The Outsiders

Illustration by André Carrilho

I arrived in Austin, Texas, less than 24 hours after the sitting governor, Rick Perry, had delivered a vicious thumping to the pair of GOP-primary rivals who had been trying to deny him a third term. I expected to find my Democratic pals down there pickling their sorrows in Patrón, since by piling up 51 percent of the vote, Perry had avoided a costly runoff with either Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison or tea-party darling Debra Medina.

But the Texan liberals (and, no, that’s not a misprint or an oxymoron) I consulted greeted Perry’s victory with equanimity. In fact, to a person, they contended that the Democratic nominee, former Houston mayor Bill White, will give their party its best shot at recapturing the capitol since Ann Richards occupied it in the early nineties. And just to prove they weren’t drunk or dreaming, they had the polls to prove it.

As it happened, on the same day that Perry scored his win, another piece of gubernatorial news was unfurling a few states farther west: Former California governor Jerry Brown announced that he would attempt to reclaim the post he held more than 25 years ago. Brown’s declaration was no surprise, but to Golden State Democrats who see him as the strongest available candidate, it was heartening all the same—inducing almost as much relief and satisfaction as was felt by New York Democrats a few days earlier, when David Paterson finally abandoned his (futile, lunatic) quest to hold on to his job, thus clearing the way for Andrew Cuomo to become his party’s standard-bearer without a bruising primary fight.

These developments in the governors’ races in the three biggest states in the union are fascinating in themselves. But they may also carry a larger meaning come November. At the moment, the prevailing meme about 2010 is that it’s shaping up to be 1994 all over again—another year in which tidal forces sweep Democrats out of power and return Republicans to regnancy. What’s often forgotten about 1994, however, is that almost as significant as the takeover of Congress by the GOP was their capture of the governorships of New York and Texas, along with Pete Wilson’s staving off a fierce challenge by Kathleen Brown, Jerry’s sister, in California.

A repeat of that trifecta now seems virtually impossible; indeed, there’s even an outside chance that Democrats could carry all three states. That such an outcome is even remotely possible suggests that what’s going on in the electorate right now may be more complex than many assume—and that applying an old model to our new political reality may be a sucker’s game.

The obvious place to start is New York, if only because the Paterson situation is such a spectacular mess. Here you have an unadmired and chronically unpopular chief executive, who’s enacted the Albany equivalent of the famous self-immolation by a Buddhist monk on the streets of Hue during the Vietnam War—pouring gasoline over his head, then striking the match. Add to that the fact that the man whom he replaced was run out of office by his own johnson. And that the budget is awash in red ink. Surely this would be a moment of ripe opportunity for a resurgent GOP?

You’d certainly think so—until you looked up and noticed that the heaviest weaponry the party seems capable of marshaling for the impending fight is … Rick Lazio.

It would be easy to write off New York as being colored so deep blue as to be a flagrant outlier, indicative of nothing. But that would ignore a recent history in which the Republican Party fielded such figures as George Pataki, Rudolph Giuliani, and Al D’Amato—big-time pols who, love them or hate them, were all indisputably formidable. The absence of any inheritors to that tradition today speaks to a central difference between the current Republican revolution and the previous one: that while the intensity of feeling is similar, the breadth of its reach seems more limited.

California, of course, is another state wrongly caricatured as reflexively indigo. In truth, the governorship there has been held by a Republican for all but four of the past 27 years. This year’s race will likely pit Brown against former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a political neophyte who nonetheless will bring an array of assets, both literal and figurative, to her first run for high office: composure, managerial skills, moderate positioning, a vast war chest built on top of her own billionairehood, and, perhaps most important, an obviously credible claim to the outsider’s mantle at a time when all insidery affiliations and credentials are presumed to be the kiss of death.

Brown certainly has a lot of those. In addition to his two terms as governor, he has served as California’s secretary of State, as mayor of Oakland, and, currently, as the state’s attorney general. Already Whitman is assailing his career as “a trail of failed experiments, big-government spending, and higher taxes.”

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.


The Outsiders