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The Outsiders

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But Brown has a counterargument to make in reply to such jabs: that he’s a candidate with, as he put it the other day, “an insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind.” Brown’s combination of populism (as A.G., he has filed civil lawsuits against the banks), social liberalism (he’s loudly pro–gay marriage), and toughness on law-and-order issues (he came down hard on crime in Oaktown) makes for a politically potent brew. And he is already shrewdly likening Whitman to the current occupant of the governor’s mansion, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who rolled into Sacramento wearing his lack of experience as a badge of honor but during whose tenure California appeared to become nearly ungovernable. “Some people say that … we need to go out and find an outsider who knows virtually nothing about state government,” Brown said pointedly in announcing his candidacy. “Well, we tried that, and it doesn’t work.”

No sane person, it says here, would ever bet big money against Jerry Brown in any California campaign—the man once derided as Governor Moonbeam has simply proved himself too cagey and resourceful, and he understands his state too well to be anyone’s underdog. And something similar can be said of Rick Perry. For years after stepping up from the lieutenant-governorship after George W. Bush claimed the White House in 2000, Perry was mocked in Texas as Governor Good Hair. Yet today he stands as the longest-serving holder of the office in the history of the state, and even his ideological foes acknowledge that he’s turned himself into a hell of a politician—not only tapping into the tea-party energy but emerging as one of its de facto leaders. Yet many Austin political pros believe that the governor may have his hands full with Bill White. A former businessman who made his fortune in energy, construction, and real estate, White ran Houston from 2004 until this year, winning reelection to his second term with 91 percent of the vote and earning kudos for the city’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Well funded, moderate, and a good deal tougher, I’m told, than Kay Bailey Hutchison, he has a strategy that will depend on turning out Hispanics—a task arguably made easier by the nomination of former AFL-CIO leader Linda Chavez-Thompson as his lieutenant-governor ticketmate—and centrist voters scared off by Perry’s hot-eyed talk about Texas seceding from the Union and his cuddly embrace of Sarah Palin.

Though it’s way too early to be making predictions about what will happen in any of these races, it’s all but certain that they will indeed be races: hard-fought affairs in which all three Democrats will at least be in the thick of things. And herein lies a couple of intimations that the blanket doomsaying about the party’s prospects this November may fall short of fully accurate.

For all the predictions about an anti-incumbent or anti-Obama wave about to crash down on the country, it appears that the most salient sentiment animating the electorate today is more precisely (and more broadly) anti-Washington. The plausibility of the Cuomo, Brown, and White candidacies suggests that Democrats who remain free of the Beltway’s taint remain perfectly electable—especially if they are able to incorporate any kind of populist positioning into their appeals. Being perceived as anti–Wall Street will surely play to Brown’s and Cuomo’s advantage. And though White hasn’t a populist bone in his body, he will put to the test the conventional wisdom that having the crazy energy of the tea party behind you is an unalloyed electoral advantage in 2010.

One enormous caveat hovers over this fairly cheery analysis (for Democrats, that is). The strength of Republicans in the gubernatorial races in a number of swing states could easily mean that the GOP winds up with a lot to crow about in terms of statehouses on November 2. But if Democrats manage to claim two or, who knows, all three of the biggest enchiladas, the brutal blow they’re likely to suffer at the federal level might be softened just a bit. I know, I know. It’s not much. But at least it’s not nothing.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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