The real gift to Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday wasn't the win over Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina in the GOP primary, which was foretold in the polls. It was the quick win. A runoff would have gobbled six weeks and something like $10 million and might have left the winner bruised on the way into a battle with Democrat Bill White, a serious opponent who easily bested six others in his party's primary.
So how does the November election shape up?
"We've been targeted since day one on general election issues," says Dave Carney, Perry's chief political consultant.
Todd Olsen, a fellow Republican who worked for Hutchison for a short period last year, chimes in: "He'll just say, 'I'm running a great campaign. Why change anything?'"
White must introduce himself to Texans before Perry has the opportunity to do it for him. He's well known in the Houston media market — the state's second biggest — but he's a cipher most everyplace else. People in the hinterlands don't have any impression of him at all; his job is to make sure it's a positive one. Perry's job is the opposite of that, to turn him into what Carney described in a recently leaked strategy memo as "a big city trial lawyer, anti gun, sanctuary city promoting, Clinton protégé DC politician."
White has to be ready. "He has to distance himself from Obama and Washington Democrats," says Matthew Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist and now a founding partner in the Austin-based ViaNovo consultancy. "He needs to cut them off as quickly as he can. ... That's going to give him the only shot, I think, to win this race."
It'll be harder for White to attack Perry. The governor has been defending himself politically for 20 years and is pretty much a known quantity to voters. It's hard to redraw that picture, and White, like Hutchison before him, will have to find a way to get through Perry's defenses. "It's silly to think this is going to be any more competitive than Chris Bell," Carney says, citing the Democrat who lost to Perry in 2006.
Texas is a Republican state, and that's the single biggest obstacle to a Democrat seeking statewide office, much less the statewide office that gets all of the attention in election years. The next-biggest is that voters are in a national frame of mind, meaning they're focused on national issues,and partisan fights at the federal level. In Texas, generally speaking, that's a bad environment for Democrats — especially when the Democrats are in charge. Barack Obama didn't win here. Health care reform, as explained in the public square, isn't popular here, even if the state ranks highest in the percentage of its citizens who are uninsured. Nobody likes deficits.
Perry's the best campaigner in the state. You don't have to like that to see it: He's undefeated, having just won his eleventh statewide race in a row, and he's beat a roster of middle- and heavyweights that includes Jim Hightower, John Sharp, Tony Sanchez, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Bell, Kinky Friedman, and Hutchison. The guy's got chops.
Then again, White is the first Democrat in a while who has the potential to spend the same amount of money on the race Perry will spend. Call it a draw on resources.
The governor has been able to whistle past it so far, but this isn't a great time to be an incumbent. White's not in office now, and as Houston mayor, a non-partisan office, he was able to attract and keep the support of Republicans in the state's largest city. Some of them, he's hoping, will stay on board for his first state race. He hasn't run statewide, but was the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party and can tap into a political network with connections far beyond his home city.
Perry has said repeatedly that he doesn't want to run for president, though suspicions and speculations abound. That might help White attract out-of-state money from people who are weary of presidents wearing Western boots, and from people who want to block Perry. It's easier and cheaper to beat him now, the theory goes, than to wait around while he gathers political power and strength. Perry got the attention of the folks in Washington with his win over Hutchison, who's a known quantity there and was high in the Senate Republican leadership before the race for governor. Beating her, like an unranked team beating a ranked one, moves him up in their estimation.
Hutchison did Perry a favor on the way out with a healing gesture in her concession speech. "He ran the race he needed to run, and she exited stage right in a graceful way, saying we should united behind the governor," Olsen notes.
As for Hutchison's own campaign, the trailer was a lot better than the movie. What was originally billed as a blockbuster rivaling the 1990 Democratic primary for governor turned out to be a dud, with Perry leading in all but one poll from June 2008 until Election Day.
Hutchison's critical troubles included thing of her own making and things she couldn't control:
• Dithering over whether to quit the Senate or not. "Will She or Won't She?" became a major theme of her campaign story, and that wasn't an advantage for Hutchison from any angle. It culminated in a commercial featuring Hutchison sitting in a living room explaining why she wasn't quitting the Senate, opening with this clunker: "I'm going to do everything I can to stop the government takeover of healthcare. And it's why I'm staying in the Senate through the primary, at risk to my political future."
• Wasting the first half of 2009, a period when Perry was completely and fully employed by the legislative session and barred by law from raising money for his campaign during the session itself, the month before, and the weeks after.
• Using roughly a third of her media budget for commercials attacking Perry for toll roads, for roads built by foreign contractors, and for proposing a now-mothballed road system called the Trans Texas Corridor. The TTC was a prominent subject in the 2006 race for governor — Strayhorn tried to pour that concrete around Perry's feet — that didn't work as a political issue then and was even weaker in 2010. With the economy and jobs foremost in voters' minds, Hutchison's campaign was trying to attract support with the wrong lure.
• Running in a year when it was bad to be an incumbent and worse to be an incumbent from Washington. Hutchison complained that the political environment forced her to run into a headwind, and that's right. Perry positioned himself — as he has in previous elections — as a populist. That's not Hutchison's nature in the first place, and this wasn't a good year to be a leader on a pedestal. And he defined her as a Washington politician, sticking her with a label her campaign was unable to overcome. A year ago, the conventional wisdom was that a bigger turnout in the GOP primary would transform that very conservative forum, helping Hutchison by bringing in more moderate Republicans and hurting Perry by diluting his base. But the turnout in the GOP primary was the biggest ever, and as we now know, Perry was the beneficiary.
• Running after 16 years in federal office. Those recorded votes in the U.S. Senate are murder in state elections, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, a Texan or something else. And the Washington tradition of bringing home the bacon for your state is out of style right now; pork's off the political diet.
• Hutchison didn't look like she wanted the job. Voters get to play employer and the candidates present their virtues, point out the flaws of their competitors, smile, chew breath mints, and look like they really are ready to hit the ground running. Perry did. Hutchison didn't. And where his pitch was focused on the economy, the condition of the state, and how to beat back Washington's encroachment, she spent more time talking about his deficiencies than her own strengths.
That 1990 Democratic race — the primary that set the mark for bloody inside fights — ended with a runoff that gave Ann Richards the nomination. She was in such awful political shape that April that only a series of mistakes by Clayton Williams and a revival in her own campaign saved her and got her elected governor.
This year's Republican primary didn't come out looking like that 1990 race, and Perry didn't suffer the chips in his paint job that Richards had 20 years ago. Democrats are hoping the state is coming full circle, that this general election will run more like that earlier one. Claytie Williams lost that year, but he and U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm pulled enough Republican voters to the polls to sneak a couple of their own into statewide offices, agriculture commissioner and state treasurer, that had been held by the Democrats for decades. Their names were Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison.