Friday, January 06, 2006

"Anything can happen."

Strayhorn switch shakes up gubernatorial race


by Christine DeLoma and James Bernsen

Volume 10, Issue 19
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2006

With Carole Keeton Strayhorn abandoning her bid this week for the Republican nomination for governor to run instead as an independent, Rick Perry gets a free pass in the March primary. But that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing for the governor from now until November.

Strayhorn turns independent

Strayhorn’s departure from the Republican ticket changes the dynamics of the gubernatorial race in more ways than one. For one thing, by running as an independent Strayhorn has until November to make her case to all Texas voters – not just Republicans.

By most indicators, polling predicted decisive defeat for Strayhorn in the March primary when matched up against Perry. A win in the primary would have given Perry an all-but-certain lock on the governor’s office for another four years because most believe there are no viable Democratic candidates who can beat Perry in a two-way race.

By stepping out of the Republican primary race, Strayhorn has another seven months or so to criticize and tear down Perry’s record. Perry, on the other hand, must contend, yet again, with trying to fix the state’s school finance system. In November 2005, the state Supreme Court ruled part of the finance system unconstitutional and gave the Legislature until June 1 to fix the problem. It is likely that Perry will call another special session to address the issue sometime in April.

The outcome can be either a boon or bust for Strayhorn or Perry.

If nothing gets done, which is possible given the Legislature’s track record on school finance, Strayhorn could come away with more ammunition to shoot at Perry for what she calls his “lack of leadership.” Perry stands to lose points if he is forced to call multiple special sessions that stretch into the summer. An even worse scenario is that schools would not open on time.

On the other hand, if the Legislature does pass a school finance plan, Perry can take most of the credit. He can point out that while Strayhorn was playing partisan politics, the Governor was working hard for the people to fix school finance.

However, with the passage of a finance plan, the devil will be in the details. Will the plan increase taxes? Will it increase school spending? Whatever the final outcome, Strayhorn will stick around to make sure voters hear her side of the story.

The one major disadvantage to the Strayhorn campaign strategy; running as an independent just got a lot more costly. That means Strayhorn will have to spend more time and energy raising money to run her “conservative commentary” radio ads throughout the campaign season.

A second disadvantage is the timing. To become an independent candidate for governor, Strayhorn has at most 60 days to get 45,540 signatures from registered voters who did not vote in the Republican or Democratic March 2006 primary or run-off.

It is no doubt that Rick Perry benefits, at least in the short term, from not having a serious opponent to contend with in the March Republican primary. There are three other candidates, albeit not serious ones, who have filed for the nomination against Perry: Larry Kilgore, Star Locke and Rhett Smith.

From now until March, Perry is free to concentrate his efforts on fundraising or getting involved in legislative primary races. Several Republican legislators publicly bucked the Perry administration over school finance reform. Some of these face opponents in the March primary.

Two independents and a Democrat

With Strayhorn’s entrance into the race as an independent, Texas voters will have more candidates to choose from at the ballot box in November. It’s now a four-way race. She joins independent candidate Kinky Friedman and the winner of the Democratic primary.

The playing field is full of Democratic hopefuls willing to take on Perry in the November election. The list includes: former Congressman Chris Bell, former Supreme Court Justice and Congressman Bob Gammage, Rashad Jafer, a Houston sales manager, and school administrator Felix Alvarado. The front runners for the Democratic nomination are Bell and Gammage, but a Hispanic surname could give Alvarado a surprising percentage of the heavily Hispanic primary vote.

The outcome of a four-way race is much harder to predict than a two-way race or even a three-way race. Anything can happen.

Being an incumbent with a track record, Perry is undoubtedly the front-runner, and most politicos think conservative Republicans are more likely to stick with him. In switching to independent, Strayhorn will lose some of the party faithful. She may hope, however, to gain disenchanted Republicans and independent voters. Democrats hope that a Republican Party split may be enough to get them enough votes to take over the governorship.

There is no runoff in the general

A key point to remember is that there is no general election runoff in Texas. That was the case in Minnesota when Jesse Ventura was elected with less than 40 percent of the vote - but Ventura narrowly beat the Republican and Democratic candidates.

This is important because even if the Democratic candidate only gets 35-38 percent of the vote, if Strayhorn (and even Friedman) can cummulatively take away enough of the vote from Perry, a Democrat can slip into the governor’s mansion. That scenario assumes Democratic unity behind a candidate and Strayhorn cutting into Perry’s Republican base. Many, however, expect that Strayhorn will take as many or more voters from the Democrat.

The real danger for Strayhorn comes in the fact that she can’t collect signatures to get on the ballot until both the Republican and Democratic primaries are over. If the Democratic race goes to a runoff, Strayhorn’s window of opportunity to get the signatures shrinks from two months to only one. That increases the cost and resource diversion from the campaign to the signature drive. That fact may in part explain the reported recent attempt of Strayhorn aide Mark Sanders to convince Bell to drop out of the Democratic race, which would have made a runoff very unlikely.

And because any signatures that appear on the Friedman and Strayhorn lists are automatically stricken, both independents must build up a list that includes a good margin of error.

© 2006 The Lone Star Report: