Answers, we'll get on November 7. Questions and speculation, we've got now.
1. Will Democrat Chris Bell have the money to finish the air war he started with the $2.5 million he got from Houston lawyer John O'Quinn?
Bell's big TV buy runs through October 27; without a new stack of bills, his presence on the air will decrease quickly. An infusion could give him the resources for a close, which raises another question: Are the numbers moving quickly enough for it to matter?
2. Will incumbent Gov. Rick Perry or anyone else in the race for that office muster more than 35 percent of the vote?
This is the question of the year, and the motivation for so many candidates, who saw Perry's relatively weak numbers and jumped in, only to find the race for second place split three ways.
3. Is it possible — see Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn for the answer to this — to build a successful campaign for governor without the backing of one of the parties?
Perry's got money and a base vote. Bell's got a base vote, but his finances have been weak. Strayhorn's got money and no base. And Friedman has celebrity, which is what everybody else is trying to get with those TV ads. It's a big political science experiment.
4. Do Texas Republicans sneeze when national politics give the GOP a cold?
Most consultants and analysts think not. President George W. Bush's numbers are stronger in Texas by 15 to 20 percentage points than they are elsewhere. He's planning a visit to Texas next week, a sure sign that the candidates here don't think it'll hurt to stand next to him (remember when Texas Democrats were encouraging then-President Bill Clinton to stay away). If the national GOP troubles affect Texas, the surprise could come in CD-14, where Democrat Shane Sklar is challenging U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside. It's a district where Bush got 67 percent two years ago, outdoing average statewide Republicans by about four points; measure that result against the GOP performance this time.
5. Is it possible for Texas Republicans to sneak away with control of the Texas Senate by beating Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, in one of the state's strongest Democratic districts?
Shapleigh should win, easily. But the Republicans have put a lot of money into insurance man Dee Margo's challenge, and there's something more than pride at stake. It's the only seriously contested race in the 31-seat upper chamber, and a GOP win would wipe out the Democrats' ability to block legislation by holding more than a third of the votes.
6. With five to eight seats in play on each side of the party line in the Texas House, can either party win enough seats to change how things work in the lower chamber? To change the leadership?
Republicans have the reins now and a Democratic majority in the Texas House is beyond imagination at this point. A four- to five-seat net gain for the Democrats could threaten House Speaker Tom Craddick's support for the top job, but it's a long shot. His folks say he's got plenty of pledge cards, which helps. But his predecessor, Pete Laney, had well over 100 of those cards the day he lost control to Craddick.
7. Are Republican officeholders and candidates on the low end of the statewide ballot in any danger of getting picked off?
Probably not, but some of the pieces are in place. Voter enthusiasm on the GOP side of the ledger is low, according to pollsters and others on that side of the fence. The down-ballot candidates for jobs in the executive branch and the courts are relatively unknown and aren't able to put up much TV to fix the trouble. On the other hand, enthusiasm on the Democratic side of the ledger could be just as anemic. Weaknesses only count when there's a competitor in position to take advantage of them.
8. Are toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor really issues that move voters? How about other state contracts?
Hearings on the road plans were held all over the state this summer, and a lot of the attendees were strongly and loudly opposed to Perry's large-scale proposal. A transportation writer at the Austin American-Statesman said it was like the Texas Department of Transportation had decided to hold campaign rallies for Strayhorn. It's not clear, however, that the opposition will turn into anything in the election. And do voters care about candidates' ties to people doing business with the state? Perry's criticized Strayhorn for taking contributions from tax consultants whose cases she decides. Bell and Strayhorn have been after Perry for highway and welfare contracts between the state and companies that employ former aides and allies of the governor.
9. Who's out there with late money, and is it big, and does it help?
Each of the four main gubernatorial candidates has some serious backing from one or more rich folks. But big money also shows up in House and Senate races, if you'll recall the noise from the March primaries. Eight-day campaign finance reports are due at the Texas Ethics Commission next week, and campaigns will have to show some of the cards they're holding.
10. What will turnout do, and who'll benefit?
It's boring, but it's critical. If it's unusually high or low, it could shake people. When voters are angry or worked up and want change, that's a potentially bad day for an incumbent. Low turnout? They might or might not be happy, but they won't make big changes in government sitting in that papasan chair at home. A fun fact: If turnout is around 29 percent of voting age Texans and if the next governor gets, say, 40 percent of the vote, that person will be living in the Mansion and signing bills with the approval of one in eight adult Texans.
With the election less than two weeks off, contributors, consultants, candidates, and other political types are starting to freak out. Some of the things they're talking about might even turn out to be true.
But the pow-wow of the state's most successful trial lawyers — spun by a couple of campaigns as "big news" to reporters and others — turned out to be a more somber gathering.
Dozens of lawyers from around the state went to Lufkin for the funeral of 39-year-old Reich Chandler, whose father, George Chandler, is a past president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. Reich himself was a member of that group's board and its executive committee. The lawyers assembled in East Texas this week weren't there to talk politics.
That said, there's a quiet push by some in the Democratic camp to lure some of the financiers behind Strayhorn to Bell for money they think could push him over the top in a contest that has just a few days left.
As of the beginning of the week, Bell hadn't purchased any television advertising for the last 10 days of the campaign. Some polling shows him still unknown to some voters, even as early balloting is underway. Going dark — the term for not running any ads on TV — would diminish the Democrat's already slim chances for a victory.
His supporters contend that he's gathering strength as the Democratic base comes home, and that the combined strength of Strayhorn, Kinky Friedman and James Werner has ebbed from a high in the low 40s a few months ago to percentages in the high 20s today. If both trends continue, there's arguably a window for an upset. And Bell's gang is making that argument.
Not a Partisan? Buzz Off!
Nobody wearing a red or blue jersey in Texas seems to care about swing voters this year.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Chris Bell are trying to consolidate their base votes — the people who always vote according to team colors — and haven't spent any significant time or money chasing the independents and leaners who are usually needed to win a race for governor. In a five-way contest, both campaigns think it'll be enough to get all of their folks to stick with the party line and vote.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn is after independents and disillusioned voters from either of the two big parties. That's the swing vote in a classical sense, but she's not trying to steer them into a temporary allegiance with a party, which is the usual way to play. Instead, she's trying to keep them away from the two big political parties and in the "Had Enough" column with her.
Kinky Friedman is after independent and unlikely voters (that's not a punch line, though it works if you deliver it right). In a state where only about 29 percent of voting age residents are expected to vote, he's hoping to motivate Texans who are registered to vote but who can't get jazzed up about the Republicans and the Democrats. If that chunk of the electorate goes up and turnout rises two or three percentage points (enough to change the race dramatically), he's betting they'll be there for him.
Perry's bet is that there are more Republicans than Democrats or independents and that if they'll all vote, and all vote for him, he'll win. Bell thinks the same thing, though he thinks there are enough grumbles in the GOP to shave Perry's vote and put the incumbent within range of a Democrat — if the Democrat's got a unified party behind him. And Strayhorn's bet is that there are enough grumblers in both parties to combine with independents to make a third party candidate the next governor. It's like the Friedman formula without the unlikely voter scenario.
But the swings aren't in play this year in the way they usually are. This time, the angry white males, soccer moms, religious Democrats, secular Republicans, and other niche voters who have been hot dates in previous elections are being treated like voters from a third party. They're interested in education and roads and taxes and immigration and all that. But the hard appeals from Perry and Bell are to their base votes. And Strayhorn and Friedman are appealing to voters who've had enough of the donkeys and the elephants.
Look at the ads and at what the two major-party candidates are saying in appearances around Texas. Perry is attacking Bell for being a liberal Democrat whose campaign is fueled by trial lawyer money. A new ad labels the Democrat as a tax-and-spend guy; an older one went at the same material in a different way. That's actually good for Bell: He's the least well known of the four major candidates and it doesn't hurt him to tell Democrats who he is and that he's a liberal. What Perry's trying to do is prod his own voters, to rattle them into voting against all those adjectives that traditionally scare them so.
Bell's doing the same thing, bopping Perry over the head for cuts in the Children's Health Insurance Program and for one example of the revolving door between his administration and the lobby. It's a play for Democrats in general and for female voters in particular.
It's one reason why you see the Republican campaign rallying around George W. Bush (something that's not happening in other parts of the U.S.) and the Democrats rallying around John Kerry and Bill Clinton (something that's unusual in a gubernatorial race in this red state in recent years). They want their base voters to come home and to hell with the rest (that's not 100 percent true — everybody wants more votes — but it describes the sense of things).
The Horse Race
The newest poll from SurveyUSA has Gov. Rick Perry at 36 percent, followed by Democrat Chris Bell at 26 percent; Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn at 19 percent; Kinky Friedman at 16 percent, and Libertarian James Werner at 1 percent. Only 2 percent of voters haven't decided, according to this poll. The poll of "likely voters" was done this week for KEYE-TV Austin and WOAI-TV San Antonio, and the margin of error is +/- 4.3 percent.
The pollsters said Bell and Strayhorn have made some gains since the last poll, and they've done it at Friedman's expense.
And in the cross tabs, they said Perry and Bell are each getting about three-fifths of the voters from their own parties. About 16 percent of Republicans are with Friedman and another 15 percent are with Strayhorn. About 10 percent of Democrats are with Friedman and 23 percent are with Strayhorn. Independent voters are spread among the candidates almost evenly: 25 percent Perry, 19 percent Bell, 27 percent Friedman, and 22 percent Strayhorn. A month ago, Friedman was getting 39 percent of independents in this survey.
The pollsters at SurveyUSA say Gov. Rick Perry gets unfavorable ratings from 54 percent of Texas voters, matching a high (or low, depending on your angle of view) he hasn't seen since last May. After the special session on school finance, more people had a favorable impression than not; now, the pollsters say 40 percent like him and 54 percent don't.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's also on the ballot, still has the favor of 60 percent of Texans, while 31 percent have an unfavorable view of her. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's underwater in this poll: 40 percent like him, and 43 percent don't.
Just one more: President George W. Bush gets favorable ratings from 45 percent of Texans, and unfavorable reviews from 52 percent; nationally, his numbers are 37 percent good and 60 percent ugly.
Gov. Rick Perry isn't attacking Carole Keeton Strayhorn on television, where he's been after Chris Bell. But you might find his opinion of the comptroller in your mailbox, where she appears just in time for Halloween in purple, black and white.
Perry's swat at the Republican-turned-independent goes, "Carole Strayhorn will say anything to get elected," and says she's flip-flopped on abortion, appraisal caps, and her feelings about trial lawyers. The mailer accuses her of taking campaign contributions from people she regulated as a Texas Railroad Commissioner and from taxpayers and consultants now that she's the state's comptroller.
It closes with quotes about Strayhorn's flaws from a Houston Chronicle story (without mentioning that that same paper endorsed her over Perry). A spokesman for Strayhorn called several points in the ad misleading, saying it takes some of her positions out of context or leaves them unexplained to help make Perry's case.
Unlike the whacks at Bell, Perry's attack on Strayhorn is aimed at her, and not at the Republican voters the governor wants to motivate. And it began as polling started to show weakening in Kinky Friedman's independent campaign. Perry wants those voters to think twice before joining Carole. And as we noted in the item above about swing voters, he'd just as soon have them stay home. There's no pitch for Perry; in fact, his name appears only once on the four-page mailer, in a fine-print disclaimer next to the mailing label.
• Perry's new ad going after Bell is aimed at Republicans and conservatives. The announcer calls Bell a congressman three times — that's apparently a dirty word this cycle — and cites three different taxes where Bell's on the other side. The script:
"Why is Chris Bell lying about Gov. Perry's record? To cover up Bell's own votes to raise your taxes. Congressman Bell opposed an increase in the child tax credit. Bell now wants to raise your property taxes. Congressman Bell opposes any effort to protect homeowners from runaway property tax appraisals. Congressman Bell is so desperate to raise taxes, he even supports a new payroll tax on your job. Congressman Chris Bell; a Washington liberal Texans can't afford."
• One of Kinky Friedman's supporters put together a song and video that you can use as proof when you're telling friends that this isn't just a plain old Texas election. It's a plea to "Get up off your ass and vote," sung to the tune of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again."
In emails to supporters and others who've visited the website and signed up, the Friedman camp contends early voting is up dramatically in some parts of the state. They've said all along that a big turnout will be good news for the independent writer and musician. Their line now: "Vote early, avoid the straight ticket, and take someone with you to the polls."
Oh, and they're making one more push for contributions to buy Friedman some TV time before November 7.
Around the Corner
The last week before the election will likely see more of the Accenture issue, the partly related Children's Health Insurance Program, and possibly some campaign noise about electric rates and coal plants. It's late, but those issues are in the political queue.
Democrat Chris Bell started the Accenture bit with ads raising questions about the awarding of a huge Health and Human Services Commission contract to that firm and to its relationships with former aides to Gov. Rick Perry. Next, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, wearing her comptroller hat instead of her candidate hat, issued a report on the contract and called on the state to dump it. The short version: HHSC is serving fewer kids in CHIP and Medicaid and has cost $100 million more than expected. Her report is in the form of a ten-page letter to the three state legislators who requested it. HHSC publicists say the state has withheld $100 million in payments, so the overruns haven't happened, and say the CHIP numbers were dropping before Accenture was on the scene.
In the meantime, a government employees union — SEIU — has started a television campaign aimed at politicians who voted to cut CHIP. It names no one, and never mentions a political party. It's running in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where four Republican state representatives are in tough or potentially tough fights: Toby Goodman of Arlington, Tony Goolsby of Dallas, Kirk England of Grand Prairie, and Bill Keffer of Dallas.
"Amanda can't vote. She's not old enough. She used to be in the Children's Health Insurance Program, but Austin politicians stripped her of those benefits. Her parents work full time but still can't afford to pay a doctor, so when Amanda's sick, she waits for hours in the emergency room. The politicians who cut her benefits don't wait with her. Amanda can't vote, but you can. This election, vote for candidates who will fight for our kids in Austin, not cut their health care. For Amanda and all Texas children."
The electric rates and plants story centers on Dallas-based TXU's request to build new coal-fueled electric plants. The company wants quick approval so it can meet demand; Environmental Defense and other groups say the company should use cleaner technology than it has proposed. With about a week to go, that's leaking into politics.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The thinking back in March was that Republican congressional candidates in tough races — people like Henry Bonilla, Ron Paul, and Van Taylor — would have to answer questions about whether they'd support Tom DeLay for a leadership position in the U.S. House. That line of attack vaporized when DeLay quit Congress and dropped out of the race. And now that it appears possible that the Democrats could win control of the lower chamber of Congress, there's a flip. Taylor, the challenger to U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, is pressing the incumbent to tell voters whether he'd support Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, for Speaker of the U.S. House. Edwards is treating it as an unanswerable hypothetical, so far.
• Debunko Squad: There's a rumor of a poll out there in the Guv's race that has been disowned by everybody who's touched it in the blog and journalism world. But it's made it into the stuff the Bell campaign is sending to supporters to get them psyched. The poll supposedly shows a five-point gap between Rick Perry and Chris Bell. But the firm that's supposed to have done it says it ain't so, and everybody else has walked it back. Most every poll we've seen — public and private — has them about ten points apart.
• Bell picked up the endorsement of the Texas branch of People for the American Way.
• The Perry camp added a "Grandma's Attic" feature to their website to have some fun with their attacks on Carole Keeton Strayhorn. It's at http://php.Perry06.com/attic. Turn down the sound on your computer before you go there — it might make you jump if you don't.
• Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is in the middle of El Paso's Senate race again — this time on his own account. Dewhurst told the El Paso Times that Sen. Eliot Shapleigh wasn't the reason the medical school there hasn't received full funding. That upends an argument being made by Republican Dee Margo, who's challenging the incumbent and blaming Shapleigh for the scarcity of operating money for a facility that's already been built. Dewhurst, who's also a Republican, apparently didn't mention Margo. But he said the Senate approved the funding, only to see it blocked in the House. (In round one, Shapleigh told a debate audience Dewhurst has promised him a spot on the Senate Finance Committee; Dewhurst, through aides, says the makeup of that panel hasn't been decided.) Dewhurst's remarks upset some local Republicans, but they got a shot at the real story — it was in the same paper when it happened.
• Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Ann Radnofsky is faster than the political editor at ABC News at typing on her Blackberry. And she put out a press release to say so, with a link to the video of her typing real fast on the device. We don't make these things up: http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=2606003.
Political People and Their Moves
Add Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to the Legislative Budget Board. He'll replace Vilma Luna, who quit the Lege to become a lobbyist.
Peggy Romberg will retire in December after 26 years with the Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas and will be replaced by Fran Hagerty, who they describe as someone with a long history of non-profit management.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed David Wellington Chew of El Paso as chief justice of the 8th Court of Appeals. Chew, a Democrat, is already on that court and on the ballot for the post he's already got. He'll be on the ballot for chief next time around. The governor named Kenneth Carr to Chew's spot. He's an attorney and another El Pasoan.
Lisa Hughes is half-joining The Eppstein Group in their Austin offices and half-soloing. Hughes will keep her telecom and other private clients, but will also join the Fort Worth-based firm to help rep some of its non-telecom clients. She'll work out of their offices.
Harvey Kronberg, the proprietor of what we refer to around here as Brand Q, has signed a deal with the Washington, D.C.-based National Journal to include his Quorum Report in a national package of state political news sites led by The Hotline — the National Journal's daily digest of politics around the U.S.
Terry Franks, legislative director for Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, is leaving that post to work for "incoming Sen. Dan Patrick," R-Houston. He'll remain in Estes' office until the new boss is elected, assuming that happens.
Houston City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado is the new president of the Texas Municipal League's board. That'll put her in the middle of the battle over appraisal and revenue caps next session. Some lawmakers want caps on local governments; the locals want the state to stay out of their business.
Quotes of the Week
Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, quoted in The New York Times on the finger pointing underway among conservatives: "It is pre-criminations. If a party looks like it is going to take a real pounding, this sort of debate is healthy. What is unusual is that it is happening beforehand."
From a Get Out the Vote email from the Republican Party of Texas: "Only 14 days until we decide the direction of our country. We will either protect America's tradition of faith, family and freedom, or we will embrace the liberal left-wing agenda to take God out of our communities, get control of our families, and make government rule our lives."
Congressional candidate Rick Bolaños of El Paso, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News as he withdrew from the CD-23 race: "Let's be realistic. You can't win a campaign on passion. You have to have money."
Journalist Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail), quoted in Reason: "Political sentiment in this country is more diverse than just two poles; a two-party system is a reductionist simplification of the diversity of views actually out there. There are probably as many views as there are people, on some level. And it suggests that in a marketplace of opinion where there are ways to have political actions that don't involve conforming to the two-party system, you would see more diversity and more variety in both politicians and policies."
Gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican running as an independent, in The Dallas Morning News: "I've got a lot of support with Republican women. A lot of them are openly supporting me. Those that aren't openly supporting me have been threatened and intimidated."
Gov. Rick Perry, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Our budget surplus is going to be so friggin' big. So why not lower the [business] tax rate down to three-fourths of a cent, or a half-cent? ... I'm all for that."
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, talking about the minimum wage in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "Does our political culture allow even a Democrat to argue that Texas employees are underpaid? It almost sounds pink."
Texas Weekly: Volume 23, Issue 19, 30 October 2006. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2006 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.