Texastential Crisis

by Michelle Cottle | August 17, 2010

Rick Perry should be riding high. Chasing his third full term as governor of Texas, Perry is a blood-red conservative running in a blood-red state in a blood-red cycle. In April of last year, he cheered a bill in the statehouse aimed at reasserting Texas’s sovereign rights against an “oppressive” federal government. A few days later, he began publicly musing about how, in its struggle against tyranny, Texas might find it necessary to secede. And who could forget that fateful February morning when the governor took down a coyote (in one shot!) with the laser-sighted Ruger .380 he carries on his morning jogs (loaded with hollow-points, naturally). The man clearly knows his audience: The Lone Star electorate is so pro-GOP that a Democrat has not won statewide office in 16 years and so anti-Obama that it’s home to seven of the 13 House sponsors of the “birther bill.” A February report by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling noted that the president’s approval rating in Texas had dropped to an “eye-popping” 19 percent, prompting The Houston Chronicle to observe that, among the state’s independent voters, “he’s fallen off the cliff.” If the political winds at Perry’s back were any stronger, they’d blow him face-first off the Congress Avenue Bridge into Lady Bird Lake.

So how is it that Governor Wingnut now finds himself in a real race against a Harvard-educated ex-Clinton appointee with about as much charisma and machismo as, well, a Harvard-educated ex-Clinton appointee? A two-term mayor of Houston and onetime chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, challenger Bill White is described in terms like “low-key,” “reasoned,” “deliberate,” and “thoughtful”–qualities that would seem to make him a poor fit for office in this political age of fear and loathing and rage. Yet White is holding his own against the hootin’, hollerin’ Perry in both polling (a June Public Policy Polling survey had them tied at 43 percent, and even the Republican-friendly Rasmussen gives Perry only a “slight,” single-digit lead) and money-grubbing (White has a cash-on-hand edge of $9 million to Perry’s $5.9 million). In March, political handicapper Charlie Cook moved the race from “leans Republican” to “toss up,” positing that Perry faced “the most difficult race of his career.”

Now, Texas being Texas, it’s tough to find a political realist in the state who thinks White will actually win this thing. But pretty much everyone (who doesn’t work for Perry) acknowledges that the former mayor is giving the governor an unusually good run for his money, which begs the question: What in the heck is happening?

First, let’s look at what White has going for him: He was a popular mayor of Houston, earning a reputation for managerial competence. Despite his Democratic pedigree, he is regarded as neither terribly partisan (big city mayoralties in Texas are nonpartisan) nor terribly liberal. He has experience raising money and has plenty of rich friends–a big plus in a state with no limits on individual campaign contributions. He also seems to be benefiting from the fact that, as Democratic consultant Dan McClung puts it, his party’s activists “haven’t had anything at all to look forward to in years.” White’s early promise, observes McClung, has them “all maxed out in vigor and vim.”

But this race isn’t really about White or the enthusiasms of Democrats; it’s about Rick Perry. For a while, White tried running as an education candidate, says James Henson, a pollster with the University of Texas. “It didn’t really get him anywhere. Only with direct attacks on Perry has he gotten a little traction.” Of course, in Texas, it’s tough to generate widespread outrage over even Perry’s most conservative positions, like his denial of global warming, his rejection of federal education funds, or his nomination of a young-Earth creationist to chair the State Board of Education. In addition to the state’s conservatism, there is a strong strain of Texas exceptionalism, meaning that criticism of how things are run can backfire if voters think you’re dissing their beloved homeland. “It’s like a bunch of drunken German soccer fans,” jokes a non-native Republican operative who has done work in the state.

So what’s a battle-minded opposition to do? Rather than focus on Perry’s positions, Team White has been attacking the governor as an arrogant, out-of-touch incumbent grown soft and lazy during his ten-year reign. Using state schedules, Dems estimated that Perry spends only seven hours a week on state business–a figure they have been touting loudly. They’ve also been fanning the storyline of how Perry, having moved out of the governor’s mansion in 2007 to allow for restoration work, has since been living in an upscale, gated community in suburban Austin at a cost to taxpayers of $10,000 per month. And the Travis County District Attorney’s office has taken an interest in Dems’ allegations that Republicans, including Perry’s people, paid an out-of-state firm (with illegal corporate donations, no less) to help put a Green Party candidate on the ballot in an effort to drain liberal votes from White. “There has been a series of stories emphasizing that Perry has a lot of connections in the political community and that he’s willing to win at any cost,” says Henson.

This raises the intriguing possibility that, even in Texas, voters’ toss-the-bums-out grumpiness goes beyond despising Democrats to distrusting anyone in power. “Perry does have a problem being a ten-year incumbent,” says Evan Smith, the longtime Texas Monthly editor now heading up The Texas Tribune. “There’s not a whole lot of undecided opinion out there. Even some Republicans will say he’s been in office too long or his conservatism is too much, even for Texas. And that’s an opening for White.” McClung asserts, “Perry is his own worst problem because he’s been there for so long.” And it’s not as if the governor is a low-key, low-profile kind of guy, he adds. “It’s a big state, it’s got a lot of TV stations, and he is on constantly.”

Of course, most political watchers note that few voters are tuned in at this stage. (“It’s a hundred degrees and nobody’s paying attention,” says Republican consultant Reggie Bashur.) Worse still for White, Perry has a history of floundering, then morphing into Supercandidate as Election Day approaches. “He has a really well-run, tough, aggressive, well-funded” team, says McClung. Complicating matters, notes Henson, Texans who identify as “independents” or “don’t knows” in campaign polls break disproportionately for Republicans on Election Day.

With all this in mind, it’s unsurprising to hear the governor’s people pooh-poohing White. “Who says he has a race?” challenges Perry pollster Mike Baselice. Baselice concedes that White’s chances are greater than zero, but that’s as far as he’s willing to go. Running through the numbers–from party affiliation to voter enthusiasm–Baselice predicts another GOP sweep of statewide races. “It’s nothing more than mathematics,” he insists.

Indeed, this basic equation seems likely to hold. Still, as November approaches, White’s performance may provide insight into the precise nature of the electorate’s discontent. If an uncharismatic, Ivy League Clintonite can get within spitting distance of Governor Wingnut in this unfriendliest of climes, the political winds may be more complicated than they seem.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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