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Statewide Offices: Signs and Portents for D’s and R’s

Today's results will say a lot about Texas Democrats' progress
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Like all minority parties everywhere, Texas Democrats tend to be a wishful-thinking bunch. (And why the hell not? Without hope, where would they be?) When Houston Mayor Bill White announced last November that he’d abandon his quest for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s phantom Senate seat and run for governor instead, there was a great outbreak of happy thinking among the Texas Dems. White was hailed near-universally as a savior figure.

He was damn near perfect! Suitably moderate, helpful business background, the connections to scare up big money. And as the very popular mayor of the state’s largest city, White had a respectable base to build on. His sheer intelligence and thoughtfulness would make a striking contrast to Perry’s irrelevant Tea Party antics. His good-government record would shine against the governor’s malfeasance and machine politics. If any Democrat could derail Rick Perry’s quest to be elevated from mere governor to monarch-for-life, White was the guy.

That was the theory, anyway. I mean, how many articles have you read that described the Democrat as “the strongest candidate Democrats have run since Ann Richards in 1994″? I have lost count. Some variation of that phrase appears in every national story about Perry-White, and not a few in Texas as well. Hell, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve repeated it myself.

One thing we’ll find out tonight, when the votes come in, is whether White lived up to the billing. We’ll also learn something about whether Texans responded to White’s better-government message—or stuck with Perry’s less-government rhetoric. We’ll find out whether Texas voters are more fixated on the failures of Washington—the focus of Perry’s message—or those of Austin, which White has emphasized.

We’ll also learn whether Texas Democrats were capable of being saved this year—by White or anybody else.

Even if White loses, his margin of defeat will be unusually noteworthy. And the same is true on down the Democratic ballot. The turnout for Democrats, and their success motivating the voters who should be their future—especially younger Latinos in South Texas and the whole state’s metro areas—will say a lot about how far the party has come. If White runs strong, and down-ballot Democratic nominees Linda Chavez-Thompson and Hector Uribe poll well in their target areas, it will be a sign that Democrats have figured out at least part of their turnout puzzle. And it will be a signal that they’ll be ready to compete on more equal terms with the GOP in 2014.

Then again, it might end up looking like Texas Democrats are going to need more than four years to go head-to-head with the GOP.

The national Democrats will be picking up on (and interpreting) these signals. If Perry wins a landslide victory, then the guy whom Texas Democrats swore was their best chance since Ann Richards will have lost badly. And the chances of statewide Texas Democrats getting serious help from the national party in 2012 or 2014 will be diminished. Not dashed, but diminished.

For Perry, of course, a landslide win would put some giddy-up behind his potential campaign for president. For the Republican Party of Texas, another sweep of statewide offices would be sweet indeed. At the same time, a big election night might make it easier for the party to delay the debate it’s going to have to have: How, and how much, to woo the key demographic of the future, Latinos? If Republicans win big, they may be lulled into thinking that they have more time to start genuinely reaching out and tweaking their message for Latinos—after all, the Democrats are no immediate threat. In a strange sort of way, that could be a good thing for the Democrats. (I told you: signs and portents. I’m doing my best here.)

As soon as there’s time to breathe again, after the instant-analysis phase is past, we’ll start thinking about the governing consequences of what happens tonight—not just the political consequences. With a huge budget deficit looming, along with redistricting and Arizona-style immigration debates, the next Legislature is already guaranteed to be a doozy of historic proportions. But with a heavier Republican majority, the remedies the Legislature seeks for the budget are also sure to be even heavier and more damaging for working people and the poor. And if a newly elected Rick Perry takes the presidential plunge after a bracing victory tonight, the Legislature will become even more politicized—on a national stage. While the state has serious problems to be solved, we might have a governor who’s on a national anti-Washington tour.

And then again, what if Bill White pulls a Harry Truman and outvotes all the experts? The mind boggles.

And that’s the joy (mixed so often with despair) of Election Day. It’s like Super Bowl Sunday morning. The strangest thing that could happen tonight is that the results come out just the way everybody expected them to. There will be surprises. Undoubtedly some happy ones and some nauseating ones, depending on where you sit.

Two other Democrats appear to have an outside shot at breaking Texas Republicans’ winning streak in statewide elections. Jeff Weems, the Democrat running for Railroad Commission, has run a vigorous campaign emphasizing his experience in the oil and gas industries—and Republican opponent David Porter’s lack of apparent knowledge of the corporations he’d be regulating. Weems has been endorsed by daily newspapers across the state, but if White doesn’t run strong at the top of the ballot, having a “D” beside your name might end up being a hurdle too high to clear.

Another potentially competitive race is for Agriculture Commissioner. Democrat Hank Gilbert, running against Republican incumbent Todd Staples for the second time, has done everything possible to stir up interest in the race by attacking Staples’ record ferociously. Gilbert has gotten hit back hard in return. He’s made more headlines than any statewide Democrat besides White, but not all the ink has been favorable.

In other races, things look pretty rosy for the Rs. Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky has run a smart and dogged campaign for attorney general against the Republicans moneybags incumbent, Greg Abbott. Linda Chavez-Thompson, running for lieutenant governor, has focused heavily on driving out the vote in San Antonio and South Texas while wowing audiences with her wit and plainspoken progressive populism. Chavez-Thompson’s success with her main mission of motivating Latino voters may not register in the statewide results, but it could end up being as important to Texas Democrats’ future as anything else that happens on Tuesday.

At least that’s the theory.