If 2014 is the year everything is supposed to change in Texas politics, why do the campaigns feel so irrelevant?
At long last 2014 has arrived, and with it comes the opportunity that all politicians long for: the chance to pursue higher office. For fourteen years, Rick Perry has stood in the way of every wannabe statewide official, and now the mad scramble to climb the political ladder is on as the March primary approaches. Republicans are furiously working to establish themselves in the hierarchy, and Democrats such as Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte are at long last trying to prove they can step up to the plate, with varying degrees of success. So in this year of long-awaited realignment, how would I describe the status of Texas politics right now? In a word, irrelevant.
By this I mean that there is no discernible interest in developing an agenda that could move the state forward, particularly in the Republican primary, which has managed to sidestep a thoughtful conversation about the direction of the party. The normal things that happen during an election cycle are not happening. There’s no substantive discussion of education and roads, no serious involvement in the national conversation, no credible policy initiatives to solve the most important problems. Politics is supposed to be a contest of ideas, but where is the contest, and what are the ideas? It makes me wonder if anyone out there even wants to move the state forward. Or have we come to the point that the only movement that matters is to the far right?
This is a sad state of affairs. The Republican party in Texas has split into factions, one being the tea party, the other being the House leadership under Joe Straus, and the primary amounts to civil war between these two groups. Instead of acting on the impulse to do what government does, which is to use the levers of state power to make life better for the people who live here, Texas remains stagnant. I have come to think of it as the “Midlandization” of state politics, which amounts to a hostile takeover by a handful of the richest and most powerful Texans who are serving only their self-interest. It is impossible to govern in such circumstances.
The most important development in this election season has been Greg Abbott’s decision to run to the right—the hard right. He was certainly under no compulsion to do so. After all, he is the Republican governor-in-waiting who avoided a serious challenger in the primary, and that allows him to chart his own course. Abbott is in a position to vastly alter the future of his party by changing its tone and broadening its appeal after the Perry era. For example, he knows that the party desperately needs to attract Hispanic voters, yet he persists in pursuing voter ID laws. In doing so, he has joined other Texas politicians in their mad rush to the far right. And yet, Abbott is in grave danger of failing as a leader. It doesn’t take a political genius to know that the Republican party is running out of time and ideas, and that the future cycles will not be so certain. The concern for Abbott ought to be that the state party is verging on intellectual bankruptcy, desirous only of turning on those politicians who might actually want to do something. Abbott might wake up one day and find that he was the last Republican governor of Texas.
The highest-profile race in the state is for lieutenant governor, which features a four-way battle between David Dewhurst, the incumbent; land commissioner Jerry Patterson; agriculture commissioner Todd Staples, and Harris County state senator Dan Patrick. The election is likely to come down to an intramural battle for votes in Harris County, with Patrick flexing his muscles in his huge senatorial district and Dewhurst utilizing his advantage in money. The race will surely go to a runoff—most likely between Dewhurst and Patrick. The incumbent wields a powerful weapon with his statewide name identification, but that can cut both ways: many voters will remember that Dewhurst was beaten by Ted Cruz in 2012.
Other down-ballot races are harder to analyze. Here is the basic problem. Aside from George P. Bush, very few candidates have any name I.D. In the race for attorney general, Barry Smitherman has used his position as the chairman of the Railroad Commission, the agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, to raise $1.7 million. Impressive, yes, but he’s trailing state representative Dan Branch, who pulled in $1.9 million. Of the AG candidates, Branch has the most real-life legal experience, which should be a plus when it comes to electing the state’s top legal officer. Like Abbott, he has pushed hard to the right to capture the attention of primary voters. Another down-ballot race that bears close watching is the battle for comptroller. The leading candidates are Harvey Hilderbran, the past chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and state senator Glenn Hegar, who led the abortion bill through the Senate during the special sessions.
Here’s the question I want to ask: How did Texas end up in the situation it finds itself in, with a long list of Republican candidates, most of whom are white males, unknown to the public, and virtually indistinguishable from one another? The answer is Rick Perry. He was the cork in the bottle that prevented aspiring politicians from seeking new offices for fourteen years and exerted absolute control over how Republican candidates could position themselves statewide. Now we have a ballot filled with wannabes. There are some real clinkers on the ballot. One is Wayne Christian, a candidate for the Railroad Commission who was one of the least-respected members of the House before he lost his seat in redistricting. In his heyday, Christian was known for proposing amendments to expand the study of Western civilization at state universities, which helped him win back-to-back honors as a worst legislator in 2009 and 2011. Another wannabe is Sid Miller, who is running for commissioner of agriculture and was the author of the odious sonogram bill during the Eighty-second Legislature. The idea of Miller and Christian winning their races is almost too much to bear. And let’s not overlook Van Taylor, who is running unopposed for a state Senate seat after pulling up the rear of last session’s worst legislators. Is this the best Texas can do? If so, the state should brace for the 2015 legislative session. The situation reminds me of a saying about the Capitol that was coined back when Democrats ran the state: “Built for giants, but inhabited by pygmies.”