OF ALL THE PLACES DURING THIS PRIMARY election season that one might expect to find David Dewhurst, a Republican candidate for land commissioner, one of the least likely ought to be on the airwaves of Austin. After all, the state capital remains a bastion of liberal Democrats. Yet Austinites could hardly avoid the sight of Dewhurst riding across their TV screens on horseback.

Dewhurst’s heavy media buy in Austin is yet another sign of the changes taking place in Texas politics—almost all of them favorable to Republicans—as the March 7 primaries approach. Two decades ago, when the GOP was still trying to elect its first governor of Texas since Reconstruction, the Republican primary was pretty much a Houston-Dallas affair. Except for the big cities and a few GOP strongholds such as Midland, Republicans held few local offices. This year, while Houston and Dallas remain the largest source of votes, places like Austin and Amarillo are disproportionately crucial, because each area has hotly contested local races that will bring out GOP voters. Even though Austin itself remains Democratic, the market is attractive to Republicans like Dewhurst because of its fast-growing conservative suburbs, including Williamson County to the north, where a vigorous county commissioner’s race is on the ballot. So is Randall County, which includes the southern part of Amarillo, where county judge races will also bring more GOP voters to the polls.

For a political party seeking to consolidate its hold on the state, local races are extraordinarily important. They broaden the constituency of the party by bringing in new voters who are loyal to a candidate, not to an interest group or an ideology. Courthouse politics used to be the basis of Democratic control of Texas. Even if voters were inclined to favor Republicans for president or governor in November, in most counties they had to cast their ballots in the Democratic primary if they wanted to have a say in who their local sheriff or district attorney was going to be.

But those days are over. In 1996 Republican primary turnout exceeded Democratic primary turnout for the first time. The GOP had a presidential primary battle to lure voters that year, however, and the Democrats did not. This election will be a purer test of party strength. No major statewide race—a close battle for governor or U.S. senator—is on the ballot in either party. Republicans do have three statewide downballot contests compared with the Democrats’ one (another good sign for the GOP), but few voters care enough about races for attorney general, railroad commissioner, or land commissioner to go to the polls if they were not otherwise planning to do so. Dewhurst’s media campaign is designed to make his name familiar to those who are voting for other reasons—either because they are party regulars or because they care about local races.

Still, these statewide races are important. The winners, if they get elected in November, will be part of the GOP farm team and in line to move up to the major leagues, just as Kay Bailey Hutchison went from state treasurer to U.S. senator. Here’s who might be next:

Attorney General. This is the big prize and the most interesting race. The Republican with the largest base is Tom Pauken of Dallas, a former state chairman of the Republican party and a longtime enemy of all Bushes named George. Bush loyalists (George W.’s, that is) encouraged state Supreme Court justice John Cornyn to leave the bench and make the race, only to have yet another Bush ally, railroad commissioner Barry Williamson, change his mind about running for comptroller and try for AG. Any two of the three could make the runoff. Williamson has the advantage of a campaign war chest in excess of $1.8 million, most of which he raised as railroad commissioner. But his hoped-for base in the oil and gas industry may not materialize; he supported a plan for posting gas pipeline prices on the Internet that pipeline companies successfully opposed. Cornyn has the best legal credentials, and while qualifications, alas, aren’t usually decisive in political races, his stature will bring some lawyers to the polls just to vote for him. The downside for Cornyn is that he has less money to spend than Williamson and is competing for the same voting base of traditional conservatives. Pauken has strong support on the religious right and in the party infrastructure, but he hasn’t been able to raise money (he’ll do radio spots, not TV). If the turnout is small, he will make the runoff, but the larger the electorate, the smaller his chances are. Of the three GOP candidates, he is the most likely to lose in the general election to Jim Mattox, the probable Democratic nominee.

Railroad Commissioner. The office is minor—oil and gas regulation is not a burning issue these days—but the race between former Secretary of State Tony Garza and former congressman Steve Stockman is major. Bush and his inner circle believe that the GOP must win over a sizable portion of the Hispanic vote if the party is to remain in power. Garza is the poster boy for that strategy. Originally he was running for land commissioner, but when the well-heeled Dewhurst got in the race, he switched to railroad commissioner. Despite a brief and bizarre congressional career (“Congressman Clueless,” February 1996), Stockman is no pushover. He will be backed by the religious right, and he built some name identification in the Houston area by defeating Democratic war-horse Jack Brooks in 1994 before losing his seat in 1996. Garza will have a considerable edge in money but perhaps not enough for a Dewhurst-style blitz. Like Cornyn in the attorney general’s race, he will attract some new voters, presumably Hispanic, to the GOP primary. But Stockman has an Anglo name, and the advantage of that in a primary where neither candidate is well known could be considerable. A Garza loss would be a devastating setback to Bush’s Hispanic strategy as well as a black eye for the GOP.

Land Commissioner. Dewhurst, a wealthy former GOP state finance chairman, has caught the political bug. He wants to be governor, which is why he thought about seeking the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor. But he blinked, and now he, like Williamson and Garza, is not running for the office he really wanted. Dewhurst’s icon-packed campaign ads, for all their ubiquity, come across as an attempt to remake an urbane Houston businessman into the second coming of Claytie Williams. (This is a good idea?) His main opponent, State Senator Jerry Patterson of Pasadena, is an all-too-rare type of politician: an unpolished, fearless, what-you-see-is-what-you-get overachiever—the kind of person whose idea of a great campaign speech is to tell opponents of his home equity lending law why they really should have supported it. There is a reason why such politicians are rare, and Patterson is about to find out.