GOP's Chances Brighten in Texas Governor's Race

Will any high-profile Democrat run for governor of Texas in 2010? First, former state comptroller John Sharp announced that he's running for U.S. Senate. ...
by | December 16, 2008

Will any high-profile Democrat run for governor of Texas in 2010?

First, former state comptroller John Sharp announced that he's running for U.S. Senate. Now, according to the Houston Chronicle, Houston Mayor Bill White is also planning a Senate bid.

If Texas Democrats have one star, it's White, who governs a city of more than 2 million people. He's long been considered a likely 2010 gubernatorial hopeful, but apparently that's not his plan.

Sharp is about the only proven statewide candidate the Democrats have left, having been elected comptroller in 1990 and reelected in 1994. He took 46% of the vote in his 2002 run for lieutenant governor -- it's a reflection of the weakness of the Texas Democratic Party that Sharp's showing in 2002 is considered a point in his favor of his Senate bid.

Superficially, it's surprising that White and Sharp would both run for Senate (and not governor). They're going after the seat held by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, which isn't up again until 2012. Hutchison, a popular Republican, may resign for her own bid for governor, which would cause a Senate special election in the next two years. Or, if she's elected governor in 2010, that would mean a 2011 special election.

So why are these two major Democrats opting for the uncertainty of that Senate bid over a campaign for governor?

The answer is Hutchison's bid itself. Hutchison is challenging Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary. According to her own polling, she has a very good chance of winning. From the Houston Chronicle story linked above:

The Hutchison team said a poll of GOP primary voters found Hutchison with 55 percent support and Perry with 31 percent, with the rest saying they did not know or choosing another option. The Hutchison team also said she would top either White or Sharp in a general-election race, but did not release figures.

Perry pollster Mike Baselice, while declining to release figures, said the governor's team has its own poll showing that in a Republican primary, "He beats her like a drum."

Say Hutchison's polling is right (and I'm always more inclined to trust the side that is actually releasing its number publicly) and she's a favorite to beat Perry. Hutchison has run for the Senate four times and every time she's received at least 60% of the vote. She wouldn't be an invincible candidate in the general election, but "formidable" is probably an understatement.

So, White and Sharp seem to be betting that they have a better chance in a Senate race against lesser-known Republicans, even though they don't know when the election will be held and even though they're competing with one another.

If there's another big name in the Texas Democratic Party that comes to mind, it's Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor who lost 55%-43% against John Cornyn in 2002 -- not a horrible showing for a Democrat running in a Republican state in a Republican year. There are also plenty of current and former congressmen, although in a state with as many congressional districts as Texas, that's not a great starting point for a statewide bid.

Democrats' 2006 nominee for governor was a former congressman, Chris Bell, and he was a distant fourth in name recognition in that race, behind Perry, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. Despite running under the radar, Bell did end up a fairly strong second behind Perry, losing 39%-30%.

And that's why Democrats shouldn't write off the governor's race, even with their strongest candidates opting not to run. Even though he'll become Texas' longest-serving governor this week, Perry is still someone who Texans have mixed feelings about. If Perry can somehow beat Hutchison in the Republican primary, a lesser-known Democrat may have a chance.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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