What are Bill White's chances?

In a commentary on one of my posts, the Rick vs Kay blog writes:
I think almost any Republican... even a yellow lab... could beat any Democrat for governor in Texas this year. Once Rick's peeps ran some ads against Bill White... and he is probably a richer target than even Kay... Bill White would also fall into the Chris Bell category...

Bill White is not Chris Bell. Chris Bell was a perennial candidate who got elected to Congress by cutting a backroom deal to endorse Lee Brown, but then lost his own re-election primary by 2-1. He failed to convince even the Democratic establishment that he had a chance, and thus couldn't raise any money.

Gubernatorial races are also distinctly less partisan than federal races. You're more likely to see Republicans wins in blue states (and vice-versa) for governor's mansions than for senate races. That's because federal races more often turn on hotbutton issues. "Socialization of healthcare"/"privatization of Social Security"/abortion on the federal level are significantly more polarizing than issues like education on the state level.

In other words, RvK's statement sounded overconfident to me. So I checked some election results. Specifically, I wanted to find gubernatorial elections where a party won the governor's mansion in 1) a hostile political environment in 2) a non-friendly state or a swing state. I chose 2002 and 1994 as good GOP years, and 2006 and 2008 as good Dem years.

Good GOP years
Democrats picked up Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Tennessee. All were open seats.

Democrats picked up Alaska (3rd party candidate split GOP vote), held Nevada, Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Colorado.

Good Dem years
2008 = GOP holds Vermont, Indiana

2006 = GOP holds California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota

There were no defeats of incumbent governors on that list, except for 1994 in Alaska, which was due to a split in the GOP vote. And, by the way, if you were criticizing 2002 as an example of a strong GOP year, you're right: it wasn't that favorable to the GOP.

I expected to find more examples of Republicans winning governorships in difficult states during difficult cycles for them. After all, Republicans held Mass for a long time...but it turns out that those races where Republicans won governorships in blue to purple states were not in very difficult climates. And likewise with Democrats, when they actually won difficult races in red to purple states, they were generally not in favorable climates for the GOP. 2002, for example, really wasn't a very favorable GOP environment, but still, the Democrats didn't actually defeat any incumbents in non-blue states. If you used 2004, the Democrats did pick up Montana, in an open seat election where the incumbent governor retired after having approval ratings in the 20s.

Why am I mentioning this?

First, a caveat: I think it's important to put too much importance into election results on specific questions like this. It's a very small sample size, and can thus be misleading.

However, even with the caveat, this data shouldn't be too surprising. It's hard to win elections in states where the partisan balance is against you, especially in a difficult political environment. Texas is still a red state. We haven't had a Democratic statewide officeholder in over a decade. California, by comparison's sake, has never had nearly the monolithic one party domination of its statewide officeholders that Texas has. Demographics are changing, of course, but Republicans still have a sizeable structural advantage.

It is possible that the political environment will turn less toxic for Democrats. And sometimes black swans occur that will change the president's approval ratings, eg. 9/11. It certainly can't get too much worse than losing Ted Kennedy's seat, and even with that, Rasmussen has White only 10 points behind.

All of this is not to say that Bill White doesn't have strengths; he does. He is what I'd term a corporatist; he likes big business, and as Mayor of Houston, he did whatever possible to try to win over the big business establishment. By and large, he succeeded. As a result, he will be well-funded. He's already proven he can raise money.

Bill White is also the kind of guy that the Texas media establishment loves to love. He's a Harvard, Texas Law guy who was a trial lawyer, worked for Bill Clinton and then started an oil company (which hasn't been successful) before being picked to run the holding company of a rich Lebanese family. He's successful, educated, and can project the moderate image that the establishment likes. The Houston Chronicle is a Bill White sycophant (leading Cory Crow -- not a Republican -- to memorably term the Chron "Mrs. White"). The Texas media isn't exactly in love with Rick Perry (assuming he wins); you can pretty much guarantee favorable coverage for White.

White's not a bad candidate. While not a first-tier challenger, he will run a smart race, being careful to put distance between himself and national Democrats. All told, I'd put White's chances of being governor in 2011 as about 18% right now. 1 in 6 ain't too bad, but that 18% chance is almost entirely due to the political environment improving for Democrats over the next 9 months.

Posted by Evan @ 02/04/10 03:52 PM


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