The Governor’s Race: We’ve Only Just Begun

Less than a month before Election Day, politicos may be losing steam but for a lot of voters, it's just getting interesting.


Well, sheesh—I’m exhausted, folks. As if a Sunday scandal about Gov. Rick Perry wasn’t enough, there were Monday’s fundraising numbers from both Perry and Democratic challenger Bill White. Then most of us woke up Tuesday morning to the new polling data from WFAA-Belo.  All of it just had me wishing I could crawl back under the covers. Wednesday brought with it another poll, this time from the Texas Lyceum.

For political junkies, Austin is beginning to feel a bit like Gilligan’s Island. We’re all stuck on this race, having a pretty good time, with the same basic plot lines over and over—and we don’t know if it will end. (Quick, in the comments section, tell me which political folk best represent the Professor. The Skipper?) It’s been seven months since this race began in earnest: the polls go up and down, the scandals come and go. At this point it can feel like both campaigns’ paths are set.  

The thing is, politicos are getting a little worn down just as things are heating up. Most voters have only recently begun to tune into the race, and these new bits of news offer both campaigns openings to take advantage.  Don’t get me wrong—White is fighting a steep uphill battle, and Texas is not an easy place for Democrats. Still, the race isn’t over, and for many voters, it’s just beginning. So here are my suggestions for how each campaign can move forward with the latest news.

Polling: A new poll from Belo-WFAA shows Perry leading 50 percent to White’s 36, while the Texas Lyceum shows the governor leading 48-43.

Perry: This is undoubtedly good news for the Perry camp. Until now, the governor had yet to break the 50 point threshold in any poll, and it gave everyone a sense that White could come back. The news of the poll, in and of itself, helped Perry. He can now use the poll to fundraise—arguing he’s a shoe-in for another term—and delegitimize the White campaign.  Of course, other surveys—like Wednesday’s Texas Lyceum poll—still show the governor below the threshold. Given how much the polls have bounced up and down the past few weeks, we have to assume that many voters are “soft” Perry supporters and might go the other way if they hear more about White. Perry’s best off trumpeting this polls as further evidence that White doesn’t have a chance—and therefore voters shouldn’t bother to learn more about him.

White: While it’s definitely a tough break for White, the Lyceum poll will temper some of the fallout from the Belo poll. Matt Angle, a major Democratic strategist and founder of the Lone Star Project, immediately argued with Belo’s polling methodology, sending a press release that questioned its definition of likely voters. The poll, conducted by Public Strategies Inc., defined the term exceptionally narrowly—only those who voted in most or all school, local and primary elections. That’s necessarily going to advantage Republican candidates, Angle said in his release, because “voters in city elections and local school board elections are typically higher income, more likely to be homeowners, and more likely to support or ‘lean’ towards supporting Republican candidates than a General Election electorate voter from the same area.” (For more on polling methodology, including “likely voter models,” check out our polling survival guide.)

But White is still trailing Perry, as the Lyceum poll demonstrates. To have any chance at winning, White will need to attract some unlikely voters and drive up turn out. He needs to get people  enthused about his candidacy and more upset about Rick Perry’s tenure. He doesn’t have much time to do that, so he’s got to maximize what he’s got.

Which brings us to…

Scandal: The Dallas Morning News  revealed that Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which the governor’s office oversees, has given upwards of $16 million to folks who turn out to be big Perry campaign donors. 

White: As Dave Mann notes over at The Contrarian, this is the latest in a rather lengthy list of ethics debacles for the governor. Because there have been several of these cases involving Perry, some political observers can glaze over and get blase. However, there’s a clear chance here for White—he’s got to maximize on this year’s anti-incumbency sentiments. Debra Medina, the dark horse Tea Party candidate during the GOP primaries, was constantly slamming Perry’s various funds for improving business: This is the kind of thing can gets Tea Party-ers concerned. But, while DMN continues producing follow-up stories and the White team keeps sending out press releases, it’s not catching fire as fast as White needs it to. Rather than wait for the outrage to come, the White folks might work to package the scandal as part of an overall message that Perry’s been there too long.  

Perry: Perry is a master at riding out scandals, and he’s already brushing off the allegations as ludicrous. Rather than engage with what he did or didn’t do, Perry is better off simply repeating his pro-business theme—it’s already sticking pretty well. After all, most Texans believe the state to be in a good economic position, so Perry has more latitude for shrugging off sketchy business deals. If White does try to hammer out the message, Perry can always blast more “Open for Business” ads. After all, he has the money…

Fundraising: Rick Perry out-raised Bill White by $3.6 million and has over $8 million more on hand.

Perry: Perry has a lot more money—and has a lot of experience knowing how to spend it. While White was ahead in the June reports, the governor definitely got to work. The Perry people will use the money to spread their message: Texas is doing well, business is hanging in there despite a recession, and Rick Perry is the reason why.

White: White hasn’t done as good a job creating a singular message, and the difference in funds certainly won’t help his ability to do that. But White’s camp has been adamant that the campaign bought $4 million-worth of future air time to save money, and that’s why there’s such a difference in cash on hand. Assuming that’s the case, White better pray those ads can do a better job of delivering a message. The most recent, called “Profile in Courage,” does a pretty good job. It’s a little awkward at first— it begins accusing Rick Perry of lying about Bill White and then moves to triumphant music about the Democrat’s work as Houston mayor. But it ends with the right message for the campaign: Perry’s been in office too long and he’s made a lot of money. If the Democrats can stick to a message, they’ll go a long way towards getting people excited about this race.