Life can't be much fun on the Chris Bell campaign. You're the Democratic nominee and you're stuck trading jabs with goofball-named candidates like Kinky and Grandma, while Governor Rick Perry sips mai-tais and looks down on you from his 15-point lead. Meanwhile, you have virtually no money on hand.
It's the kind of thing that can make a campaign manager get a little unhinged. That explains the e-mail we got from Bell's guy, Jason Stanford, this morning, in which we think he calls Carole Keeton Strayhorn — and by extension Democrats — a "fellow traveler." Really? Communism? We think that should be the Democrats' platform. Some borscht in every pot!
But what really struck us was this line about making friends:
"In politics, you try to accumulate friends and avoid enemies, but Kinky, in the course of this campaign, accomplishes the opposite."
That's a very fair point. In politics you want to make friends. So what better way to check a person's social status than their MySpace page? We couldn't find a page for Strayhorn or Perry. We understand Grandma's not having a page (she's still playing fiddlestix), but doesn't Republican Perry know that Rupert Murdoch owns the social-networking site? We did, however, find Bell's and Kinky's, both of which are run by the campaigns. Bad news for Bell:
Kinky Friedman: 22,474 friends.
Chris Bell: 121 friends.
Help out your fellow Houstonian, folks. Go on and ask him for an add. We're sure he'll say yes. -- Ray Hafner
After the jump, the full text of Stanford's "viability" e-mail:
To: interested parties From: Jason Stanford, Bell campaign manager Date: Aug. 9, 2006 Re: Viability
There are some irrefutable facts about the race for Texas Governor this year. Rick Perry is universally known, and despite Katrina and Rita and the special-session resolution, Rick Perry is stuck below 40% in the polls. About two-thirds of the electorate wants a new Governor, and in a plurality election, all the voters have to do to get that new Governor is to coalesce behind one challenger. And only those challengers capable of getting one more vote that Rick Perry should be considered viable.
Chris Bell is the only viable candidate to beat Rick Perry. Here's why:
Arguably the worst performing campaign so far is Republican Carole Strayhorn's Independent candidacy. From the outset, she enjoyed a solid fundraising base, high name ID despite her numerous married names, and a colorful reputation for rapid-fire rhetoric and political courage. And right off the bat, she aired a statewide TV ad touting her independent streak, which was her second round of advertising. Her long career as a Republican officeholder and her independent candidacy convinced some that she had the best chance to beat an unpopular incumbent.
But a funny thing happened on the Viability toll road:
In January, she was polling at 20.5% in Zogby/Wall Street Journal. In the July tracking poll, she's at 11%.
In February, she was polling at 31% in the Rasmussen poll. In August, she was at 18%.
In April she was at 25% in the SurveyUSA tracking poll. In June, 19%.
In other words, the longer she campaigns, the worse she does.
Her response to lagging polls was that "we jump 10 points" when people found out that she was "One Tough Grandma." Her ludicrous request to be listed as "Grandma" Strayhorn on the ballot ensued, followed by a transparently specious and patently desperate lawsuit that generated a flood of mocking publicity. Forget the trial judge who made fun of her request from the bench. Forget the tut-tutting from the editorial boards and the laughing from the political bars in Austin. The real sign that she has turned from a character into a caricature is that my neighbors and dog-walking acquaintances are sneering at her.
Another of her responses to her poor performance to date is the big pile of money she has socked away. The real question is what she thinks she can buy with that money. I'm not trying to make a good-government argument about this being an election and not an auction, either, though that is certainly true. The salient fact of her money is that she will have to both create a statewide infrastructure from scratch while convincing voters to abandon their past voting behavior. These two imperatives for Strayhorn's campaign combine the impossible with the wildly expensive.
This is essentially the point that the Lone Star Project made back in March when it published a memo finding that "Strayhorn has to win a difficult game of 'playing both sides against the middle.' She has no natural base, so she has to carve one from a very large number of regular Republican voters. However, she must build this Republican base while establishing voter appeal to Democrats, with whom she has no natural affinity."
Strayhorn's partisan history makes her crossover attempt a difficult and dubious sell:
Carole is a Republican. She identified herself as a Republican. She became and ran as a Republican before Rick Perry. (Source: The Associated Press, 11/2/1986 and Associated Press, 5/11/1989) Prior to 2006, she had voted in every single Republican primary since at least 1990. (Source: Travis County Elections Administration) She has close political and family ties to the Bush White House. In 2002, she endorsed, ran with, and campaigned for the entire Texas Republican ticket, including Rick Perry.
Even if she manages to navigate those rocky shoals and convince Democrats that she's a fellow-traveler without losing her Republican base and avoiding the pervasive appearance of craven opportunism, her strategy still has a fatal flaw: She has no county-by-county infrastructure. There is no Independent Party. She didn't have a convention with 7,000 delegates. Half of the signatures on her petitions weren't even valid. She has no statewide infrastructure, and no amount of money could create one in the 100 or so days we have left in this election. Simply put, she can't advertise her way out of this.
She has made a Democratic victory in this campaign possible, but she can't win. Given Strayhorn's fall in every public poll since the beginning of the year and the disaster of her Grandma lawsuit, those millions will keep her just viable enough to hold onto her Republican votes and to suppress Rick Perry's negatives in a de-facto independent expenditure campaign against the incumbent. She is not viable, and the sooner traditional Democratic donors accept a sober reading of the numbers, the better for all of us.
That brings us to Kinky, who benefits from the hullabaloo that celebrity brings to any campaign. In fact, his campaign has perhaps eclipsed his careers as a best-selling mystery novelist and as a novelty country singer as his legacy, and perhaps unfortunately so. It seems pervasive coverage does not translate into votes, or even in favorable opinions. His penchant for instigating controversy has driven his positive-negative ratio to 1-to-2. He has a dramatically net-negative rating across nearly all demographics. In politics, you try to accumulate friends and avoid enemies, but Kinky, in the course of this campaign, accomplishes the opposite.
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His growing unpopularity with the majority of the electorate stunts his growth potential, rendering him unviable, but that's not even his biggest problem. His biggest problem is that he counts as his core supporters non-regular, infrequent voters. That's like making a hamburger by squirting mustard on a paper plate and calling it a good start. Getting people to change their behavior in politics is a recipe for false hopes and a loss on Election Day. Without same-day registration, Kinky has likely peaked.
Which brings us to Chris Bell. With limited resources and little establishment support, Chris Bell suffers from a concern less about his viability than the conventional wisdom about the viability of any Democrat running statewide in Texas. This concern preceded the campaign, and despite this prejudice, Chris Bell is either tied or ahead in all public polls with McStraylander and Kinky despite having half their name ID. Running neck & neck with candidates who are much better known suggests that only Chris Bell enjoys a substantial upside potential.
All he's done so far is exceed expectations. He was never supposed to beat a former statewide elected official in the primary; he won 64-28. He was never supposed to raise even $1 million; he's raised more than $2 million. The press wasn't supposed to pay any attention to him; over the last couple of months, he has driven coverage of this race, other than the Grandma lawsuit.
Add to that the fact that Chris Bell has the nomination of a statewide party that has existing infrastructure in well over 200 counties. Add to that Chris Bell's support of organized labor and other groups yet to come, and you have the picture of the only candidate viable of defeating Rick Perry.