Can a Democrat Win the Texas Governor's Race?

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Bill White and Rick Perry have their sights set on the governor's office
Bill White and Rick Perry have their sights set on the governor's office

This is the first of three stories on the political map of Texas going into the November elections — a collaborative reporting effort between The Texas Tribune and the El Paso Times. Coming next: Latino voting in Texas and why the state's fastest-growing population has relatively little political clout; and a look at parts of the state the politicians pay attention to, and how that has more to do with voting patterns than with the size of the populations.

Political observers, party faithful and a pair of gubernatorial candidates have been consumed by one question for nearly eight months: How close is the race between Republican Rick Perry and Democrat Bill White?

Members of both parties agree that White, the Harvard-educated former mayor of Houston, represents the Democrats' best shot at the governor's office in 15 years, despite the state's status as a Republican stronghold. But many believe that voting patterns show Texas is still years away from becoming truly competitive.  

To break through, White must appeal to moderate voters while rallying party faithful to the polls.  

Both campaigns are guarded about their strategy. Both say they are reaching out to voters in all parts of the state. But political scientists and analysts share more targeted strategies for each candidate's path to victory.  

 

Those analysts say White would need to boost voter turnout among minorities, minimize his losses in large Republican-dominated suburbs and maintain margins of at least 70 percent of the vote along the border for a chance to beat Perry. He might also have to exploit possible dissatisfaction with a nearly 10-year governor during a year that has led to the ousting of some incumbent politicians across the country.  

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in May showed that 39 percent of voters surveyed were not satisfied with Perry's job performance and another 16 percent neither approved nor disapproved of his leadership.

Jeff Hewitt, a Democratic consultant, says White would have to take advantage of those feelings, focus attention on the suburbs outside of Dallas and Houston and try to appeal to moderate Republican women in East Texas.

Democrats are hoping to attract Republicans who did not vote for Perry in past elections. They will try to target voters who preferred independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn in 2006 or U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison this year during the Republican primary.  

Hewitt says moderate Republican women are important because they are more willing to switch parties than men if they are not satisfied.

“He has to flip some moderate Republican women to win. End of story,” he says. “If he just gets the typical Democrat vote and they get the typical Republican vote, he loses, no doubt about it.”

Hewitt says the strategy to oust Perry is not far-fetched after drops in housing values, increases in unemployment, a projected budget shortfall and a rise in college tuition costs.

“Moderate Republicans are going to say 'why not? Could it get any worse? Why not give him a shot?” Hewitt says.

 

The state's leading Republicans say that will not happen.  

Chris Turner, a Republican strategist, equates the 2008 presidential election to his party's most difficult year since the Watergate scandal. But Turner notes that Democrats still lost in Texas despite a “highly charismatic” presidential candidate, a Republican base that was turned off and divided and an influx of minority voters relocating to the state from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

“It was basically the perfect storm for Democrats, and Republicans still won by 10 points statewide on average,” Turner says. “You can't predict the weather tomorrow, and you can't predict the stock market five minutes from now, but it's pretty safe to assume that 2010 is going to be a better year for Republicans than 2008.”  

Partisan rankings

View an interactive map of statewide election results from 1998-2008.

Perry, who successfully positioned himself as a Washington, D.C., outsider in a primary election against Hutchison and insurgent candidate Debra Medina, has an easier campaign task before him as he seeks to win reelection to an unprecedented third four-year term.

Strategists say he needs to keep Republican margins steady in growing suburban areas, minimize his losses along the border without stirring up too much interest in the race and find a way to secure Republicans in East Texas where he has traditionally been weaker.

The governor has already begun efforts that seem to signal moves in that direction.

He continues to hammer away at the anti-Washington sentiment that helped him defeat Hutchison, this time in an attempt to tie White to any disappointment voters may have with Democratic incumbents on the national stage.  

Perry is also playing a balancing act between Latinos and Tea Party voters over the hot button issue of immigration. Neither group is a sure lock for the Republican Party. Latinos in Texas tend to vote Democratic and rally around causes that they perceive as discriminatory. Tea Party activists, many who support Arizona's new immigration law, may not vote for a Democrat but could steer support to a third candidate or stay home.

Not Yet Blue

On average, statewide Democrats only carried 33 counties in 2008, down from 76 in 1998, according to an analysis of election returns by the El Paso Times and The Texas Tribune.

The Times and the Tribune examined vote margins for Democrats and Republicans in contested statewide races. Candidates who ran unopposed or faced nominal challenges from third parties were excluded from the analysis to avoid skewed margins.  

But it doesn't matter how many counties are won. What's more important is how many votes each party received in those counties.

It may seem, from looking at election maps, that the Democrats are losing ground, but they simply consolidated their support in populous urban areas. In 1998, the statewide Democratic ticket prevailed in less-populous counties in West Texas and East Texas, for example, but lost in Dallas and Harris counties. That trend changed in 2008 when Democrats won Harris and Dallas counties but lost in smaller counties in West Texas and East Texas.  

Put another way, Democrats won counties in 1998 that accounted for roughly 20 percent of the statewide vote. The counties they won in 2008 represented nearly 45 percent of the vote across Texas. Still, they lost statewide both times.

Turner says no one can question that the opposing party is making gains of two, three and four percent in urban counties. But he says Democrats are lying to themselves if they think they can win the state's highest office this year.

“I have a fun test: We go around to a rural district [and] pop into a Wal-Mart, and I'll stroll down to the ammo aisle,” Turner says. “If all the .38 caliber and .45 caliber ammo is gone, then that is a district the Republican is going to win. Frankly, if you go to East and West Texas, the shelves are empty.”  

Former Texas Governor Mark White beat a Republican incumbent in 1982 to serve as governor from 1983 to 1987. That year Democrats swept the statewide ballot, taking a U.S. Senate seat and winning races for lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller, among others.

But Mark White argues that the ruling party does not matter if a candidate runs a good campaign. “I don't think anybody had more of an uphill battle than I did,” he says. Political pundits “never gave me a chance to win in any of my elections.”

Mark White says that Texans are more worried about the gubernatorial candidate's plan for the future than what party he represents. He believes that is where Bill White will stand out against Perry. “Had we just run on the basis of 'I'm a Democrat and he's a Republican,' then I'm not certain I would have succeeded,” Mark White says of his 1982 win against then-Gov. Bill Clements.

Mark White lost a reelection bid to Clements in 1986 and tried to stage a comeback in 1990, but Ann Richards won the nomination in the Democratic primary election that year. Richards later beat Republican Clayton Williams in the general election.

Democrats have been trying to reclaim the seat since Richards lost to George W. Bush in 1994. Williams says that will be difficult but doesn’t think it is impossible. He says Richards only made it to the governor's mansion because she ran a better campaign than he did.

“I kept telling jokes and getting myself in trouble. I think Texas was even Republican then,” says the Midland oilman and banker. “My excuse is I've never been in politics before and I was a little naïve.”

In one instance during his campaign, Williams compared the weather to rape, saying, “if it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.'' He also fumbled the race after refusing to shake hands with Richards during an event in Dallas and admitting that he had not paid taxes in 1986.

Williams says the rise of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin are indications that White will struggle in this election. He praises Perry's job performance but concedes that White is a “good candidate.”

“He has been a good man,” Williams said. “I proved I don't know anything about politics, but if you take the tide right now, I don't see it changing. He is swimming upstream.”

Battleground Areas

'08 Presidential Results

Candidate Counties Votes %
McCain 226 4,479,328
55.45%
Obama 28 3,528,633 43.68%

Source: Texas Secretary of State

Twenty-five of the state's counties make up about 70 percent of the vote in a typical election, an analysis of statewide voting figures shows.

The state's largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), Bexar (San Antonio), and Travis (Austin) — provide the most votes for both parties. Strategists say that means the counties cannot be ignored, but they may not necessarily determine who wins the election.  

Suburban counties outside of Dallas and Houston could play a larger role in deciding which candidate will be the state's next governor. “If you drew an 80-mile circle around the Metroplex and an 80-mile circle around Houston — not the cities but everybody else — that is the group of people who will decide this election,” Hewitt says. “That and East Texas.”

Top Counties McCain Won: Total Votes

Rank County Votes %
1 Tarrant 348,420 55.4%
2 Collin 184,897 62.3%
3 Denton 149,935 61.6%
4 Montgomery 119,884 75.9%
5 Fort Bend 103,206 50.9%
6 Williamson 88,323 55.8%
7 Brazoria 67,515 64.3%
8 Lubbock 66,304 68.0%
9 Galveston 62,258 59.3%
10 Smith 55,187 69.4%

Source: Texas Secretary of State

At least five suburban counties — Collin, Denton, Williamson, Fort Bend and Montgomery — will be receiving much attention from both candidates in the coming months. Perry will work to maintain the Republican hold on the counties. White will try to narrow the margins to make the election more competitive. The Democrat does not have to win those Republican strongholds, strategists say, he simply needs to minimize his losses.

Voting tallies for all contested statewide races assessed by the Times and the Tribune show that 10 years ago, three out of four votes in Collin County went to the Republican Party. By 2008, the Republican Party received about 64 percent of votes cast in all statewide contested races there.  

People with larger incomes and higher levels of education are more likely to turn out at the polls, and voters who fit the description are more likely to be Anglo. Collin has an estimated population of about 792,000, of which 66 percent is Anglo. The median household income is $81,875. In Denton, the Republican advantage fell from 72 percent in 1998 to 63 percent a decade later. About 68 percent of Denton's population of 659,000 people is Anglo. The median household income is $73,678, according to 2008 estimates by the Census bureau.

Those statistics should be of concern to White, who in a UT/Texas Tribune poll only drew about 25 percent support from Anglos, compared with Perry's 55 percent.

Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston, says White has to do a better job of appealing to Anglo voters, who are expected to make up about 72 percent of the total tally in November.

“Even though he is probably going to do OK with the Hispanics who vote and he likely will get a very good percentage of the African-American vote, he is not anywhere near where he needs to be with Anglos,” Murray says.

The Democratic Party will also look to gain ground in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties near Houston and in Williamson County outside of Austin. Williamson and Fort Bend counties have each seen the migration of more minorities from Austin and Houston. Both are considered key battleground counties.

Top Counties Obama Won: Total Votes

Rank County Votes %
1 Harris 590,982 50.4%
2 Dallas 422,989 57.3%
3 Bexar 275,527 52.4%
4 Travis 254,017 64.0%
5 El Paso 122,021 66.0%
6 Hidalgo 90,261 69.0%
7 Cameron 48,480 64.1%
8 Jefferson 44,888 50.8%
9 Webb 33,452 71.4%
10 Maverick 8,554 78.2%

Source: Texas Secretary of State

President Barack Obama came up nearly 5,000 votes short in Fort Bend County in 2008, and an analysis of the county shows that statewide Republican candidates in other races also maintained a slight overall edge.

Montgomery is the least competitive of the five growing suburban counties. Republicans on average landed about three out of every four votes in 2006 and 2008. Still, White may be able to draw a few extra votes there because of his time as mayor of Houston.

“He may get 32 percent instead of 22 percent, but there are virtually no minority voters,” Murray says.

Murray says the suburban vote will have a major impact on the election, but rural voters in East Texas cannot be ignored. He also said the border will be significant for its turnout. El Paso and other border counties make up about eight percent of the overall vote, he says.

Voters along the border primarily cast Democratic ballots but often show up in lower numbers than other parts of the state. That means Perry must try to minimize his loss in counties like El Paso, but he does not have to spend as much money in those areas.

“He doesn't want to stir things up too much from El Paso to Brownsville,” Murray says. “He will engage in the border region because he doesn't want to lose 75 or 80 percent, but he doesn't want to stir a whole lot of interest. If he turns out four voters, hell, three of them may be voting against him.”

East and West

Aside from the El Paso, most of West Texas is losing population and votes solidly Republican. Strategists for each party say more resources and attention should be focused on East Texas where voters are considered more moderate.  

They plan to start with voters who may have cast ballots for Strayhorn or Hutchison.

Strayhorn, a former Republican state comptroller, ran as an independent candidate against Perry in a six-person election for governor. She came in third with nearly 797,000 votes, most of which expectedly were siphoned away from Perry. Some Democratic strategists will go as far as to say that those Strayhorn voters are the only ones that will decide the election.

Others are more cautious. Murray says Republicans have been winning in East Texas and will win again this election. But, he says, the margin matters.  

“Obama did terribly there. You've obviously got to do much better than the presidential Democrat,” Murray says.  

The Minority Vote

White will also have to continue reaching out to a Democratic base that includes Latino and black voters. The problem is that minorities vote in lower numbers, strategists say. Latinos make up about 36 percent of the voting age population but only 11 to 15 percent typically vote. Some political consultants argue that increasing Latino voter turnout is too difficult and that White's money and time would be better spent trying to convert Republican voters.  

Cuauhtémoc “Temo” Figueroa, a political consultant who served as the National Latino Vote Director for the 2008 Obama campaign, disagrees. He says White should be trying to tap all of the first-time or infrequent voters who turned out in the presidential election to increase Latino voter turnout. “If you look back at the Obama model there wasn't a rock left unturned,” Figeroa says. “Everyone was asked because he understood that all of the Democratic establishment was with someone else. By default, the campaign had to go and search for every vote. It's a good model. It's a scrappy model.  

“If you have been on the outside looking in like Democrats have in a state like Texas, you don't have the luxury to push your base aside or assume certain things about your base,” Figueroa says.

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