Texans make crucial decisions at the ballot box

AUSTIN -- Millions of Texans will cast ballots in potentially historic elections today as Republican Rick Perry seeks to extend his record tenure in the governor's office to more than 14 years and his Democratic challenger, former Houston Mayor Bill White, hopes to convince voters that it's time for change.

The contentious battle for governor is the Election Day headliner in the Lone Star State, but much more is also at stake. Texans will help decide control of Congress and will shape the makeup of the 2011 state Legislature. North Texas voters will decide crucial local races and propositions such as bond issues and beer-and-wine sales.

Both parties ramped up get-out-the-vote efforts to propel supporters to the polls and close the sale with wavering or undecided voters. Pre-election surveys have consistently shown Republicans with the momentum, both in Texas and nationally, but Democrats vowed to defy the oddsmakers by the time the polls close at 7 p.m.

The midterm elections loomed as a referendum on President Barack Obama, whose declining popularity has raised the prospect of extensive Democratic losses in Congress.

In North Texas, a handful of races have Democratic incumbents fighting for survival.

The costly battle between U.S Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, and Republican challenger Bill Flores has become one of the most closely watched in the country. The district stretches from College Station to Johnson and Hood counties and includes former President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford.

Among state legislative races, Reps. Chris Turner of Burleson and Paula Pierson of Arlington, both Democrats, are facing lively challenges from Republicans Bill Zedler and Barbara Nash, respectively. The two races are among more than a dozen statewide that will determine the partisan split in the Texas House, where Republicans now have a four-seat advantage.

Bond programs and efforts to legalize sales of beer and wine are among the propositions on the ballot for 10 local cities. Voting in Keller may take a while as the ballot includes 39 propositions to amend the city's charter. In Watauga, four candidates are running in a special election to fill City Council Place 6.

In other key statewide races, Republican incumbents were hoping for strong showings against Democratic challengers. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst faces Linda Chavez-Thompson, a former national labor leader from San Antonio. Attorney General Greg Abbott is opposed by Houston attorney Barbara Ann Radnofsky. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson is being challenged by former state Sen. Hector Uribe, and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples faces Whitehouse rancher Hank Gilbert.

Perry, already the state's longest-serving governor, will be in office until January of 2015 if he wins re-election to a full third-four year term. Perry has also served as a state legislator and Texas agriculture commissioner and was lieutenant governor when he ascended to the governor's post in December 2000 after Gov. George W. Bush was elected president.

After serving the remainder of Bush's term, Perry was elected to a full term in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006, with 39 percent of the vote against three other well-known candidates. Although Perry was portrayed as vulnerable at the outset of his current term, he has seemingly strengthened his hold on his office, telling voters that Texas has led the nation in job creation and is in far better shape economically than other states.

Perry held a 12-point lead over White in a survey last week by the Star-Telegram and other Texas newspapers. But White has said his internal polls show a closer race.

Perry has also been generating attention because some consultants consider him a potential Republican presidential contender, although he says he loves his current job. He has a new book coming out Nov. 15.

In seeking to become the first Democratic governor in nearly 15 years, White has depicted Perry as being out of touch with the needs of Texas voters. He also made ethics a key element of his campaign, accusing Perry of cronyism and of using his office to dole out political favors to big political contributors.

Libertarians and the Green Party are also fielding candidates in a number of races. Libertarian Kathie Glass and Green Party nominee Deb Shafto, both of Houston, are running against Perry and White for governor.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-476-4294

Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695