With Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison no longer certain (to say the least) to resign, the top-tier campaign Houston Mayor Bill White is mounting to run for a hypothetical Senate vacancy is starting to look like a waste for Democrats. If Hutchison ends up staying in Congress until her term is up for 2012, what good will it do for Democrats to have lined up two credible Senate contenders while struggling to produce an electable candidate in the Governor’s race?
The situation might soon be remedied - but, contrary to early reports, it’s far from a done deal. After spending weeks adamantly denying that he might switch races, Bill White declared in a press conference today that he was considering dropping out of the (non-existent) Senate contest and running for Governor. He would make his decision known by December 4th - next Friday.
(In somewhat of a repeat of last week’s Giuliani confusing, reports initially suggested that White was sure to run for Governor. What seems to have initially prompted overtly definitive write-ups was former Ambassador Tom Schieffer’s withdrawal from the race, which got people wondering whether he was making room for a more prominent Democrat; Schieffer’s decision to all but endorse White in his press conference and the fact that the mayor’s campaign is no longer issuing clear rebuttals did the rest.)
Why might White be interested in switching races? Beyond the fact that it’s no longer even clear whether he’d have any Senate election to run for, the bottom-line is that his odds of winning the gubernatorial race are far stronger now that Governor Rick Perry looks slightly favored to win the GOP primary.
For months, conventional wisdom was that Hutchison would wrestle the nomination away from the incumbent and there is little doubt that she would be a far more formidable general election candidate. Yet, Perry’s continual moves rightward combined with the Republican electorate’s mood have now given him a small edge in most primary polls - but he should be more vulnerable in the general election. First, he’ll have to run as an incumbent and defend the record in the midst of an economic crisis. Second, his extremism should create trouble with moderate Republicans and independents: That Perry alienates most voters who aren’t part of the GOP base was evident in 2006, when he won re-election with only 38% of the vote in a 4-way race.
Combine all of this with the fact that Texans are more likely to vote Democratic in a local race than in a federal one (this would be true in any cycle, but it’s even more so the case when the national environment favors Republicans), and it makes perfect sense for White to want to run for Governor.
His entry would be a game changer in state politics, and it would make Texas host a top-tier Governor’s race next year. Not quite a toss-up, but White has a lot of assets (not the least of which is money, since he can transfer the $4 millions he’s raised for the Senate race to a gubernatorial campaign) with which to make the race as competitive as Democrats can hope for. Texas Monthly just published a lengthy feature on White that is well worth a read.
In this context, why might White pass on the Governor’s race? Here again, the reason looks fairly clear: While he’d be in a strong position to exploit Perry’s weaknesses, what if Hutchison wins the March primary? Sure, the general election would be competitive, but White would certainly face a far steeper mountain to climb. Hutchison is well-known, popular and most importantly within the Republican mainstream: In a red state like Texas, does that leave Democrats with a path of victory? Worst still for White: In such a scenario, Hutchison’s primary victory would mean she would resign from the Senate and there would be a special election after all - only by this point White would be stuck facing Hutchison (since he’d have already won the gubernatorial nomination) rather than being able to run for the vacancy.
Can we than imagine a scenario in which White and Hutchison wins the gubernatorial nomination, Hutchison resigns and White chooses to leave the Governor’s race and run for Senate? It sounds implausible, but it’s doable because the special election would most likely be held in May. Not only might that leave White time to come back to the Governor’s race if he loses the Senate one (fine, that sounds far-fetched), but in the compressed calendar under which the special election would unfold he would have a net advantage since he’d be running a statewide race for months.
Keep in mind that Democrats have another candidate who is running for Hutchison’s seat: Former Comptroller John Sharp has been in the race all year, and to the extent that winning a Senate seat - in Texas and in this environment - will be tough for any Democrat, it’s not clear that he would be that dramatic a step down from White. This is why it would be a win-win for Democrats if the Houston mayor were to swing contests: That would make them competitive in the Governor’s race and they would still have a credible candidate running for Senate in case Hutchison does resign.