Democrats are eyeing the opportunity to recapture the Texas governor's seat for the first time in 15 years, in a race that could have an impact on national elections for years to come as the state prepares to draw up new congressional district lines.
Former Houston mayor and lawyer Bill White is in a surprisingly close race with GOP incumbent Rick Perry, running for a third term. Among likely voters, Perry was leading White by 46 percent to 39 percent, with 8 percent undecided, in the most recent poll by the Dallas Morning News, conducted Sept. 15-22.
White has consistently trailed Perry since the incumbent won the Republican primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Most Texas politicos are still hedging their bets on Perry, albeit after a tough election fight. But Democrats still have a shot if they can elevate grassroots momentum in the last few weeks of the campaign, especially among Hispanics.
"Perry doesn't have the magic 50 percent" that should give him a comfortable advantage, said pollster Mickey Blum. "This is that one time that it's close enough where it will matter if people can get their voters out."
The national interest in White's campaign makes the race unlike any other in recent Texas history. White is the top recipient of in-state and out-of-state donations among all Texas candidates, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Texas money game is not just about the governor's race. In fact, the national interest in Texas goes well beyond the 2010 races.
As Democratic Governors Association executive director Nathan Daschle wrote in a memo outlining the group's strategy, "The most important battles will be for the states that have relevance in congressional redistricting, implications for the 2012 presidential election and the sheer size of their population."
Texas, the second largest state in the country, is expected to gain four House seats -- the most of any state -- according to private firm Election Data Services, which analyzed Census Bureau population estimates.
The DGA has poured $2 million into White's campaign, the most ever for a Texas gubernatorial candidate.
"This is a pretty key pick-up opportunity in 2010 for us. We consider the Texas governor's race one of our top tier opportunities," said DGA communications director Emily Bittner.
Perry "is a 25-year career politician and people are quite frankly getting fed up with him. He works part-time in a taxpayer-funded luxury mansion," she said.
Texas Governor's Race Heats Up
Redistricting in 2003 ended up embroiled in a controversy and court delays that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Then-House majority leader, Republican Tom Delay, particularly came under fire for his role in crafting a plan that Democrats charged was a way to ensure that Republicans would continue to stay in power in Washington.
In Texas, district lines are drawn by the state legislature. If the legislature can't pass a plan, the Legislative Redistricting Board convenes to adopt its own plan, which must then be submitted to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance. The governor has the power to call a special session -- as Perry did in 2003 -- if congressional and education districts are not enacted during the regular session.
Robert Stein, a professor at Rice University, predicts that Democrats could lose as many as eight seats in the state House, which could spell bad news for Democrats. But a Democratic governor could change the game.
"There is a lot more at stake than just the obvious Democrats versus Republicans," Stein said. "And the Republicans also know that their future here is very much tied to their ability to win Hispanic voters."
The Hispanic population in Texas has surged in recent years. While the group has historically voted Republican, the recent national debate over immigration and the state debate over social sciences curriculum has alienated some Hispanic voters. But that doesn't mean the group is energized enough to turn in favor of Democrats.
Republicans, confident of Perry's fate in Texas, say the hill is too steep for Democrats to climb no matter how much money they pour into the state.
"This is a Republican year in a Republican state, and Republicans are going to win," said Reggie Bashur, a lobbyist and former adviser to George W. Bush.
White will have to drive the attention of independent voters, and that's not an easy task, experts say.
"They have to overcome one of the most durable sense of political identity that voters have -- their party identification," said James Henson, assistant professor of government at University of Texas, Austin. "Voter registration isn't up. So really what you're having to do is swing voters who've been out, which is really difficult."
Nevertheless, for Texas Democrats who are seeing one of the closest gubernatorial fights in the state since 1994 -- when George W. Bush defeated Democrat Ann Richards -- the opportunity is too good to shy away from.
"We need someone who is more of a workhorse than a show horse," said lawyer Beverly Reeves, who has been volunteering and fundraising for Democratic candidates since 1971. "We're really encouraged by the recent polls. It's very telling that there's Perry fatigue in the state. I think Texans want a very fiscally disciplined leader."