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Moderate Democrat 2.0

Bill White is the sort of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer had hoped to be. He's well-funded. He's got an organization and a base of voters. He's the kind of moderate who can attract votes from independents and not just Democrats. And he never voted for George W. Bush.

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Bill White is the sort of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer had hoped to be. He's well-funded. He's got an organization and a base of voters. He's the kind of moderate who can attract votes from independents and not just Democrats.

And he never voted for George W. Bush.

The speculation about White's run for governor tells you that the Democratic field is weak enough that someone can enter the race just 100 days before the election and maybe get away with it. And it tells you that Kay Bailey Hutchison is not the irresistible political force she was thought to be a year ago.

White, term-limited out of the Houston mayor's job, has been part of the talk about the 2010 governor's race for almost two years. But when Hutchison decided a year ago that she would run against Gov. Rick Perry in the GOP primary, the calculations changed.

The conventional wisdom was that Perry would either get out of the race after serving for ten years, or that he would lose a primary to the popular Hutchison. For Democrats, that looked like lousy math: Running against an incumbent with a 10-year record and 10 years worth of battle wounds is one thing; running against a popular Republican coming into the election with a relatively clean slate is another. They'd like to run against Perry, but were afraid they'd have to run against Hutchison. Even to this day, most polls show she runs better against named and unnamed Democratic opponents than Perry does, though both Republicans are ahead in those straw matches.

Plus, it opened up another opportunity with better odds for a Texas Democrat. If Hutchison quit office early, the special election to replace her would feature a mess of candidates in a winner-take-all race, instead of two primaries and then a face-off between the GOP and Democratic winners. In Texas, the latter setup favors Republicans. The all-in special election creates an opportunity for a conservative Democrat who can pull votes from party regulars and from independents.

That's an improvement in the odds that attracted both White and former Comptroller John Sharp to the Senate race. For White, it had the added advantage of calming Houston political people who support both him — a nonpartisan mayor — and the Republican Hutchison.

Now, everything's different. Hutchison isn't quitting right away — and there's no certainty about when she will leave. She's behind Perry, and by double digits, in all but one recent poll.

For someone in White's position, the governor's race looks more attractive than before. He's got money in the bank ($4.2 million) that can be moved to the state race without penalty. The chance of running against Perry in November instead of Hutchison looks possible now — in a way that it didn't a year ago. And the Senate thing has moved down on the calendar. White's spending on the federal race is a clue: He's burned through $1.8 million already, a sign that he was gearing up for a sprint that has now turned into a marathon.

It looks better to the Democratic Party and some of its big constituencies, too. White and Sharp aren't in a tussle anymore. The party would have a gubernatorial candidate with money and significant name ID (at least in Houston), and there's a chance that others in the top race could be convinced to move to lower races and fill out the ballot. It might not matter, in this field of political midgets. In a primary race featuring White, Kinky Friedman, Farouk Shami, Felix Alvarado, and Hank Gilbert, the mayor of Houston would start with significant advantages. Only he and Friedman have name identification, only he and Shami have money. And he's the only one who's won an election.

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