A year ago, the big political story in Texas was about the race for governor — in particular, the Republican primary brawl between two of the party’s most prominent figures. Another was about the well-financed Democrat who gave up a bid for the U.S. Senate to challenge the winner of that Republican battle. And one more was about whether the Democrats would be able to win one or two or three additional seats in the Texas House, giving them a majority and the right to elect a speaker after eight years of Republican reign.
Those were kind of flaky story lines, looking back. Unexpected people showed up. The political environment bloomed red instead of blue. The Tea was strong. And big shots turned into paper tigers. The political personalities that mattered:
Debra Medina, a Ron Paul Republican who grabbed the microphone and the spotlight in the primary for governor, stealing attention in what had been billed as a two-person show. Medina gave voice to the Tea-tinged populist discontent that turned out to be the political flavor of the year, but her campaign fell to pieces after she suggested she was open to the idea that the U.S. government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the most popular Republican in Texas, turned out to be exactly the wrong person at exactly the wrong time in the governor’s race. Her U.S. Senate experience was toxic this year, and she typified the federal government, this election cycle’s goat. What she hoped would be a coronation was a landslide — for her opponent.
Farouk Shami, a hair care potentate from Houston, chose the Democratic primary for governor for his first political run. It was a hairball: He made a splash, but his “jobs, jobs, and jobs” mantra and extensive political ads weren’t enough. Democratic voters overwhelmingly gave their nomination to Bill White.
Steve Mostyn, the Houston trial lawyer, was this year’s biggest political sugar daddy, outpacing his fellow Democrats, deep-pocketed Republicans and even the big political action committees in 2010’s elections — but to little effect. In spite of his $9 million-plus investment, voters gave Republicans another sweep of the statewide offices, a staggering 22-seat gain in the House on Election Day and gains in the state’s Congressional delegation.
Brian Birdwell, a survivor of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and a newcomer to politics, won a special election for the State Senate, moving the political center of his district from the Waco area to Granbury, outrunning a former senator and Waco mayor-turned-lobbyist and, significantly, marking a win for the conservative/Tea Party/anti-establishment Republicans in Texas.
Something New: Jose Aliseda, Stefani Carter, John V. Garza, Larry Gonzales, Aaron Peña, Dee Margo, Raul Torres and James White — a fresh, significantly large and previously rare class of minority Republicans in the Texas House. Their presence disproves an axiom of Texas politics — that minorities are automatically Democrats. That’s important at the polls and in next year’s political redistricting.
Joe Straus, the San Antonio native whose work for John Tower, Lamar Smith, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush insufficiently established his conservative credentials with some of his fellow Republicans. He’s fending off two challengers seeking to unseat him as House speaker. He’ll find out, come the beginning of the legislative session on Jan. 11, whether the 120 or so members who have pledged to support him really mean it.
Bill Flores, the Bryan businessman who finally knocked off U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, a Republican target since the 2003 redistricting that was designed to eradicate conservative Texas Democrats in Congress.
Bill White, the former Houston mayor who, ignoring recent history, jumped into the race for governor as a Democrat. White — who initially set out to run for the U.S. Senate seat Hutchison had said she would forfeit — abandoned that and ran a credible and well-financed campaign. But he got just 42 percent of the vote.
Rick Perry, the current and future governor of Texas, who started the election cycle looking like the dog’s breakfast and ended it as a national political prospect. The rap was that he had been in office too long, had taken too many political hits and would be mopped up by someone more popular — Hutchison, anyone? — in the Republican primary.
But Perry recognized and capitalized on Texan and Tea Party anger toward Washington while others in politics were running from it. He turned Hutchison into a bumper sticker for the federal government in the primary, and White into the poster boy for Washington Democrats in the general election.
He capped it with a book tour, talking to the rest of the country about the states’ rights themes his opponents hoped would destroy him. Call him lucky or call him smart, but for four more years, call him governor.