TX-GOV: Can Democrats Find a Winning Candidate?

The Democrats have their best chance in 16 years to win the Texas governorship next year. What they don't have is a candidate who looks ...
by | July 13, 2009

The Democrats have their best chance in 16 years to win the Texas governorship next year. What they don't have is a candidate who looks like a winner.

Last week, another new poll showed Gov. Rick Perry leading U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary. That's significant for the Democrats because Perry appears to be a much weaker general election foe. In 2006, he was reelected with just 39% of the vote. The poll wasn't the best (with a high margin of error and an unusually long time in the field), but it reflects the general sense coming out of Texas: Perry has the momentum.

At least two Democrats seem certain to run. One of them is Kinky Friedman, who is a joke -- or at least a jokester. The author, singer and humorist took a little more than 12% of the vote when he ran as an independent in 2006, but by the end of that race his shtick had gotten rather tired. It's hard to see him actually winning. I know Al Franken and you, sir, are no Al Franken.

Somewhat more promising is Tom Schieffer. Schieffer, the brother of CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, is a former state legislator and former ambassador. He's a credible candidate, but his close friendship with George W. Bush may make him someone Democrats can't back enthusiastically. He also hasn't held elected office in 30 years.

The Democratic field would benefit from the presence of State Sen. Kirk Watson, who has buzz right now as a potential candidate. Watson ran for attorney general in 2002, taking 41% of the vote -- par for the course for a Democrat running statewide in Texas that year. Maybe he'd be stronger than Schieffer, maybe he wouldn't. A primary would help sort that out.

Ronnie Earle, the prosecutor most famous for taking on Tom Delay, also is considering the race. Fairly or unfairly, he has a reputation as a partisan, which might hurt his crossover appeal. Earle, interestingly, served with Schieffer in the legislature in the 1970s and also once filed charges against Hutchison.

What the Democrats really need is for one of their top two candidates to decide to run for governor. Houston Mayor Bill White and former Texas Comptroller John Sharp both already have announced they are running for Hutchison's Senate seat whenever she leaves. But, they made that decision when Hutchison looked like a strong favorite to defeat Perry. It's not too late for one of them to switch races.

Sharp's entire background is in state politics. White has experience as an executive, not a legislator. I'd have to think that, given their pick, either one of them would rather be governor of the nation's second largest state than the most junior of 100 senators. Now, with Perry surging, either Democrat would have a realistic chance of being elected governor.

I've seen no indication that either White or Sharp is considering a change of heart. But, if I were a Democratic Party bigwig, I'd give them each a call, just in case.

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

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