“The Weirdest Governor’s Race of All Time,” trumpeted a headline on July’s cover of the ever-irreverent Texas Monthly magazine. And since that issue hit the newsstands, it’s gotten even weirder.
Two polls published this week — by Zogby and Rasmussen — also make clear that this might be the most divided gubernatorial electorate in history, not just in Texas, but the whole nation. Incumbent Governor Rick Perry, the “frontrunner” in both polls, garnered average support of just 32 percent. The three other candidates are splitting the remaining voters pretty evenly if you average the two polls.
The official Democratic Party nominee is Chris Bell, a former congressman. Bell is a boring candidate who would seem to be more comfortable in ivory tower classrooms than out stumping for votes. But his virtue for Democrats is that he doesn’t seem to provoke a threatened reaction from conservatives.
Even if Bell had some charisma, he would seem dull campaigning alongside the two independent candidates: Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, aka “One Tough Grandma.” There are no two contemporary statewide politicians in America that can stage such grand political theater.
It’s not entirely clear yet whether Friedman is a serious candidate or not. Sometimes his stale and cheesy stand-up comedy delivery of his “platform” hints that he’s little more than a high school boy running for homecoming queen as a prank. How seriously can you take a guy who once recorded “They Don’t Make Jews like Jesus Anymore” with his band, “The Texas Jew-Boys.”
But just when you want to write him off, he releases “white papers” (that’s what he calls them) on serious issues. And you see him fine-tuning his views on hunting to make his position acceptable to sportsmen. Then you hear reports that people in West Texas are ready to vote for Kinky. Some old-timers even draw a comparison to the mercurial Clayton Williams gubernatorial campaign that roared across Texas in 1989 and 1990.
Even driving around suburban Houston, you notice the guy in the car next to you, who looks respectable, sporting a bumper sticker proclaiming that “My Governor is a Jewish Cowboy,” next to an iconic “W” sticker. Then you spot another bumper sticker: “Kinky: Why the Hell Not?” Well, I can think of a few reasons, but that’s not the point. The point is that Kinky is a perfect magnet for the wrong-track voter that roams the Lone Star State these days.
Strayhorn is a serious politician, albeit an extraordinarily complex one. Between her many names (Keeton, Rylander, Strayhorn, Grandma), party labels (first Democrat, then Republican, now Independent) and staffing changes through the years, it’s hard to get a fix on her core appeal. Strayhorn’s problem may be that she’s crazy (and I mean “good crazy”) in a year when that would normally attract votes, but she’s having to split the pie with the only guy who could possibly be crazier, Kinky. It’s another case of timing being everything.
Another example of bad timing is that of Tony Sanchez. Sanchez ran as the Democratic nominee in 2002 and spent millions in his unsuccessful head-to-head race with Perry. Had Sanchez captured the Democratic nomination this time, his appeal to Hispanics as well as other core Democrats would have been enough to beat a weakened Perry in the split field of 2006.
As it stands, the Hispanic vote could be the wild card in this race. No candidate has seriously wooed the state’s 2.7 million Latino voters. But Republican Rick Perry should try. Perry has never been strident about immigration issues. He has made numerous high-level appointments of Hispanics, and it’s widely known that he has worked on perfecting his Spanish in an immersion program at San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, an effort that Latinos will appreciate.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.