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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Beldar on Barone on how Perry's Harris County showing bodes for White

Michael Barone is one of my favorite and most trusted political analysts, and he has a facility with polling data and places that I utterly lack. That makes me reluctant to second-guess this preliminary conclusion of his regarding yesterday's Texas primaries:

Perry won this not in rural and small town Texas but in metro Houston. This bodes well for him in the general election, since it indicates strength in the home base of the well regarded Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who was nominated by an overwhelming margin.

I'm just not sure the "bodes well" conclusion connects to the premise. Perry did well in Houston, sure, and the GOP turn-out both here and state-wide was much, much stronger than the Democratic turn-out because of the contested GOP senatorial race. It's also fair to presume that a huge percentage of those who voted for Perry in this primary will vote for him again in the general election, and indeed, that some still very large majority of Texas Republicans who either didn't choose or bother to vote for Perry in the primary will nevertheless vote for him in the general election.

Tex. Gov. Rick Perry after GOP primary win on Mar. 2nd (image: Houston Chronicle)But you are still talking about a primary. Even the 12 percent or so of total registered Texas voters who voted, state-wide, in the GOP primary collectively represent only a small fraction of likely voters in the November election.

And as I'm sure Barone knows, the mayoral races in which White's won election and reelection by huge super-majorities were nominally — and to an amazing extent, genuinely — nonpartisan. It would be silly to assume that in a partisan race for statewide office this November, White would ever have gotten all, or mostly all, of the same individual voters who've voted for him for mayor in the past.

I don't think the main significance of White's history as Houston's mayor, in fact, is directly connected to how Houston/Harris County voters in particular will vote. I think that based on the reputation he's earned among Houstonians, he will indeed do at least somewhat better here than the hypothetical "average" Democratic candidate for governor; and since Houston is the state's largest city, even "somewhat better" will translate into some tens of thousands of votes. But it's not a big enough swing to win the state-wide race for him.

Bill White after Democratic primary win on Mar. 2nd (image: Houston Chronicle) Put another way, there are too many Houston voters (like me) who were perfectly happy to vote twice for a fellow like White for mayor (where the damage a wild-eyed liberal could do, even if he tried, is institutionally minimized), but who wouldn't vote for him for a state-wide or federal office (where a wild-eyed liberal could do vastly more damage). That White has been sympathetic to, or even fully on board with, pretty all of the values and positions of the national Democratic Party just hasn't been relevant in Houston's mayoral campaigns, but it's obviously much more relevant now that he's running for governor. For all those voters who apply different criteria to local races than they do to state or federal ones, White could never count on us as "a lock" anyway, even though we did vote for him as mayor. And that's true regardless of whether we voted for Perry or Hutchison or Medina yesterday in the GOP primary.

Instead, White's generally well-respected performance during two terms as mayor of Houston is important in the overall race (and not just in Houston/Harris County) for two reasons:

First, having been the mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city for eight years with generally conspicuous success — despite a direct hit by Hurricane Ike and a lot of collateral impact from Hurricane Katrina — is an attractive, conventional, and entirely legitimate credential for becoming governor. You can appreciate that whether you live in Houston or Waco or Dumas or Laredo. Without some comparable credential — and frankly, there aren't very many of those to go around, certainly not among Texas Democrats (who haven't won a state-wide election this Millennium) — Perry would have an enormous relative campaign edge, simply because he's been governor for the past decade and the state's still in decent shape (and compared to the rest of the U.S., incredible shape).

Second, keeping the focus on his record in Houston gives White his best opportunity to distance himself from Obama and from the national Democratic Party. You can guaran-damn-tee that between now and November, White will spend a whole lot more time reminding folks of his local service in Houston than of his time as Bill Clinton's Undersecretary of Energy. (He's also not going to spend a lot of time talking about his early 1980s law practice.)

White surely has always known he's an underdog. He's surely never imagined that Houston could be a "vote stronghold" for him as a Democrat in any state-wide race. Someone had to win on the GOP side, and by definition that candidate is going to have made a relatively strong showing among primary voters. I just don't see that Perry's relative success over Hutchison in the GOP primary here yesterday says much one way or another about the still-considerable (but never determinative) extent that White will be helped locally and statewide by his record as a two-term mayor here.

Posted by Beldar at 07:25 AM in 2010 Election, Politics (2010), Politics (Texas) | Permalink


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(1) Phelps made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 11:36:42 AM | Permalink

My take is that the drubbing Hutchinson took is much more pertinent than the Houston specific results. Washington is radioactive right now, and it will be trivial for Perry to hang Obama around White's neck. Quite frankly, the only way for White to avoid it would be to specifically disavow Obama, and I just don't see him doing that. As you say, he's too wild-eyed to make that calculated a move.

(2) Anti-White Commenter made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 12:37:43 PM | Permalink

Bill White is a huge liberal. A trial lawyer background. For Obama's agenda. A former Washington politician under Clinton. He is for cap and trade. He is for Obamacare. He made Houston a sanctuary city. he is anti-gun, having signed onto a liberal pact with other mayors. Bill White is toast.

Bill White has no chance in 2010. This is a Republican year.

[Editor's note: The person who left this comment originally left it in the name "Bill White is a huge liberal." That's a position, not an identification. As a position, I actually agree with it. I'm not comfortable with it as a pseudonym for commenters here, though, so I've somewhat arbitrarily changed it to "Anti-White Commenter." — Beldar]

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 1:39:21 PM | Permalink

Re #2 above: When White first ran for mayor of Houston in 2003, the Houston Chronicle described his former law firm, Susman Godfrey LLP, as "a defense firm." I took the Chronicle to task for that because if you're going to insist upon shoving that very interesting and capable firm into one of two not-very-meaningful binary choices, it's more of a plaintiff's firm than it is a defense firm.

Now, however, I've seen some anti-White advertising — including some from the Texas GOP — describing White simply as a "trial lawyer" or as having come from a "trial lawyer firm." By that, they almost certainly mean — or at least intend to be understood as saying — that White was part of the plaintiffs' personal injury contingent fee bar, typically represented by or closely associated with the American Trial Lawyers Association or its Texas counterpart, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. That's also inaccurate.

Susman Godfrey does occasionally handle some personal injury cases on the plaintiffs' side, but not very often; the overwhelming majority of the work that firm undertakes as a "litigation boutique" is in the field of business litigation. They do indeed cultivate contingent fee arrangements for that business litigation when they think that's a wise investment of the firm's resources, and they've been both savvy and successful in making that pay off handsomely. (Although some of their cases have been class actions, they're by no means a "strike suit" plaintiffs' securities fraud firm either.) They also do business litigation defense work, and some plaintiffs' business litigation cases, on an hourly rate basis, quite often for very orthodox clients (including Fortune 500 companies), to make sure they can pay the bills and keep the lights on if their contingent fee work hits a dry patch. Most of the firm's partners tend Democratic in their personal politics too, and they've been very heavily involved in Democratic Party fundraising on a scale sometimes comparable to the big-time plaintiffs' PI firms. But I don't believe that Bill himself has handled many personal injury cases on either side of the docket.

There are indeed quite a few lawyers at Susman Godfrey with enough trial experience (including jury trials) that I'd readily and respectfully describe them as "trial lawyers" using my own definition of the term, including Lee Godfrey, whose bags I got to carry in my own first courtroom appearance as a law student helping defend Evel Knievel. And for instance, Bill famously worked with Steve Susman on the plaintiff's side during the then-famous trial and subsequent appeal of the Affiliated Capital Corp. v. City of Houston and Gulf Coast Cable Television antitrust litigation in the early 1980s (disclosure: I worked some, behind the scenes, on the other side of that appeal while I was at Baker Botts). But it would be far more accurate to characterize Bill White as a David Boies-type than a Joe Jamail-type, although his legal career was obviously much shorter than either of theirs.

(4) RiverRat made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 5:14:25 PM | Permalink


You haven't heard from me in a long while going back to when you were active in the anti-Kerry campaign. I've followed your missives from Houston regularly.

I moved from Cali to Williamson County, TX about 2.5 years ago and have followed TX politics closely since.

Your evaluation of Barone's conclusions are "spot on", imho. Spin aside, and, as good a guy as Bill White may well be, he has about the same chance of election in Texas as Wendell Lewis Willkie did nationally in 1940.

Best wishes,


(5) RiverRat made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 5:17:35 PM | Permalink


You haven't heard from me in a long while going back to when you were active in the anti-Kerry campaign. I've followed your missives from Houston regularly.

I moved from Cali to Williamson County, TX about 2.5 years ago and have followed TX politics closely since.

Your evaluation of Barone's conclusions are "spot on", imho. Spin aside, and, as good a guy as Bill White may well be, he has about the same chance of election in Texas as Wendell Lewis Willkie did nationally in 1940.

Best wishes,


(6) Paul_In_Houston made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 6:51:57 PM | Permalink

Well, Beldar:

I see you've come across two of the places where I referenced this post (and the preceding one) -- Roger L. Simon and Dr. Melissa Clothier.

Another is in Canaries In Coal Mines, on AJStrata's blog.

I suppose this means I thought highly of them.

FYI, and have a good one. :-)

(7) nk made the following comment | Mar 3, 2010 9:36:21 PM | Permalink

Perry is a shoe-in and White doesn't have a chance. You can't be Governor of Texas without a good head of hair.

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