If anyone in the crowd assembled in Midland’s Claydesta Auditorium felt a pang of déjà vu when Gov. Rick Perry spoke to them on Friday, they didn’t let on. None of the eagerness to glimpse, applaud, shake the hand of and maybe even snap a picture with the longest-serving governor in Texas history had diminished from eight months ago, when Perry spoke in the same spot on the Friday before the Republican primary. Then, he was coasting in his race against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, having found a winning theme in pushing back against the invasiveness and intrusiveness of the federal government. Now, Perry’s running against former Houston Mayor Bill White, but he makes no mention of the man considered the strongest Democratic gubernatorial candidate in recent memory. “I’ll let him do that,” Perry says to reporters. “I’m all about me and Texas.”
White spent Saturday morning putting his boots to the pavement in Houston, knocking on doors in a leafy neighborhood and trying to turn out votes one at a time. The first door belonged Mark Zeidman, a lawyer who graduated a year behind White at the University of Texas School of Law. He didn’t need convincing to support White, so the two former schoolmates commiserated. “Most people just want somebody competent,” White said. “They’re tired of the partisanship.” Zeidman nodded. “Somebody that’s not an embarrassment would be a good idea,” he said. “You’re a big step above that.”
After White moved on to the next house, Zeidman elaborated on his reasons not to vote for Perry: “Everything from he’s been there too long to he toys with secession talk.”
While it didn’t match verbatim the speech he delivered in February, Perry’s remarks on Friday hit the same notes. He’s still an animal science major from Texas A&M University who doesn’t need a degree in political science or economics from Harvard to know the first rule of government: “Don’t spend all the money.” The feds still need to get delivering the mail and defending our borders right before coming down and telling Texas how to run its business. In transitioning to the general election race, Perry has not tacked back to the center, taken his eye off of Washington or softened his message to appeal to more moderate voters. The result is a double-digit lead in polls that have consistently shown him comfortably in front.
Rather than asking for votes on the stump, Perry implores supporters to get the word out about gubernatorial candidates like Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma and Meg Whitman in California. “Make no mistake,” he tells the crowd in Midland, “this is a national election.”
White disagrees. “He wants to make this race about Washington so people will forget about the fact that Texas debt has gone up by two and a half times while he was governor,” White says. “He wants to talk about national economic policy, so people will forget that the Texas unemployment rate is now almost double what it was when he took office.” This is about Texas, he insists.
On Saturday, dozens of volunteers crowded into White’s Houston campaign headquarters to hear from their candidate before dispersing out into the city to knock on the doors of presumably White-friendly voters who, unlike 23 percent of the county's population, didn’t vote early. They were told to ignore the polls that show the challenger trailing. “Pundits say that it’s uphill and that we’re, as I’ve admitted from day one, the underdog running against a professional politician who knows all the tricks of the trade: when to switch parties, what office to run to, what button to push to create fear,” White told the volunteers. Notwithstanding all that, he said, “we are in a position to win this race.”
Shortly after defeating Farouk Shami by a decisive 63-point margin in the Democratic primary, White’s team set about identifying and targeting 200,000 or so voters who they believe will decide the election. All these months later, the campaign believes that the soft Republicans and independents in that crucial pool of voters are breaking for their guy in a major way. “We have broad support,” White says. “Obviously, I’m strong with Democrats and he’s strong with some Republicans. This race is going to be very close.”
To get to this point, the campaigns spent, over the course of the general election cycle, a combined total of more than $40 million.
White and his supporters have put out talking point after talking point, hoping one would catch fire: Perry’s $10,000-per-month rental mansion, the number of donors he has appointed to boards and commissions, his handling of the Texas Enterprise Fund. None has moved the polls.
Outside organizations like the Democratic Governors Association and Back to Basics, the political action committee funded by Houston trial lawyers Steve and Amber Mostyn, have dropped millions on ad campaigns — though some (like the Back to Basics spot about the Trans-Texas Corridor or the Governors Association’s attack on Perry for attempting to mandate HPV vaccinations) were retreads of issues raised unsuccessfully by the Hutchison campaign.
Perry, meanwhile, questioned White’s management of Houston and his ties to businesses called in to help clean up the city after Hurricane Rita and — despite a comfortable lead in the polls — released an emotional ad pushing the largely debunked notion that Houston is a “sanctuary city” and placing the blame for the murder of a Houston police officer by an illegal immigrant on White’s shoulders.
The two candidates never appeared on stage together. White was willing, but Perry refused to debate him unless he released his tax returns from his days as President Bill Clinton’s U.S. deputy secretary of energy and as the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. White wouldn't, so Perry didn't.
Drawing to a close
Ultimately, Perry may be right that the election is essentially about the relationship between Texas and the rest of the country. At a Perry event in Amarillo, wearing a T-shirt that read “Texas Secede” on the front and “Pray for Texas Independence” on the back, Trey Russell said it’s the main reason he supports the governor. “He’s the only one fighting Obama,” Russell said. “He’s getting Obama out of our business.” And Texas business, as he said and as Perry has noted in his campaign, is booming relative to that of the other 49 states.
Nancy Lomax, a Bellaire resident who is excited to vote for White for the first time, is concerned about the opinions of those outside Texas. “I’m totally embarrassed by Cowboy Goodhair,” she said, referring to Perry. “I’m embarrassed by the way he’s always bashing the United States, embarrassed that we are in an $18 billion budget shortfall and all they want to do is cut services, cut education, raise tuition at universities.” What Lomax fears is exactly what Russell wants: more of the same at the state level along with change in federal policy.
As the campaign season draws to a close, White says people need to realize that “they do have a choice in this governor’s race.” In the last two weeks, Democratic volunteers have made more 1 million phone calls and knocked on 700,000 doors. The message, White says, is simple: “People are ready for a new governor, somebody who will run state government as a public service, not as a political machine. Somebody who’s in it for Texas, not in it for himself.”
By which he means Perry is looking out for his own career — his future. And that means a run for the White House. Indeed, Perry doesn't promise that he'll serve out that entire term he seeks. “I’m guaranteeing people that I’ll get in there and do the best job I can for them as governor,” he says. Just as his focus has become increasingly national, so has his profile, leading to speculation about what he'll do next. After Election Day, he'll announce the details of a national book tour to promote his soon-to-be-released manifesto on states’ rights, Fed Up!
The tour won't detract from his ability to lead the state, Perry contends. “I’m a very good multi-tasker,” he says. “No one’s going to be shorted.”
Perry has repeatedly and adamantly disavowed any interest in running for president. But when asked about the vice presidency, he doesn’t say no. Instead, he says, “I’ve got the best job. I’m set.”
He’ll still have it next week, unless White’s right and all the polls are wrong.