AUSTIN — Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democratic former Houston Mayor Bill White clinched their parties’ nominations for governor Tuesday, setting up a fight over whether the problems in Washington or Austin are more relevant to Texans’ everyday lives.
White told supporters in Houston he expects Perry to try to “perpetuate” himself with politics of division and distraction to avoid talking about Texas issues, such as high unemployment, state government growth and unfunded mandates for local governments.
“Texans deserve a new governor,” a leader who is “more interested in the jobs of Texans than in preserving his own job,” White said.
White said he believes Perry will continue trying to put voters’ attention on political debates in Washington.
“They’ll point fingers at Washington and talk about the alarming growth in government in Washington so you won’t notice the alarming growth in government in Austin,” the Democratic nominee said.
Perry, speaking to supporters at the Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Driftwood, signaled that he fully intends to continue the anti-Washington rhetoric.
“From Driftwood, Texas, to Washington, D.C., we are sending you a message tonight: Stop messing with Texas!” Perry said.
Perry said his challenges are to tell the story of a successful Texas, “defend the conservative values that made them possible” and “remain attuned to the threat of a federal government that continues to overreach,” as well as increasing its spending.
“It is clear the Obama administration and their allies already have Texas in their cross hairs,” Perry said, referring to his expectations that national Democrats will support White.
Perry won the GOP nomination over U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and activist Debra Medina. Perry hammered on Hutchison’s Washington ties in his anti-federal government campaign.
Hutchison conceded the race to Perry and urged her supporters to unite behind Perry.
With voters angry at both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, Hutchison had trouble getting traction in her race. Medina used the anti- government sentiment and solid debate performances to propel her into better-than-expected third-place results.
Medina declined to concede. Her campaign claimed that if Perry fell below 50 percent in the final vote count that she would be in a runoff with him because Hutchison had conceded.
Texas election law experts, however, said Medina could not make a runoff even if Perry drops below the 50 percent threshold. Because Hutchison’s concession has no legal meaning, they said, she and Perry would be slated for a runoff. If Hutchison withdrew from such a runoff, Perry would be the winner.
Perry, who turns 60 on Thursday, already is the longest-serving governor in Texas history, and he is seeking an unprecedented third full term. He begins the general election campaign with strong name identification, incumbent advantage and the likelihood that he can raise whatever money he needs.
White is trying to become the first Democrat to win the governor’s office since 1990.
White captured the Democratic nomination by bettering six other candidates. White’s only serious challenge came from Houston businessman Farouk Shami, who spent at least $8.5 million of his own money on the race. White also has shown an ability to raise money and ended the primaries with more than $5.4 million in the bank.
In an interview last week, White said he knows he starts the race at a disadvantage because Perry and Hutchison spent millions of dollars on television advertising in their primary fight. “So, most everybody knows who they are, and I still need to let people know who I am,” he said.
A poll conducted for the Houston Chronicle and other Texas newspapers last month found 65 percent of the registered voters surveyed did not know enough about White to have an opinion of him.
Despite that lack of familiarity with White, Perry’s lead over the former mayor was only 43 percent to 37 percent among likely general election voters. And they were in a statistical tie among independent voters.
Democratic political consultant Ed Martin said Perry may have been able to use voter discontent to his advantage in the GOP primary, but that same anger will work against him in November.
“Democrats are looking forward to this race,” Martin said. “We have a proven problem solver who is running against a 20-year incumbent who represents everything people are fed up with in an anti-incumbent year.”
Martin said White will make the race about issues that are important to voters locally: “This is going to be a race about Texas and what’s happened in Texas.”
White already is hitting Perry on high electric and insurance rates, as well as the state’s record on high school dropouts.
The Democratic Governors Association has pledged to help White and already donated $500,000 to his campaign.
Michael Quinn Sullivan of the conservative Empower Texans said it would be “foolish” for Republicans to think a Democrat cannot win in Texas. Sullivan said Perry needs to keep hammering home a message that the Texas economy is better than the rest of the nation.
“What Perry has to do is make the case that (the state economy has survived) because of the leadership he and the Legislature have provided,” he said. “This election will be about the economy.”
Republicans around Perry already are looking for ways to make voters question White as a politician they can trust.