Shootout won’t corral Texas voters

Unfortunately, this contest probably isn’t going to offer the contrast in styles that it once promised to deliver. Late last year, I thought we’d see a referendum on the message and tone of the Republican Party. After my polling firm released a statewide survey showing that the Republican brand has been losing its luster in Texas, as in the rest of the country, Sen.

Hutchison said there’s “too much bitterness, too much anger, too little trust.” Meanwhile, wrangler Perry signaled that anger and negativity are what it’s all about, if that’s what it takes to win. So I thought we’d see a contrast between the two Texans.

In the succeeding months, however, the handlers have taken hold and seem to be pushing both candidates toward a steel cage match for the so-called “base” of the party, also called the “wing nuts” by the less charitable. We all know the sermon that most consultants preach: Cater to the base. The right-most candidate wins. Cross-pressure wimpy moderates so they stay at home. Brutal negatives work. Et cetera. Under this tutelage, even Kay’s campaign is now more negative and in attack mode. So Texas is girding for an ugly shootout.

I believe the origins of this apocalyptic turn of events were the March 2006 Republican primaries, contests across the state that inspired the nastiest campaigning I ever witnessed in Texas, at least among Republicans. That year we saw the “Fox-talk primaries,” when down-ballot candidates shoveled millions into hard negative messages aimed narrowly at the audiences of Fox News on cable and Rush Limbaugh on the box. All of a sudden, Texas primary Republican campaigners were not that far from the old-time Jim Maddox-style slug-fests that we once chided the Democrats for staging. In response to this change in tone, I saw top Republicans conclude that you must get negative about Mexicans and tolls and pretty much everything else to win a Republican primary. Rick Perry, Kay Hutchison and their many consultants seem to have drawn the same conclusion.

Both candidates are focusing most of their energies on the same 33 to 35 percent of the electorate that is “the base,” the staunchest partisans and conservative ideologues. It’s undeniable that this is a large and important slice of the Republican pie, but does it make good strategic sense to give this one segment so much attention? Let’s say that you win two-thirds of the base, a grand achievement. You’re still far from a winning coalition. I don’t think that Perry or Hutchison strategists are approaching their calculus for coalition-building from a rational, numbers-driven perspective. Instead, it’s all about the psychological importance of winning this core vote. And that could be a trap.

Every Republican consultant should be aware that you can overshoot your target in the primary, getting too down-and-dirty in pursuit of the base, thereby spoiling your candidate’s chances for the general election. But many believe this eventuality is impossible in reddish Texas, thinking that a Democrat could never win. This conviction removes the restraint on primary campaigning. Anything and everything goes. In 2010, that could be the mistake that finally opens the door to a Democrat at Texas’s governor’s mansion.

Fortunately, in the past two weeks Ms. Hutchison gave us some hope that she might get back to some sort of uplifting message, saying that Texas needs “enlightened” Republican leadership and a welcoming message. Amen, sister. The way to the light may be to flee the darkness of Perry’s message and tactics. She’ll never beat him at his own game.

David Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.