AUSTIN – Whether the next governor is a Democrat or a Republican, the greater Houston area will play a major role in deciding that outcome.
On the Republican side, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry already are slugging it out in the region with public appearances, TV commercials and high profile endorsements. Debra Medina is tapping into supporters of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Clute, for her challenge to the system.
About one out of every five votes cast in the Republican primary will come from the greater Houston area — defined as Harris, Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria and Galveston counties — making the area a key battleground.
“You can believe it’s going to be a battleground,” Perry said during a recent Houston stop, “particularly those suburban areas where the Republican vote historically has been strong.”
Among the Democrats, the two high-profile candidates are former Houston Mayor Bill White and hair products millionaire Farouk Shami. Whichever one wins the March 2 primary will have Houston as a base going into the general election.
With Harris County’s vote trending toward the Democratic Party, Houston joins Dallas as a cornerstone for Democratic general election campaigns trying to build a winning effort in a state that still leans Republican.
The focus, for now, is on the Republican battle.
Hutchison once was a Houston TV reporter and represented part of the city in the Legislature. She formally launched her campaign in her hometown of LaMarque last August, followed immediately by a rally in Houston.
Perry’s response as governor to Gulf Coast hurricanes in the past has bolstered his job approval rating. And he has visited the area 22 times since August to promote his campaign and activities of his office.
Three biggest names
When it comes to endorsements, Hutchison has rolled out all three of her high-profile backers locally, Vice President Dick Cheney and Houstonians former Secretary of State James Baker and former President George H.W. Bush. Perry on Feb. 7 is planning a political event in the Houston area with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Medina, the former Wharton County GOP chairwoman, has received the moral support of Paul. She is tapping into the anti-Washington sentiment of state’s rights and Tea Party supporters.
As the race prepared to begin last summer, a private statewide poll conducted for three Austin lobby groups found Perry and Hutchison were fairly evenly matched in most parts of Texas. But Perry held a 30 percentage-point lead over Hutchison in Houston and South Texas, while Hutchison had a 20 percentage-point lead in the San Antonio area.
The survey gave no hint why Perry was ahead in Houston, but past polling has shown the governor to benefit from his handling of hurricanes in the area. In 2005, his job approval jumped from 39 percent to 49 percent in a Scripps-Howard Texas Poll because of his handling of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said he has seen the mood in the race ebb and flow as it has statewide, with Hutchison leading and then Perry taking over. Now the race is tightening back up. Woodfill said Hutchison has not yet convinced voters that they need to fire Perry.
“I don’t think that case has been made yet. But she’s trying to,” he said.
Old face or a new one?
Montgomery County Republican Chairman Walter Wilkerson said Republicans in his area like the job Hutchison has done in the Senate. He said most of the complaints he hears about Perry come from people opposed to the now-defunct Trans-Texas Corridor.
“The biggest thing going against Kay is, why is she doing this when there’s all this turmoil in Washington? The main drag on Perry is he’s been there a long time. A lot of people feel like it’s time for him to step down and give someone else a chance,” Wilkerson said.
He said the biggest wild card in the election in his area is that there are four unknown Tea Party activists running against U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands. Wilkerson said that could draw some conservative voters into the primary who have not participated in the past.
Comal County Chairman Larry Nuckols said in his county “it’s pretty well divided. There’s good support for Gov. Perry, as well as Sen. Hutchison.” Nuckols said strong anti-Washington sentiments locally may help Medina, but he said she still is not very well known.
“They (Republican voters) will turn out at the polls, not so much because they can vote against President Obama, but because they want to take a stand,” Nuchols said.