Can Democrats spring an upset in Texas governor's race?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 11:32 PM

AUSTIN- Democrats have a dream this year and it goes like this: It is election night. As the cable news networks' electronic maps run red with Republican victories, three of the nation's most populous states - California, Florida and Texas - turn instead to blue.

Gubernatorial pickups in those Sunbelt states would bring a measure of satisfaction on what otherwise could be a bleak evening for Democrats. And heading into the final weeks of the campaign, the party has a chance of winning some or all of these races. Democrats know that heavily Republican Texas is the most difficult of the three. Long a Democratic wasteland, Texas is all the more challenging because of the national climate

The state's Republican governor, Rick Perry, is a career politician in the year of the outsider, and the longest-serving governor in Texas history in the year of anti-incumbency. His Democratic opponent, Bill White, served three terms as mayor of Houston and was popular enough to win reelection twice with about 90 percent of the vote. He is a Texas native, a businessman, a former deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration and a former chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

A soft-spoken, balding and uncharismatic politician, he is the antithesis of Perry. White is pitted against a governor noted for his good looks and having the personality of a yell leader at Texas A&M University, which he once was.

Many Democrats regard White as one of the strongest gubernatorial candidates they have fielded in many years. He has kept the race closer than many people, including those in his own party, had expected.

But Perry, who ascended to the governor's office when George W. Bush became president and has been reelected twice, expresses little regard for his challenger. "By and large, I ignore Bill White," he said in an interview.

No to big government

Perry's focus is Washington, and he presents himself as a bulwark against encroaching big government. "Somebody needs to stand up and say no to this activist government," he told the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association recently. To applause he added, "I hope on November the second we send a real powerful message to Washington, D.C.: We don't want you spending any more money."

Perry has sometimes struggled to gain respect in Texas, even among Republicans. He has long been at odds with many of those around Bush. David Hill, a Republican pollster, said Perry has not made much of a mark during his decade in office. "He's a guy who's really exploiting the generic Republican ballot," Hill said. "He doesn't bring too much unique and distinctive to the brand himself."

If underappreciated, Perry nonetheless has always managed to win elections since entering politics as a Democrat 25 years ago. Four years ago, he captured just 39 percent of the vote in a four-way race. But last spring, he trounced Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a three-way GOP primary after starting the race as the underdog.

Perry defeated Hutchison by linking her to the nation's capital. He was shrewd enough to give voice to the anti-Washington sentiments of tea party activists just as the movement was forming, staking out his strong opposition to President Obama and the Democrats' agenda in early 2009. That helps insulate him from the anti-incumbent sentiments that have taken hold nationwide this year.

"Is there an anti-incumbent mood in the country?" he said. "Yes, if you have been a Republican that went to Washington, D.C., and spent money like a Democrat."

White, in turn, has been forced to run away from Obama and the national Democratic Party. Most Texans, he said, were turned off by the deficit spending in the Bush administration and are even more concerned about the rising deficits under Obama.

"Including me," he said.

Focus on economy

White hopes to ward off the governor's anti-Washington message by raising doubts about Perry's economic record. He thinks the recession has finally caught up with Texas and notes that 1 million Texans are unemployed. The state unemployment rate is 8.4 percent, which is worse than that of many surrounding states. Texas faces a budget shortfall that could hit $18 billion next year.

"Rick Perry and his handlers thought they would create this illusion that Texas would be exempt from the global recession," White says. "They thought they would create an illusion that state government had avoided the downturn. . . . Now, unfortunately for him, reality is setting in."

Perry argues that under his business-friendly administration, Texas is doing better than any of the big states, which he said is the real measure of economic success or failure. "I think inarguably anyone who is not a political hack or just trying to tear Texas down is going to say [we] have been good stewards of our state," he said.

Democrats see Perry as most vulnerable on claims that he engages in cronyism and that he rewards friends and punishes enemies - in short, that he overstayed his time as governor. In the past week, White has attacked Perry repeatedly on ethics issues. The Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, has criticized Perry, saying that he tried to infringe on the rights of private property owners, that he sought to require young girls to be vaccinated against sexually transmitted diseases and that he spent $10,000 a month on a house while the governor's mansion was being rebuilt after a fire.

Perry advisers say the charges are old and no longer make an impression with voters. "Those issues have been tested over and over and over," said David Carney, the governor's chief campaign strategist. Voters, he added, are concerned about bigger issues this fall.

Perry's focus on Washington has sparked speculation that he has his eyes on a White House run in 2012. He has repeatedly denied that he wants to seek the presidency. "I don't know how many times you've got to say no," he said. "I have no passion to go to Washington, D.C."

But he hopes to raise his national profile by becoming a leading voice among Republican governors in challenging the Obama administration on spending, taxes, mandates, regulations and state sovereignty.

Perry leads in all the most recent polls, though most show the margin in single digits. Democrats say the fact that Perry has not already closed out the race suggests that victory is still possible.

But given the Republican leanings of the Lone Star State and the mood of the electorate, a victory by White would rank as one of the major upsets of 2010.

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