Two Novembers ago, you wouldn’t have found many Texans willing to take a bet that Rick Perry would still occupy the governor’s chair come January 2011. Never wildly popular, he had won a four-way race in 2006 with just 39 percent of the vote. The governor was headed for a Republican primary against the state’s most popular politician, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. And his Reagan-era mix of corporate and Christian Right politics seemed to have worn thin.
But when Perry leapt on the Tea Party train, just as it sped out of the station on Tax Day 2009, he found a new voice—and a ticket to national political renown. He stuck with it—and with his unconventional social-media campaign strategy—for 18 months.
Now it’s lifted him to a third full term in office. And it’s helped boost Texas Republicans to a fourth straight sweep of statewide offices. The Democrats’ best hope for a statewide breakthroughs, Jeff Weems for Railroad Commission, was doomed on this election night by the “D” next to his name.
After a campaign that was competitive throughout—but never tight—Perry cruised to an easy victory. The governor held a sizable lead with almost 60 percent of early votes, and exit polls showed no reason to anticipate a turnaround. Networks made the call very early, around 8 p.m. CST.
The outcome means that Texas Democrats’ much-touted “best chance to win since Ann Richards,” White, has come a-cropper in a big and embarrassing way. And it means that Perry, already the longest-serving chief executive in state history, won’t be going anywhere for a while—unless it’s to Washington. We might as well coronate him as governor-for-life.
Even in a banner year for Republicans nationally, White’s defeat represents a nasty blow for Texas Democrats. The former three-term mayor of Houston was hailed from the start as the downtrodden Dems’ best chance to win statewide since their losing streak began in 1998. National Democrats invested more in this race than they’d spent in Texas in years, as did trial attorneys. It won’t be easy for Texas Democrats to convince them to open the spigots next time.
After the initial despair for Democrats, they’ll be watching the returns to see if the party has made even the slightest bit of progress toward parity. That might bring a whole ‘nother round of despair. If White’s percentage sticks around 40 percent, which rich-but-hapless Tony Sanchez won against Perry in 2002, it would be an official and unmitigated disaster for the party—and an unmistakable sign that Texas Democrats must go back to the proverbial drawing board. Again.
The Democrats’ chance to win this year hinged on their ability to maximize their potential vote—mostly the non-voters in South Texas and the metro areas of the state. We’ll know tomorrow what turnout was like among Hispanics. But we already know that it wasn’t enough. And we know that White’s other target vote—independents—turned heavily toward Perry, according to initial exit polls.
Are there any signs of hope for Texas Democrats after this dismal election day? Only if you squint really, really hard. Those exit polls (always sketchy, but in this case very emphatic) offer a couple of glimmers. Perry racked up most of his margin among the state’s shrinking demographic of older white folks. White won among the demographics of the future, outpolling the governor among voters under age 45 and dominating the Latino vote. Folks who called themselves “moderate” went for White, too. But exit polls indicated that fully half of the Texas voters who turned out called themselves “conservative.”
Even with the totals still to be tallied, it’s clear that Perry and the Republicans turned their people out. White and the Democrats did not.
Just as in 1998, just as in 2002, just as in 2006, Texas Democrats are crying in their beer on election night—and waiting for a brighter future that always seems just over the horizon. But the horizon keeps moving, too.