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Unusual Texas governor's race accelerates

If you haven't gotten a full taste this summer of the venom in the Texas governor's race, you'll soon get a bigger dose.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you haven't gotten a full taste this summer of the venom in the Texas governor's race, you'll soon get a bigger dose.

Two hard-charging rival state officeholders, a low-key but tenacious former Houston congressman and a cowboy-clad, antiestablishment Hill Country humorist and mystery writer are starting to fight for votes in earnest. That means an onslaught of television commercials.

Based on past Texas gubernatorial races and the rhetoric of this campaign, expect the ads to be nonstop and, eventually, negative - especially between the big-spending candidates, Republican Gov. Rick Perry and independent Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Television ads cost about $1 million per week to blanket Texas. The Perry and Strayhorn campaigns view TV ads them as essential to spreading their respective messages in this state of 22 million people.

TV ads essential in Texas
"Running for governor here is like running for president of a small country," said Mark Sanders, spokesman for Strayhorn. "Most voters will never meet the candidates that are running for governor. They will see them on television in ads."

Democrat Chris Bell and independent Kinky Friedman have far less campaign money than Perry and Strayhorn and say they will run some ads at selected times this fall. Libertarian James Werner also is running.

Predicting how the ad war will play out isn't easy, what with four well-known candidates and the winner possibly pulling in less than 40 percent of the vote, say Republican and Democratic operatives from the 2002 governor's race.

Negative ads work
Well-funded candidates may have an incentive to advertise at high intensity and with more negative commercials to try to diminish an opponent's support, said Glenn Smith, who ran the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Tony Sanchez four years ago.

"While a lot of people say they don't like negative ads, they work," he said.

But the campaigns need to tread carefully; the fallout could send a voter elsewhere, said consultant Ray Sullivan, the spokesman for Perry's 2002 campaign.

"You could have a pox on both their houses and supporters move to another candidate," Sullivan said.

Campaign issues
Education, border security and job creation are likely to be some of the subjects of Perry's ads, said Sullivan, who still has close ties to the governor but is not on his payroll.

Look for Perry's opponents to emphasize education and health care and put down Perry's plan for privately run highways, Smith said.

Strayhorn's first commercial airs Monday, though her campaign officials wouldn't reveal any details. Perry's spokesman wouldn't divulge details about his ads, either.

"They'll start soon," Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black promised. "Stay tuned."

Once the ads get going, Strayhorn and Perry are expected to run them constantly until the Nov. 7 election. Both sides say they expect each other's ads to be mean-spirited.

"I think Texans need to be very prepared for Carole Strayhorn, particularly, to run a very negative campaign. I mean, she has spent the last year essentially trying to tear down this state and all that Texas has accomplished, and the governor," Black said.

Perry will run a positive race, but will defend himself if necessary, Black said.

"From Rick Perry I guess we're going to see exactly what he's promised, and that is a bloody, brutal campaign," Sanders said.

Previous races
The Perry-Sanchez campaign in 2002 was filled with bruising ads from both sides. One of the most notable was Perry's ad that tried to connect Sanchez to murderous Mexican drug smugglers through Sanchez's defunct Laredo savings and loan. Authorities never accused Sanchez of wrongdoing.

Perry will again use Austin-based Weeks & Co. Strayhorn has hired Alex Castellanos of National Media Inc. of Alexandria, Va., who has also done work for President Bush and has been hired by California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Both candidates ran ads reintroducing themselves to viewers at the beginning of the year, and Perry ran an ad promoting the success of a spring special legislative session on school funding and property taxes.

Lesser-financed campaigns
Bell aired an ad in a few television markets this summer in which he urged Texans to "think big" to improve schools and advance the state's economy. The commercial featured a larger-than-life Bell looming over the Alamo, sitting on the Texas Capitol and standing in Palo Duro Canyon.

Bell and Friedman each had less than $1 million in campaign cash on hand as of June 30, the end of the latest six-month reporting period. Perry had the biggest bank account with about $10 million, compared with about $8 million for Strayhorn.

More than television
The ads aren't all voters will see. Nationally over the past few election cycles there has been more attention paid to a "serious, energetic ground game" to supplement TV ads, said Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches campaign advertising.

In Republican-dominated Texas, the GOP ground organization gives Perry an advantage, said Shaw, who has consulted in the past for the Perry campaign.

Texas has about 20 media markets ranging from the small in Sherman and Harlingen to the large in Houston and Dallas. Cable television allows for more targeted ad buying aimed at particular demographic groups.

Bell said recently that his major ad push would come in October, although, like Perry and Strayhorn aides, he didn't want to discuss strategy.

Dark horse?
Smith, the Democratic strategist, said the wild card in the race is Friedman, the writer and musician whose effect on other candidates is unclear.

The unconventional Friedman camp taped commercials at Friedman's ranch near Kerrville this past week and has enough money for two weeks of TV advertising this fall, campaign spokeswoman Laura Stromberg said. Some of that money will come from a $350,000 fundraising concert Jimmy Buffett is performing Sept. 19.

When his ads do appear, they won't have to run too many times for his message to sink in, Stromberg said.

"It's Kinky," she said. "They'll be unforgettable."