Strayhorn seeks crossover voters in Republican primary.
Gubernatorial candidate urging Democrats to help her beat Perry.
By W. Gardner Selby
The call came from a listener telling Carole Keeton Strayhorn he'd eagerly vote for her for governor in November 2006.
Strayhorn shot back Tuesday on Austin radio station KVET-FM: "November is great, but first I need you to vote on March 7. I want Republicans, Democrats, independents. All are welcome," Strayhorn said.
"And bring all your friends with you."
Strayhorn, the Republican state comptroller who is challenging GOP Gov. Rick Perry, has made few campaign forays since announcing her candidacy June 18, a tack that her office attributes to lawmakers remaining in special session to deal with school funding and tax issues.
But the former Austin mayor is well along in testing an unusual message: The March Republican primary is voters' only real chance to choose the next governor.
Her pitch asks voters to assume that the Democratic nominee will not prove to be a serious fall contender. Neither of the only announced Democratic candidates, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston and educator Felix Alvarado of Fort Worth, has run statewide. And no Democrat has won statewide since 1994.
Strayhorn, like Perry, was once a Democrat. She also has won GOP primaries in the past.
Yet, her hunt for voters outside the party's base appears to recognize that the incumbent has the edge among Republican loyalists, who are often more conservative than the general electorate.
Last month, Strayhorn visited the heavily Democratic Rio Grande Valley to blast a possible toll-road project as a government land grab. She also encouraged crowd members to participate in the GOP primary, a pitch first reported by the McAllen Monitor newspaper. Texas has open primaries, meaning that voters can decide on primary day to participate in any party's election but must choose one.
Arnoldo Cantu of San Juan, who was at the gathering, said later that he could imagine people crossing over to vote against Perry, who envisions a controversial trans-Texas network of toll roads to relieve traffic congestion and speed commerce.
Cantu, an 82-year-old Air Force veteran who called himself a long-time Democrat, said he will weigh a spring vote for Strayhorn.
"It doesn't make sense to be a Democrat and vote Republican," Cantu said. "But we need people elected who can win a majority."
Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, a Democrat who was at the San Juan event, said afterward that Strayhorn could draw Democratic votes for her anti-toll stance.
"I find her very refreshing," Garcia said, "for a Republican."
Garcia said, though, that most local Democrats will stick with their primary, which probably will feature contested local bouts.
Primary turnout is usually light, with less than 2 million voters between the two major parties. Because of that, Strayhorn's attempt to curry non-Republican support among almost 13 million registered voters has "enormous potential," said Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston.
"It gives her a shot," Murray said. "If her campaign is going to work, it's vital she pull in some nontraditional voters."
To prevail, he said, she must persuade voters to oppose Perry and favor her while also educating those who are accustomed to supporting Democrats or avoiding primaries that it is legal to go to their polling place and vote Republican.
Bradley McClellan, Strayhorn's son and campaign manager, said: "March 7 is when your vote matters.
"Once we educate the voters, we win, because they know who Rick Perry is already," he said.
A Strayhorn handout excoriates Perry's vision of toll roads. Perry's campaign replies that Strayhorn once urged the state to build more toll roads.
Her handout also says Perry proposed a record tax increase in a school finance proposal in June without a cent for new education aid — a description that disregards Perry's inclusion of higher teacher pay in his latest suggestions and overlooks his intention that state tax increases fund cuts in local school property taxes.
Lawmakers have not agreed to any school finance plan despite being called to Austin several times by Perry to do so.
Perry's pollster, Mike Baselice, hailed Strayhorn's crossover message as helping Perry.
"As soon as I hear my opponent is relying on the nontraditional vote, I am dancing in the streets," Baselice said. "Their interest (in voting) isn't there. And the Republican primary electorate is more establish- ment-oriented, more likely to stay with who they know. All she's done is stir up the pot."
Chances of Democrats leaping for any GOP candidate in March are hard to measure since there has never been a strong Democrat-to-Republican crossover pitch in Texas, where, for ages, the Democratic primary proved the best bet for voters to pick likely winners in November. While Republican nominees have prevailed statewide for more than a decade, the Democratic primary still appeals in many counties as a solid opportunity for voters to resolve races for local office.
For the first time, though, next year an incumbent Republican governor stands to face a major challenger for re-election from within the party. So it's the first time that crossing over could be a realistic choice for Democrats who hope to defeat a sitting GOP governor.
If he wins the primary, Perry could be strong in November 2006; four years earlier, he swamped Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez of Laredo despite Sanchez spending a personal fortune on television advertising.
Baselice said Perry polls favorably against Strayhorn among the 1.5 million Texans who have voted in at least one of the four most recent GOP primaries, so Strayhorn has little choice but to glean support elsewhere.
"Waste those resources," he said. "Go. Do it. I wouldn't be surprised if she turns tail and runs as a Democrat."
Strayhorn, who became a Republican in 1985, has not considered rejoining the Democratic Party, spokesman Mark Sanders said.
Leland Beatty, a Democratic consultant who studies voter turnout, said that the opportunity for crossovers is huge but that Strayhorn will need to build a powerful case.
"You're changing people's behavior," Beatty said. "You're trying to get the deacon to go to the porn movie. You're trying to persuade people to do something they've always resisted doing. You really don't know whether they'll be motivated enough to buy the argument."
Chances for change
Since 1970, turnout in gubernatorial primaries has ranged from 11 percent of voters in 1998, when Republican George W. Bush had a minor opponent and Democrat Garry Mauro had none, to 60 percent in 1972. The latest high mark was almost 30 percent in 1990, when Ann Richards won a brawling Democratic fray and Midland businessman Clayton Williams snagged the GOP crown.
Turnout amounted to about 13 percent in 2002, the most recent gubernatorial election year, when Perry ran unopposed in his party and Sanchez bested former Attorney General Dan Morales and two others for the Democratic nod.
Beatty said the likelihood of Democrats crossing over will become clearer after this November, when voters will weigh a proposed constitutional amendment, backed by Perry, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Voter inclinations also could be swayed by whether the Republican-majority Legislature, called by Perry thrice since last year into special sessions on schools and taxes, achieves big changes or stops short.
"By that time, some voters who have never voted in a Republican primary, including those who have and haven't voted in a Democratic primary, will be susceptible to the argument that Perry can only be defeated in March," Beatty said.
Another factor could be independent gubernatorial hopeful Kinky Friedman, who can make the November 2006 ballot only by collecting signatures next spring from about 45,000 registered voters who sit out the party primaries. His campaign says more than 20,000 people have signed cards pledging to "save myself for Kinky" by skipping the primaries to sign a Friedman petition.
"If there is any crossover, it may be because (Strayhorn) is good at pretending to be an independent," Friedman spokeswoman Laura Stromberg said. "But we're going to be the only true independent choice on the ballot next November."
The Democratic Party has no plans to encourage voter flight, whether or not more candidates decide to run for governor.
Activists expect heavyweight local Democratic primaries in Hidalgo County, where the county judge and district attorney positions could be contested, and predict that local legislative battles, yet to develop, also could deter voters from being distracted by the premier GOP showdown.
In Travis County, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson could vie for the Democratic nomination for the seat held by Barrientos. Other Democrats could compete to challenge GOP Rep. Todd Baxter or to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Terry Keel, a Republican who is running for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Charles Soechting, the Democrats' state chairman, said Democrats won't wander.
"When you pull the Republican lever, you essentially abandon your Democratic values. Democratic values are a lot more important than trying to affect the outcome of a race where truly only right-wing crazies vote for the most part."
Jeff Fisher, executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, said Republicans represent mainstream values. He accused Strayhorn of "courting liberals," which he said the party will monitor and combat. Perry's campaign has stressed that Strayhorn is drawing contributions from trial lawyers traditionally aligned with Democrats.
"It's one thing when a candidate tries to invite like-minded conservative Democrats and independents to make a lasting commitment to the Republican Party," Fisher said. "It's quite another to encourage liberals to vote in the primary like a one-night stand."