With a well-funded, centrist Houston mayor running for governor at the top of the ballot, Texas Democrats were hopeful that the party would defy expectations in the 2010 midterm elections and knock off the nation’s second-longest-serving governor in one of the nation’s reddest states.
But one week before Election Day, Texas Democrats are bracing for the same voter backlash the party is facing in other parts of the country.
Polls suggest that former Houston mayor Bill White has not been able to close the gap with Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, and it is Republicans who are now hoping to score more gains in the Lone Star State. Veteran Democratic incumbent Rep. Chet Edwards is trailing in his 17th Congressional District race, and even longtime lawmakers like Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Solomon P. Ortiz are looking at closer-than-expected battles.
Mr. White, 56, a well-known Houston businessman who served in the Clinton administration as a deputy secretary of energy, came into the race with a resume and political profile that many observers thought gave him a chance in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990.
But after polling evenly with two-plus-term incumbent Mr. Perry in the spring, Mr. White has struggled this fall, with the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Monday giving the governor a healthy 50 percent to 40 percent lead among registered voters, with two third-party candidates splitting the rest of the vote.
University of Texas government professor Jim Henson, who helped conduct the poll, said the results show both the national mood and the state’s conservative tilt are asserting themselves in the race’s final days.
“As the electorate begins to pay more attention, the numbers at the top of the ticket and in the down-ballot races suggest a predictable pattern of partisan alignment, in which the trends of Republican identification we’ve seen in the last few decades are being amplified by a broader national political environment favorable to Republican candidates,” Mr. Henson said.
Mr. White has benefited from national Democrats’ interest in the race, with more than $3 million of the campaign’s $21 million fundraising total through September coming from national party donors. Polls at one point predicted an unexpectedly close contest.
But Mr. Perry, who first inherited the job when then-Gov. George W. Bush left in 2001 for the White House, is raking in cash at a record rate as well, raising almost $40 million in the same reporting period.
Mr. Perry, who dispatched Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the GOP primary earlier this year, has fashioned himself as the anti-establishment, anti-Washington candidate, despite his nearly 10 years in the governor’s seat, already the longest tenure in state history. With third-term North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven stepping down to run for Senate this year, Mr. Perry will become the nation’s longest-serving governor if he wins next week.
Endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the 60-year-old Texas governor has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration, even going so far as to turn down federal stimulus dollars targeted for his state.
With redistricting looming in Texas, the nation’s fastest-growing state, Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has said repeatedly the governor’s race is high on the party’s list of national priorities. The state could get as many as four new seats in the redistricting following the 2010 census.
“We’ve got a shot in Texas,” Mr. Kaine told reporters at a breakfast in Washington earlier this month. Democrats have “invested pretty significantly in Texas” this year, he said, “which is not something we’ve done in the past.”
But while national party leaders have embraced Mr. White, the one-time Houston oil man has scrambled to keep national Democrats, especially President Obama, at arm’s length.
In a televised debate last week, he refused to rate the Obama administration’s performance on a scale of one to 10. “I’m not going to get into a running commentary on our president,” Mr. White said.
It’s the same problem a lot of Democrats face in a state where the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are distinctly unpopular.
In the 17th Congressional District, a mostly rural swath of Texas from Waco to College Park, Mr. Edwards, 58, is desperately trying to distance himself from Mrs. Pelosi.
Over the years, Mr. Edwards’ brand of “Blue Dog” Democratic Party conservatism - he bucked party leaders on health care reform and the energy bill - has helped the 10-term congressman turn back a string of Republican challengers.
But the polls this fall show he is in real trouble, trailing oil man Bill Flores in a district that includes Crawford, the Waco-area ranching community of Mr. Bush.