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The Most Important Race of 2010

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In the year ahead, national campaign coverage will be focused almost entirely on the Congressional midterm elections. With Republicans poised to win a substantial number of seats in the House, and at least a few in the Senate, much of what happens in November will dictate the extent to which Obama will be able to push the rest of his legislative agenda through the final two years of his first term.

But with regard to the long term sustainability of Democratic majorities on the hill, the race that matters most in November isn't one for Congress at all. It's the gubernatorial race playing out in the unlikely state of Texas.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, one of the state's most popular Republicans, is challenging Gov. Rick Perry, the first time ever that a sitting Senator has come home to challenge a sitting Governor. That primary is expected to be well-funded and brutal. The right is already taking sides - Dick Cheney is sticking with Hutchison. Sarah Palin is for Perry.

Hutchison had originally intended to resign her seat in the Senate to concentrate on the governor's race, which would have set up a special election to replace her. With a runoff system instead of a nominating contest, that would have given Democrats their best possible chance of taking that Senate seat. Houston Mayor Bill White, with his 80% approval ratings and excellent fundraising ability, seemed the perfect candidate.

But pressure from her party and lagging poll numbers convinced Hutchison not to resign her seat. White, in turn, pulled out of the now non-existent special election, and turned his sights toward the governor's race, where he will take on the winner of the Hutchison/Perry rough-and-tumble.

If Bill White wins that race, he will be the first Democrat in the governor's mansion since Anne Richards. And he'll be the first in 20 years to preside over a statewide redistricting process.

That can have huge implications for the national Democratic party. The 2010 midterms are by far, the least important of the decade. They occur in the same year as the census, just a year before the redistricting process in which districts will be completely redrawn for 2012. Some members of Congress are running in 2010 for seats that won't exist come 2012. How that redistricting plays out is far more important than the outcome in 2010. And that's where Texas comes in.

The Census Bureau recently released population projections that suggest that Texas could pick up as many as four Congressional seats after the census. Those will have to be placed where the population growth occurred, which is invariably among minority communities in major urban areas. These will be Democratic districts.

It's also an opportunity to rid the state of the Congressional map drawn mid-decade by Tom Delay and the Republican-controlled state legislature, a map which caused Democrats to lose 7 seats through gerrymandering shenanigans. All told, if the Democrats have a seat at the negotiating table during the Texas redistricting process, they could pick up as many as 10 seats, perhaps more.

Bill White is the best chance Democrats have to get that seat at that table. The state legislature draws the map, subject to the governor's veto. The Republicans solidly control the state senate, but only hold a two vote margin in the state house. Democrats could find their seat at the table be retaking the state house in 2010, but in this political climate, the odds of that are relatively slim.

It will no doubt be an uphill climb for White, as well. Texas is going through major transformational changes, to be sure. It's a majority-minority state; all of its major cities voted for Obama except for Forth Worth. Obama lost the state by only 10 points without ever campaigning there. But the transformation of Texas from red to solidly purple is not yet complete, and the impact of the changes that have already taken place is least on display during an off-year election. Depressed turnout among minorities and young voters is exaggerated, leaving Democrats to contend among a much more hostile electorate.

Still, if anyone is up to the challenge, it may be White. As mayor of Houston, he was seen as a business-friendly moderate with strong management skills and a keen ability to execute effectively. Among the many styles of Democrats, his may be the only one palatable statewide. In the end, he may not be able to win the seat on his own, but if Rick Perry emerges from the primary bloodied by his formidable opponent, it might just give White the outside shot he needs.

Win that race, and much of the damage done during this year's midterms will be sure to be erased just two years down the line.