With the state facing a huge budget shortfall, an anemic economy and critical needs in programs ranging from public education to transportation to health care, Gov. Rick Perry wants to talk about the federal government, Barack Obama and Washington, D.C.
With the prospect of a federal health care law that could cost the state billions, worries over whether the national government can or will secure the state's border with Mexico and concern that federal mandates are straining the state budget, Bill White wants to talk about Perry's management over the last decade, Texas' own spending habits and scandals involving Perry supporters and friends.
This particular battle in the 2010 Texas governor's race is about the battleground itself: Perry wants to bind himself to voters in opposition to an intrusive and profligate Washington, D.C. — meddling liberal Yankees, in other words. White wants to motivate voters in opposition to what he portrays as the sorry condition of the state under Perry, the self-serving "career politician." For White, Washington is Perry's bogeyman to divert attention from his failures at home. For Perry, Washington is the root of the evils the state confronts — foremost, issues that White ignores.
"This is not a race between Republicans and Democrats," says Bryan Eppstein, a Republican consultant and pollster based in Fort Worth, of this year's mood. "It's a race between conservatives and Obama."
Perry's campaign has attempted to capitalize on that dynamic. White's has been working to peg Perry as part of the problem that put voters in such foul humor. Perry says the mood of the state got his full attention at the Tax Day rallies in 2009, when he famously flirted with the word "secession," suggesting the state had the right to pull out of the union if it wanted. That controversy passed, but the state-versus-federal tension did not.
"It's been a national election for almost two years," Perry says. "With the first TARP vote, in September of '08, the elections became tainted nationally. And then, obviously, with every stimulus dollar shipped out the door, with Obama care, the 15th of April '09 and the advent of the Tea Party movement, it has been a nationalized election as I have never seen before. I just don't remember this intensity in 1994. Man, this is amazing."
What was expected to be a fierce challenge to the incumbent from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a popular fellow Republican, fell flat as Perry clothed her as a creature of Washington and himself as the defender of Texas. After a campaign in which those two candidates spent more than $40 million, he won easily. And he's pounded that same message home in the general election. White, a former Houston mayor, isn't from Washington, but Washington is run by Democrats and White's a Democrat. The Republican's campaign has taken every opportunity available to associate White with Obama, trying to tie the opponent to a president who is particularly unpopular in Texas.
Obama visited Texas in August, making appearances in Dallas and Austin. The state's leading Democratic politician wasn't there, however; White made campaign stops in Midland, Abilene and Alvarado. Perry took the other tack, meeting Obama briefly at the airport in Austin to hand him a letter — a meeting now featured in Perry's campaign ads.
Other Democrats went to see the president. For instance, lieutenant governor candidate Linda Chavez-Thompson, a Democrat, greeted Obama on stage, running to him instead of away from him. Her consultant, James Aldrete, said at the time that most candidates should duck attempts by Republicans to "nationalize" the election, but for her campaign, they decided it was worth the risk. White decided to stay away and to talk about other issues.
"Rick Perry has a poor record on those things for which the governor is responsible," White says. "Virtually every state agency has been hit by mismanagement. We're facing an $18 billion budget hole in spite of the fact that he's had so much federal stimulus dollars. The Texas Department of Transportation is out of money. And now there have been these scandals in the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund. He wants to divert attention from those things and focus on national issues."
Some Democrats who studied the 2006 gubernatorial election results concluded that Perry — who won that election with 39 percent of the vote — could be defeated. They figured voters would be even less enthralled four years later, and they hoped his incumbency would become a liability at a time when voters are deeply dissatisfied with government.
White didn't get into the race until late last year, dropping what had been a bid for U.S. Senate after it became clear that Hutchison wasn't going to resign her office to run for governor. Like Hutchison before him, he did well in early polling against the governor. Unlike her, he has remained competitive as the elections approach. All of the polls have Perry ahead, some by wider margins than others. But nearly all of them have White doing better against Perry than the average Democrat does against the average Republican. In last month's University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, for instance, respondents preferred unnamed Republicans to unnamed Democrats by 15 percentage points in races for congress and the Legislature. Perry was ahead of White in that survey by 6 percentage points.
According to polls, Texas voters' concerns center on the economy and immigration, border security and jobs. The state budget hasn't risen to the top of those "most important problems" lists in the polls. White says he hears from voters about jobs and the economy, but also about school tests and insurance and utility rates. Perry and other Republicans say their voters — the ones who are also maddest at the federal government — are the most motivated voters in Texas right now. Perry says his focus on national issues mirrors voters' concerns.
"What is the governor doing talking so much about Washington?" Perry asks. "Somebody's got to pay for this stuff. Somebody's got to pay for these programs. The Obamacare program is going to cost Texas $27 billion over the next 10 years. That became a state issue real quick."
The former Houston mayor agrees with Perry on this much: The state should push back against the federal government. But he'd do it differently, and he'd also undo state mandates on local schools and other governments, which he says have increased under Perry even as Perry complained of similar policies from Washington. "Voters believe that the federal government imposes too many regulations and mandates on the state, and the state imposes too many on cities and school districts," White says. "I agree with that."
Perry says his focus on Washington is a big issue — not a diversion. He's got a book coming out next month on the subject and says he'll be in the middle of the argument over state and federal governments during his next term, if voters give him one. He also knows the subject matter has fed speculation that he's running for president in 2012; he says that's not the case and that he isn't interested in that job. For him, the national issues are a top state issue. "They're not a diversion — $27 billion over the next 10 years is not a diversion," he says. "It's real. We've run the numbers. You'd better be squalling about it. You better be bringing it to people's attention. You better be in Washington, D.C., in January, saying, 'Let's turn this back around and get us out of this trap.' That's what I say to these Bill White types. If you're not paying attention to this, you're not paying attention."
In Their Own Words:
"Rick Perry will talk about anything Obama so people will forget the $18 billion budget hole or the fact that state debt has gone up 250 percent."
"Unlike Ann Richards or George W. Bush, public and higher education have taken a low priority under Rick Perry. Unlike either Ann Richards or George W. Bush, Rick Perry does not try to build bipartisan consensus on issues during the legislative session. And so he finds most Texans ready for a new governor, and he's trying to position himself, redefine himself as some kind of political outsider."
"[Voters] are concerned about jobs and the state of the economy. They understand that we have high unemployment rates and large numbers of people who are working minimum wage jobs that have no future. Some of them took those jobs after being laid off. The voters are upset by the fact that kids are being taught how to take multiple choice tests, but not the critical thinking they need for college or the technical skills for careers. They're concerned about insurance rates and utility rates. They don't want someone as governor who will go in and raise all the taxes and fees. Increasingly in the last several months, voters are aware of the use of government offices, boards and commissions, of government funds by Rick Perry to create a political machine, to reward his friends. That's what comes up at the town hall meetings."
"The statism that we're seeing pushed out the door in Washington is having a direct impact on our ability to pay for these programs. This is an administration who is forcing the states to pay attention."
"It's a really interesting thing to me why any governor, Democrat or Republican, would want Washington in control of their state. I know money is a pretty good lure and Washington has used it historically. But not like this administration. You go back through the years, and they basically blackmailed us on speed limits and they tried to blackmail us on unemployment insurance. I think people just came to the end of their limits and went, 'No, no more.' Hence, all of the talk about the 10th Amendment."
"It's the drug habit of money that's the problem. This is somebody's money. Unfortunately, they are spending money in Washington, D.C. that hasn't been earned yet."