Betting on Bill White

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Yesterday on The Hill, the Congressional newspaper and website, Brent Budowsky made the kind of eye-popping prediction that gets pundits noticed: “In the political futures market, I’ll take the points and bet Democrat Bill White is elected the next governor of Texas.”

I think Budowsky would find plenty of takers for that bet—even among the most sunnily optimistic of Texas Democrats. Yes, the former Houston mayor has a chance to unseat Gov. Rick Perry in November, and at least one recent poll shows him just four points behind. But the key word here is “chance.” And I’d add a couple of modifiers to that word: “fair-to-middling chance.”

Budowsky’s argument, which you can read here, boils down to this: Perry, the new Western hero of Newsweek magazine, has moved so far to the right that he’s losing mainstream Texas voters. “Pundits overstate the power of the Tea Party and miss the message of the voters,” Budowsky asserts. “Voters are worried about jobs and financial security, schools for their kids, sound management of their money and prevention of great blobs of oil poisoning our shores.” White, he believes, is ideally positioned to win over those non-ideological voters as “the anti-hero, the non-politician, the un-partisan, the no-nonsense man who has run a business, met a payroll and managed a crisis.”

But White is also a Democrat, a rather key fact that Budowsky downplays (calling him an “independent Democrat” and citing his successes with Houston voters in non-partisan elections). And that leaves him a steep hill to climb in 2010 Texas.

I heard a much smarter take on White’s prospects—and the state’s two-party future— yesterday at the University of Texas. Richard Murray, the well-regarded political scientist and pollster at the University of Houston who’s spent his career immersed in the nuances and weirdness of Texas politics, was in town to give a couple of lectures. His assessment of the governor’s race, based on some serious knowledge, is that it’s “likely to be a competitive election”—and one that stands to benefit Texas Democrats in the long haul, whether White wins or not.

As Murray pointed out, both Texas’ changing demographics and the Republican Party’s appeal to a shrinking group of older white voters are moving the state toward genuine two-party competition—but we ain’t there yet. Even a top-flight Democratic candidate like White, he pointed out, “is running into a wind” given the partisan preferences, voting patterns and ideological leanings of Texan voters circa 2010.

Make no mistake, Murray said: Texas Republicans have set themselves up for serious long-term troubles. Their very dominance of the state’s politics over the past 20 years has made them ripe for a fall. Because no Democrat has won statewide since 1994, a lot of Texas elections have been decided in Republican primaries, which moves candidates further and further to the right as they play to the Anglo right base that votes in GOP primaries. They are talking to only about 600,000 voters in those primaries, in a state of nearly 25 million souls that is becoming younger and more diverse by the day.

Perry, Murray noted, is the classic case-in-point: He hasn’t had a competitive general-election race since he edged out Democrat John Sharp in 1998 for lieutenant governor. And he hasn’t faced a candidate with White’s combination of fundraising prowess, energy and savvy.

Then again, White has never run statewide—and he’s never run in a partisan election. Both he and Perry are sailing into some uncharted territory. But with registered voters in Texas still leaning Republican, White’s journey is bound to be tougher. And it’s made no easier by the fact that this is a mid-term election—meaning that we’ll likely see about 750,000 fewer voters coming to the polls compared to ‘08. And many of those missing voters will be folks who came out for Obama last time, and lean Democratic.

While Democrats hoe a hard row in trying to elect White this year, Murray pointed out that they’re gunning for exactly the right job. Because voters tend to see governors as CEOs of the state, it’s hardly unusual for the minority party to win a governorship with a superior candidate—see for example Oklahoma, a deep-red state where Democrat Brad Henry is the chief executive.

“There can’t be a competitive Democratic Party in Texas,” Murray said, “until they win the governorship.” Texas Republicans, he noted, used Bill Clements’ breakthrough victory in 1978—and the governor’s broad appointment powers—to sew the seeds for their eventual majority. Democrats can do the same thing. It might not happen this year. But if White runs a strong campaign statewide, and stays competitive to the end—win or lose—it won’t be long.