Perry served with people who governed like that—Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock, Pete Laney, Bill Ratliff, and, before he went to Washington, George W. Bush. For that matter, I have seen Perry himself govern that way. But not often.

We have had only a few encounters since he left the House. One came on the campus of his alma mater, Texas A&M University, during halftime of the 1999 football game against the University of Texas a week after the Bonfire collapse that killed a dozen people. He looked grief stricken, and suddenly we were giving each other a spontaneous, wordless hug. He is completely natural in such situations, his emotions accessible to all. But in a more formal setting, he can be awkward and unforthcoming in the extreme. When I interviewed him for a story on the 2002 governor’s race, it was sheer torture. I had a list of fifteen questions I wanted to ask in the space of an hour. I managed to get through six. The rest of the time he rambled and filibustered and talked about taking his father to the battlefields of Europe and about a dead soldier’s letters home.

In April of this year, in the early days of the special session, I was watching a UT baseball game when I noticed him sitting in the stands with his wife, Anita. There were empty seats all around them, and I went over to say hello. With the Delisi lunch fresh in mind, I made a point of saying that I had written favorably in my column for the next month about his revision of the business tax, which closes loopholes in the old franchise tax and reaches every significant business operation in the state. “I want you to know,” I said, “that the first five words are ‘Give Rick Perry some credit.’” This time he was back to being the good Perry, totally at ease talking about school finance. He wasn’t spinning or trying to stay on message—not at all. I said I liked the bill’s built-in incentive to get companies to move to Texas. “We won’t need the Enterprise Fund in a couple of years,” Perry said, referring to the controversial cache of money the governor can use to lure businesses here. Later, he talked about how the bill would lead to more insurance coverage for kids because the tax formula allows companies to deduct their health benefits.

We talked for a few more minutes about the floundering Aggie baseball program and its new coach, the way people do on languid spring nights at the ballpark, and then I got up to go. It was so casual and comfortable that I had to resist the urge to say, “Adiós, mofo.”

THIRTY-FOUR YEARS HAVE PASSED since a candidate who was not the Republican or Democratic nominee had an impact in a governor’s race. In 1972 Ramsey Muñiz, representing the Raza Unida party, received 214,000 votes, which cut down Democrat Dolph Briscoe’s margin of victory over Republican Hank Grover to 100,000 votes. It could happen again this year, if Republican-state-comptroller-turned-independent-gubernatorial- candidate Strayhorn emerges as Perry’s chief rival in a field that also includes Democrat Chris Bell, Libertarian James Werner, and a second independent candidate, singer and author Kinky Friedman (who is sure to get more media attention than all the other wannabes combined). The only consequential rule of engagement, beyond the required gathering of signatures by the independents (Strayhorn and Friedman have each turned in several times more than the 45,540 required), is that there’s no runoff; whoever finishes first on Election Day wins. Here again, Perry’s stroke of luck is convenient. A crowded field benefits him; the more people in the race, the more the anti-Perry vote is divided and the less likely it is that any single opponent can get enough votes to defeat him.

As the Republican nominee in a Republican state, Perry starts as the clear favorite, but his high disapproval rating gives his rivals room for hope. So does dissatisfaction with President Bush over the Iraq war and the price of gasoline, which could depress GOP turnout. Bush’s latest approval/disapproval rating in Texas is 42/56, a huge falloff from his 61 percent showing here in the November 2004 election. It would be ironic indeed if Strayhorn’s candidacy were to get a boost from the woes of the administration in which two of her sons have served.

Of all the relationships in that infamously fractious leadership foursome, Strayhorn and Perry’s is the worst. Things went off track when she gave an unexpectedly grim estimate of the available revenue for the 2004—2005 budget and got worse when she claimed, after the 2003 session, that the budget didn’t balance. That crisis was resolved, only to be followed by a loss of trust in her estimates of the cost of spending and revenue measures. It’s impossible to know for sure who was right, since estimates are art rather than science; nevertheless, Perry, Craddick, and Dewhurst turned punitive and removed two important programs from Strayhorn’s office. If the top two contenders for governor indeed turn out to be Perry and Strayhorn, this race could get very nasty. (It probably will anyway.)

At the heart of the feuding between Strayhorn and the other leaders is her belief that the comptroller should have a role in setting state policy and their belief that her job is to count the beans and sign the documents if enough beans are on hand. She has kept up steady pressure on Perry over the years—for example, by urging him to fully fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program with money that she would certify was available. He didn’t, of course. I happened to attend a gathering at which she was present while that skirmish was going on, and she was genuinely puzzled by Perry’s unwillingness to do what she thought was the right thing. It was hard for her to grasp, having come of age in the conservative Democrat era, when state government was conservative but not ideological, that someone would put ideology ahead of policy.

Her most recent salvos have been a pledge to repeal Perry’s business tax if she becomes governor and a description of the funding for the impending property tax cut as a “$23 billion hot check” over five years. In the Perry-Strayhorn feud, no opportunity for one to slight the other is to be missed, so when she called a press conference in late May to sign House Bill 1, the bill that cut property taxes and raised teachers’ salaries, I knew it wouldn’t be a routine event. “I am certifying this bill,” she said, “but that does not mean it is good public policy. …The governor is not telling the people of Texas the truth. He is exaggerating, inflating, and misstating what the average homeowner is going to see cut on his or her tax bill by more than three hundred percent.” How much is the tax cut worth in the first year? “Fifty-two dollars,” she said. “You will be able to buy one more Coca-Cola out of a vending machine each week.” Meanwhile, Perry was running TV spots insisting that the average homeowner would enjoy a $2,000 tax cut. Ain’t politics wonderful?

AT LEAST THEY’RE ARGUING OVER the big stuff. The new school finance plan is the most important thing to pass the Legislature in many a year—probably since, well, the last big school finance bill created the Robin Hood system in May 1993. The problem that lawmakers have faced forever is how to wean themselves from overreliance on local property taxes to finance public schools. So many districts had reached, or were approaching, the limit of their ability to raise money that the Texas Supreme Court declared the system to be a de facto state property tax and therefore unconstitutional. The obvious solution was to replace the property tax with a new tax. But the very phrase “new tax” gave many Republicans heartburn. Only because the court had threatened to cut off funding for the schools on June 1 did the Legislature assent to a revised business tax that would provide the revenue to “buy down” property taxes by one third.

But in solving one problem, the new plan creates others. The good news is that it raises more money for schools by increasing teachers’ salaries and funding math and science initiatives and allows many property-rich districts that are currently subject to Robin Hood to keep more of their locally raised tax revenue rather than send it to poorer districts. The bad news, however, is very bad indeed: For the sake of ideological purity, the Republican leadership would not allow the revenue from the new business tax and other new taxes passed by the Legislature to be spent on the public schools in future years. The Legislature tied up every dollar from the new taxes so they could be used only for future property tax reductions. Tax cuts, it seems clear, have replaced education as the number one priority of state government.

But that isn’t all there is to worry about. In order to achieve the cut, the Legislature must use the new business tax revenue to replace the money school districts will lose by no longer being able to tax at the old, higher rates—which means, believe it or not, that the tax cut is actually a spending program as well. This is no esoteric lesson in public finance. The state budget is subject to a constitutional spending cap; the growth in state spending cannot exceed the rate of economic growth, even when some of that spending is dedicated to replacing money cut elsewhere. It’s too early to know how the numbers will work out, but education advocates are deeply worried that when legislative leaders determine the new spending cap this fall, there will be little extra money for the state to put into public schools.

And here’s something else to worry about. In its determination to reduce property taxes by one third and increase spending on education, the leadership promoted a plan that did not balance. The new taxes do not cover the cost of the tax cuts and the new spending on education—which is why Strayhorn described the funding as a “hot check.” To make up the difference (around $4.5 billion), the Legislature dipped into the $8.2 billion budget surplus, which is largely the result of a healthy economy and high oil and gas prices. Unless the business tax raises a lot more money than it is projected to, legislative leaders will have to do the same thing next year and the year after that. In 2009 and 2010, leading up to the next gubernatorial election, the gap between projected revenue and the cost of HB 1 is $11.6 billion, an unheard-of figure in this state. That check is not just hot; it’s radioactive. So the tax cuts not only have first claim on all the revenue from the new taxes but will almost surely require dipping into future surpluses, leaving less money for education, health care, and other state responsibilities. What happens when the economy suffers an inevitable downturn and there’s a shortfall instead of a surplus? One of two things: a tax increase or budget cuts—and you know which one the Republican leaders will choose. One crisis is solved; another is born.

But even that isn’t all there is to worry about. In the past, school districts always had the ability, without going to the voters, to raise money through tax increases (and by taking advantage of rising property values), although such increases were subject to rollback elections. The new legislation allows districts to raise their tax rates by 4 cents per $100 of property valuation, one time, without an election. After that, any tax increase must be approved by the voters. Whether done intentionally or not, the lasting effect of the great tax cut of 2006 may be to achieve the fiscal conservatives’ dream of starving the public school beast.

We’ll take our Kinky message
Across this blessed land
And save ourselves for Kinky
And united we will stand.
We can’t do worse than these folks.
Let Kinky take a shot.
Why should he be governor?
Well, why the hell not?

—verse from a Kinky Friedman campaign song, sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”

NOBODY IN THE BUSINESS OF POLITICS gives Kinky Friedman a chance to win, including me. And yet I wonder what the race would have been like had Strayhorn not stolen some of his thunder by running as an independent as well. Perry’s strategists say that Friedman’s negatives are twice as high as his positives, but that doesn’t matter much, because his voters are twice as motivated as the other candidates’ voters. Friedman represents what so many people want to vote for: none of the above. His slogan—“How hard could it be?”—targets the vast majority of Texans, some 64 percent, who’ve grown so cynical about politics that they didn’t even bother to vote in the last gubernatorial election.

The model for his race, of course, is wrestler Jesse Ventura’s upset victory as the standard-bearer for Minnesota’s Independence party, then known as the Reform party, in that state’s three-way governor’s race of 1998. Friedman even retained Dean Barkley, Ventura’s campaign chairman, as his campaign director. Both say they have a feeling that something big is brewing in Texas, but as many observers have noted, the rules in Minnesota are far different from those here. Minnesota has instant voter registration, so young male wrestling fans could walk into the polls on Election Day and vote for their guy. That can’t happen in Texas. Another night-and-day difference between Minnesota and Texas is that the former has public financing of state elections while Texas, of course, does not. Friedman will benefit from plenty of free media coverage, but the conventional wisdom is that he will end up in the single digits. For now, however, he is exceeding expectations. The SurveyUSA poll that gave Perry 40 percent of the vote also showed Friedman at 16 percent, not far behind Bell at 18 and Strayhorn at 20. This was great news for Barkley. “We have to stay close enough in the polls that our voters think we have a chance,” he told me. “If they think we have a chance, they’ll vote.”

In researching this story, I interviewed mostly political consultants, but Friedman’s campaign is so nontraditional that I also wanted to know what the candidate himself was thinking. I called  him at his ranch, near Kerrville. “Every poll I’ve seen shows us way ahead,” he said. Barkley later explained that these were radio call-in polls, which did not screen for likely voters. This would be a problem for any other campaign, but not for one whose target is unlikely voters.

Interviewing Friedman poses certain challenges: whether to ask serious questions and whether to expect serious answers. My next question was “What is your master plan for beating Rick Perry?” “For what?” The response reminded me of when the conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., making a quixotic race for mayor of New York, was asked what he would do if he were elected: “I’d demand a recount!”

I asked him the Buckley question. “First thing, I’d open the Indian casinos,” Friedman said. “You know, we invented Texas Hold ’Em, and we can’t even play it. I’d have a listed phone number for the governor. There would be a time every day when people could call and talk to the governor. I’d like to see us be first in something besides executions. I’d make Willie [Nelson] energy czar. He runs his bus on biodiesel. Get eight, ten percent of Texas on biodiesel and you’ll see energy prices drop.”

What does he think about the new school finance plan? “I’m not as interested in it as you are,” he said. “I don’t think it’s healthy to be interested in it. How can you look at the Texas Legislature and believe in intelligent design?”

This is the way he talks. Just when you think he’s serious, he cracks a joke. And just when you think he’s joking, he turns serious.

“I’m not about knocking Perry at all,” Friedman told me. “Really, this race is not Kinky versus Rick Perry. It’s Kinky versus apathy. It’s about people smelling the pols’ blood in the water.” He has a point, even if those of us who cover politics don’t see it that way.

“The far religious right and the politically correct left are holding the greatest state in the Union hostage,” he said. “As a musician and author, I’m more in touch with the real Texas than the politicians are. Musicians can run this state better than politicians. We didn’t put the train in the ditch. We’ll work late at night. We won’t work in the morning, though.”

What did I expect from the how-hard-could-it-be candidate? If every eligible voter in Texas were required by law to cast a ballot, Rick Perry would be out of a job and Kinky Friedman would be governor of Texas.

THE BIGGEST UNKNOWN IN THE RACE—and the discussion that generates the most disagreement among insiders—is whether Strayhorn or Bell will ultimately emerge as the main challenger to Perry. Think of the campaign as a tournament in which the favorite has a bye and the number two and three seeds have to face off to determine which one advances to the championship match. The semifinal round pits Strayhorn against Bell to see if either can separate from the other to become the magnet for the anti-Perry vote. If this does not happen, Perry wins by default.

The argument is really a clash of two different views about what matters most in politics: money and message or party identification. Those who argue for party ID would say that the nominee of a political party starts out with most of its base and, while suffering some defections to other candidates, retains most of that base vote in the end. The biggest problem for independent candidates is that they enter a race with no identifying label, no clues to give voters about their political leanings. (For instance, if Strayhorn were running as a Democrat, voters would assume that she is pro-choice. As an independent, no assumptions are warranted.) It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that most independents start with zero votes and have to win every one they get. This is why Perry strategists believe Bell will ultimately outpoll Strayhorn. In his profile of Bell in the June 2006 issue of this magazine [“He’s Sisyphus, and He Approves This Message”], Sam Gwynne reported that Mike Baselice, Perry’s pollster, believes Bell will hold on to 75 percent of the Democrats’ base vote, which translates to 26 percent of the total vote. Throw in some independents and he’s in the thirties, within striking distance of Perry’s 40 percent. If Baselice is even close to being right, Strayhorn has no chance.

But, as Gwynne wrote, “Baselice’s analysis depends on one critical assumption: The Republican and Democratic candidates will hold a high percentage of their base votes . . .” That’s where message comes in—to appeal to voters who are angry with Perry or the direction of their party. And without money, without enough of it to get in front of voters a million times between now and November, message doesn’t do any good. Strayhorn has that kind of money; Bell doesn’t. As a Strayhorn strategist said to me, “If it doesn’t happen in people’s living rooms, it doesn’t matter.”

Strayhorn is not at all a typical independent candidate. She has been a statewide Republican officeholder, and she had enough of a following in 2002 that she led the entire GOP ticket, finishing some 246,000 votes ahead of the next-best vote getter, a fellow named Rick Perry. Her dustups with the governor are bound to have caused some erosion in her support among Republicans, but she remains much better positioned than a Democrat to win the votes of fiscal conservatives who are irate about the new business tax (notwithstanding the fact that the property tax cuts are projected to exceed the revenue from the new taxes by $1.7 billion in the first year and $2.5 billion the next year, which makes the effect on the state budget an overall tax decrease). In the closing days of the special session, Steven Hotze, a well-known conservative activist from Katy, e-mailed a lengthy screed (“Action Alert for Conservative Republicans”) to his followers, calling upon them to “Urge the Governor to Veto” the new business tax. Among his numerous objections: “School tax reductions will be minimal and temporary.” “There are no taxpayer protections in any of Governor Perry’s bills.” “Governor Perry made no attempt to pass a bill imposing caps on property appraisal values.” “State government has an $8.2 billion surplus which could be used to buy down the property tax rates making the tax increase necessary.” Poor Perry. He finally exercises leadership, backs a bill that will raise enough money for the property tax cuts Republican leaders have been promising for years, patches a school finance system that the Texas Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional, and even agrees to spend more money on education (math and science programs and a $2,000 teacher pay raise), only to have his base turn on him.

The Strayhorn campaign’s expectation is that she and Bell will remain fairly close together until she starts running TV ads. Then Bell will drop off the radar screen and Democrats will care so much about beating Perry that they will forsake their party and … yes, it does sound a little too facile. What’s missing from this analysis is Strayhorn’s own vision for Texas. Her message cannot be exclusively negative. It has been obvious for at least two years that she was going to run against Perry, and she has attacked him relentlessly during that time. But her weapon has been a shotgun; she fires scattershot blasts at the governor’s toll road program, his “pork-barrel spending” for economic development, his new business tax, and the $40 billion growth of the state budget during his watch. At the same time, she assails him for failing to spend enough on teacher pay raises and children’s health insurance. Sometimes she’s an anti-taxer, sometimes she’s an anti-spender, sometimes she’s a spender. She needs to focus her message, to position herself as unalterably opposed to the new “income tax” (as anti-tax conservatives are describing the business tax—which it effectively is, for many professionals) but at the same time concerned about the fate of public schools. When you’re running against somebody who wants to hold office for ten years, your message ought to be what Newt Gingrich, no slouch as a bomb thrower, suggested for the national Democratic party in its fall races against the Republicans: “Had enough?”

THE END OF ONE GOVERNOR’S RACE is the beginning of the next. The Capitol crowd is already looking beyond Perry to see what the field might look like for 2010. But the more interesting question is what Texas politics—and the state Republican party—might look like four years from now.

The past twenty years have been marked by two transformative trends. One was the explosive growth in the Houston, Dallas—Fort Worth, and Austin suburbs. The six biggest suburban counties (Brazoria, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Williamson) had a combined population of approximately 792,000 in 1980; by 2000 this figure had mushroomed to more than 2 million. The newcomers tended to be affluent, family oriented, and rootless, and those who were politically inclined were drawn to the Republican party. The shift was so pronounced by the early nineties that Karl Rove was convinced that George W. Bush could defeat Ann Richards in 1994. The other trend was the conversion of rural Texas, and particularly East Texas, from conservative Democrat (in courthouse and legislative races) to Republican. Rural Texas had previously been conservative, to be sure, but it also wanted government services—better schools, better roads—and thus tended to vote Democratic in local races. As the state Democratic party came more and more to resemble the national Democratic party (more liberal, more urban, more ethnically diverse), the conservative Democrats found themselves without a home. Today they are independents or Republicans.

The battle for rural Texas is over. The Republicans have won. The Democrats’ last stand was the redistricting fight of 2003, which ended with the Republicans picking up six seats. But a new battle has begun—for urban Texas and adjacent suburbs, as older residents move out to ever more distant points and are replaced by upwardly mobile Asian and Latino families and younger whites. This demographic shift will eventually lead to legislative gains for Democrats. The harbinger for the future came in Houston two years ago, when Democrat Hubert Vo, a political novice, defeated Republican Talmadge Heflin, the top House budget writer. The Dallas County courthouse, with its numerous offices (county judge, district- and county-court judges, district and county clerks, sheriff), has already started slipping away from Republicans and is destined to become almost entirely Democratic—maybe not this election cycle, maybe not the next, but soon—and Harris County will follow. Courthouse control is important because it offers the opportunity to build organizations, a base, and maybe even a farm team of candidates capable of running for higher office, all of which Democrats desperately need. As these trends play out, and the close-in suburbs age, Texas politics will become exactly the reverse of what it was in the conservative Democrat era, when the Republican vote was in the big cities and the Democratic vote was in the countryside.

The shift in urban counties is not the only thing that should concern Republicans. At least two other problems loom that could cause trouble for the party during the run-up to the 2010 elections, both of which involve splits within their ranks. One is the immigration issue, on which, it seems clear, the Republicans have more to lose than the Democrats. The GOP is divided between hard-liners (English only, secure the border, employer sanctions, no path to citizenship for illegals) and middle grounders (work permits, path to citizenship). The danger for the Republicans is that if the hard-liners win, their attitude may be viewed by Latinos as racist. And much of the effort in recent years to woo Latino voters, which both Bush and Perry have done with considerable success, could go down the drain. The one thing the Republicans cannot afford to do in this state is awaken the so-called sleeping giant, the Hispanic nonvoter.

The second internecine battle is over party purity—the effort by conservative activists outside the Capitol to impose their ideological views on the party’s elected representatives. Anyone who follows politics knows about the effort by school-choice advocate James Leininger to defeat five GOP lawmakers, vouchers opponents all, in the March primary election. The final tally: almost $2.5 million spent, two down, three still standing. The split between the traditional conservatives and the activists is likely to get worse following the primary victory in a Houston state Senate race by radio talk show host Dan Patrick, an outspoken fiscal conservative who could play the role of enforcer on the Senate floor. Republicans need look no further than the state Democratic party to see the risk of these purges. By making their party inhospitable to moderates, Democrats conceded the mainstream to Republicans. Don’t think that the same fate can’t eventually befall Republicans.

What all this adds up to is that, come 2010, the Democrats are likely to be in their strongest position since Bush won the governorship in 1994. Strength is relative. I’m not suggesting that Texas is going to be a Democratic state again anytime soon or that Republicans will lose their majorities in the state House and Senate. As long as the GOP retains control of the legislative redistricting process, that isn’t going to happen. But I do think that Democrats can be competitive at the top of the ticket, especially if Republicans keep driving people out of their own party.

The front-runner for the Republican nomination to succeed Perry in 2010 is Dewhurst. He’s in line for it, and conservatives, driven by some vestigial impulse from medieval Europe, seem to be more comfortable with orderly succession. But the path is far from unobstructed. Conservatives outside the Capitol (and some inside) believe that he goes too far to accommodate Democrats’ concerns. In the March primary, he was the only Republican candidate for statewide office not to reach the 500,000-vote plateau (both he and Perry had primary opponents), and it was said that his lackluster showing was the result of an organized boycott by Houston conservatives. His control of the Senate is not what it was or ought to be, in part because he still tries to lead top-down, as a CEO would; if he could only adjust to sharing power with influential senators, he would find that he is stronger, not weaker, for it. Next session he will have to contend with Patrick inside the Senate, and early signs are that the relationship is off to a poor start. No doubt Dewhurst is hoping the rumors turn out to be true that Perry, with impeccable conservative credentials, is on the short list for vice president in 2008—no, I’m not making this up—and that Dewhurst can ascend to the governorship, as Perry did, without an election.

Patrick, who has bought a Dallas radio station to carry his conservative message into North and East Texas, has to be considered as a possible 2010 candidate on Dewhurst’s right. Hutchison is said to be thinking about another race; even though she has cried wolf twice, she has to be taken seriously. If she runs, she would replace Dewhurst as the front-runner. A couple of Bush hands, Don Evans, the former secretary of commerce, and Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, have signaled an interest in running at some point, and both have the money to finance their races. For Garza, the timing could be all wrong. If the immigration debate is still simmering, the Republican party is not going to nominate a Hispanic.

And the Democrats? There are a couple of usual suspects: former comptroller John Sharp, the mastermind of Perry’s tax bill, who is back in the game following losses in the ’98 and ’02 races for lieutenant governor (to Perry and Dewhurst, respectively), although having helped Perry may not endear him to Democrats; and ambitious former Austin mayor and 2002 attorney general candidate Kirk Watson, soon to be installed in the state Senate (where he and Dewhurst can keep an eye on each other). The party’s front-runner—ultimately, maybe its only runner—is Houston’s highly regarded mayor, Bill White, the first Democrat with a realistic chance of winning since 1994. Like Dewhurst, White is said to want the job badly. He can finance his own race. And he’s a crossover candidate, with strong ties to the Houston business community. He also gives the dullest speech in town, and he’s a wonk at heart. But, hey, Rick Perry will have very likely been governor of this state for ten years. As a certain someone likes to say, how hard could it be?