Could Perry Fatigue Give Dems an Opening in TX?

Could Perry Fatigue Give Dems an Opening in TX?

By Scott Conroy - September 20, 2010

Based on most of the national and statewide dynamics at play, Texas Governor Rick Perry should be coasting to victory rather easily over Democratic challenger Bill White.

Not only is Perry a Republican running in a deep-red state in an election year that is looking awfully good for the GOP, he was also among the first prominent politicians to wholeheartedly embrace the tea party movement early last year.

"It is a very powerful moment, I think, in American history," Perry said of the tea party cause in April of 2009, earning his bona fides in the movement more than a year before it began to prove its formidable electoral muscle.

But although Perry's small-government principles align closely with the tea party mantra and the Texas electorate on the whole, his lead over White, the former mayor of Houston, remains narrow.

Several recent polls have shown White within striking distance of Perry, including a Public Policy Polling (D) survey released earlier this month that had Perry hanging onto a six-point lead.

One reason why Perry's cushion might not be as comfortable as might be expected is that in an election year in which anti-establishment candidates have shown tremendous strength, Perry is compelled to make his case for being elected to a third four-year term after already having served a decade in office.

"The Republicans find themselves in this odd position of running in the midst of this national campaign that is keen to ‘throw the bums out,'" said Jim Henson, a political scientist and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. "The problem is that in Texas, there aren't any Democrats to throw out at the statewide level."

White has indeed found some success in defining Perry as a "career politician," while casting himself as the reformer in the race.

After having gone dark in the state following his bruising primary win over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry recently began airing a series of television advertisements that seek to tie White to Congressional Democrats and President Obama, who remains unpopular in the state.

But White is widely seen as having run a solid campaign and has achieved at least some success in presenting himself as a conservative Democrat with the economic chops to close a projected $18 billion budget gap in the state.

"[White] is running closer in the polls than I think anybody thought he was going to," Henson said. "The fact that Perry has some weaknesses and is not your ideal Republican candidate means his support is somewhat soft or limited. But frankly, Perry's support has always seemed that way, and he's always won. It's hard to imagine the year he doesn't win is the year when the mood of the state is so critical of national Democratic policies."

Indeed, White's biggest challenge in closing the gap with Perry may well be the fundamental divide that favors Republican candidates in Texas.

"[Perry] is really, really strong with Republican core voters, but they're not a majority of the state," said Texas Democratic political consultant Jason Stanford. "The problem is the swing voters in Texas are fairly conservative, so replacing him is a taller order than him just being vulnerable."

After Perry responded to White's challenge to debate by declining to accept unless the Democrat submitted all of his tax returns from the 1990s, it now appears almost certain that the candidates will not square off in a public forum, thus depriving the Democrat of an opportunity to close the remaining gap.

White must now hope for massive turnout in the state's largest urban areas, particularly in his home base of Houston.

"White is just slightly below [Houston Rockets legend] Hakeem Olajuwon in being beloved in Houston," Stanford said. "The electoral map of Texas is if you win the Dallas and Houston media markets, you're well on your way to a sizable majority in the state. If he's got one media market wrapped up, then the big battle is Dallas. It's looking really good there, but Rick Perry can drive down White's margins in the suburbs."

Indeed, neither of the state's largest metropolitan areas are dominated by Democrats to the extent that big cities in other parts of the country are, and so motivating his base likely will not be enough to push White over the top.

Perry has remained very strong in rural areas of Texas, but White has made a concerted effort to focus his efforts in smaller, Republican-leaning cities, such as Lubbock, Abilene, Midland, and Odessa.

White has made inroads in boosting his profile across the state, and his best hope for pulling off the upset may lie in the possibility that "Perry fatigue" will kick into overdrive among undecided voters.

"It's not like the swing voters in Texas don't know who Rick Perry is," Stanford said. "They're clearly not sold on what they have, and they're open to Bill White."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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