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The Great White Hope

Bill White, the Democratic nominee for governor, was a popular mayor of Houston who was twice returned to office by wide margins. So having him at the top of the ballot this November should help Houston-area Democrats win their races, right? "I can't think that it would do anything but help," says Democratic state Rep. Kristi Thibaut, who's in a tough contest for re-election against former Republican lawmaker Jim Murphy. But Harris County GOP Judge Ed Emmett insists White will have little impact on his own bid for re-election — and won't matter in legislative races either.

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Bill White was a popular mayor of Houston and won three elections to that post. So having him on the ballot as a gubernatorial candidate should attract former supporters and help other Houston-area Democrats win their races, right?

"I can't think that it would do anything but help," says state Rep. Kristi Thibaut, who's in a tough contest for re-election in House District 133 against Republican Jim Murphy, the former legislator she challenged and beat two years ago. "If you're anywhere where the Houston media market hits, you know who Bill White is, and he has a very positive image as mayor. Yeah, it helps."

Thibaut is in one of several competitive House races in Houston, and she and other Democrats are hoping for a coattail effect. She says White's presence on the ballot breaks up straight-ticket voting — the idea being that people who would otherwise pull the Republican lever will instead vote for White and continue to split their tickets as they go down the ballot.

Not everyone subscribes to that widespread bit of political lore. "It has no effect at all," says Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who made his living in the private sector as a political consultant. Emmett, who's up for re-election this year, says White was 11 points ahead of Gov. Rick Perry in a poll he commissioned in May. In the next race down the ballot, voters gave Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst a 15-point advantage over his challenger, Linda Chavez-Thompson.

"Bill White's popularity — what made him more popular than other Democrats — was Republicans," Emmett says.

As mayor, White was a crossover candidate who pulled support from independents and Republicans to win that nonpartisan office. The question is whether he'll hang onto that support in a partisan race against a Republican incumbent. Several polls, including the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll a month ago, show that the race has tightened in White's home base, an indication that some of those voters are sticking with their ideological flag instead of their former mayor. Emmett, who worked with White on hurricanes and other matters when their terms overlapped, is staying out of the governor's race. But in his own race, way down the longest ballot in Harris County history, stuck somewhere amid the district judge and county court-at-law candidates, he says the top of the ticket has little effect. And he says it won't matter in legislative races either.

Harris County is a battleground in the governor's race: White needs his home base to win the state, while Perry needs to overcome White's geographic advantage. There's not much else at the top of the ticket. Congressional seats in this part of the state aren't particularly competitive, and most of the statewide elections have remained relatively unnoticed by average voters. Murphy and Thibaut aren't the only concerned parties here. Republican Sarah Davis is challenging Democratic state Rep. Ellen Cohen in HD-134. Democratic state Rep. Hubert Vo is battling GOP challenger Jack O'Connor in HD-149. Republican state Rep. Ken Legler of Pasadena faces Democrat Ricardo Molina in HD-144. And another Republican incumbent, state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, faces Democrat Kendra Yarbrough Camarena, whose father, Ken Yarbrough, held the seat before Bohac did.

Republican polls — according to Republicans, mind you — say White isn't an issue, and even if he was, there would be other, more important factors, like the flood of television advertising from candidates all over the ballot. And turnout: "The amount of money being spent on television, pizza for volunteers, all of that ... voter-registration spending foreshadows [get out the vote] efforts, and that's been heavy," says Todd Olsen, a consultant to the Associated Republicans of Texas, a group involved in challenges to incumbents all over the state, including the three in Houston.

Murphy, who like Thibaut has been knocking on doors and talking to voters, is counting on another trend. "I think there will be significant turnout of independents and conservatives," he says. Sure, White was a popular mayor, he says, but that could change as attacks escalate in the final weeks of the governor's race: "His legacy is still being written." Murphy also says the climate for Republicans is better now than it was two years ago, when he lost to Thibaut by 419 votes — back then Barack Obama was riding a turnout wave, and "Republican" was a dirty word.

Thibaut says her campaign has knocked on 31,000 doors in an effort to engage voters. "You'd have to be dead to not know there's an election going on," she says. But she knows it's a close race — "I think it could go either way" — and a boost from White could be important.

Robert Jara, a Houston-based Democratic consultant, thinks White will help down-ballot Democrats. He agrees with others about White's potential effect on Republicans who might otherwise vote a straight ticket, but ask him if there's a way to measure it, and he admits, "There is — afterwards."

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2010 elections Bill White Dwayne Bohac Griffin Perry Hubert Vo Jim Murphy Rick Perry