By Joshua Fechter, Houston Chronicle
Only Abbott, Bush likely to avoid tight contests; Cornyn’s result unclear
A crowded field of Republican candidates for nonjudicial statewide posts makes it highly probably that contested GOP primary races for five top Texas political positions will not be decided until runoffs in May.
Multiple Republican candidates are slugging it out in races for lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. Democratic candidates also are facing off in some races, though a Democrat has not held a statewide nonjudicial position since 1994.
With Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs not seeking re-election to their respective posts, a seismic shift is occurring as Republicans scramble to move to higher office.
“For most of these statewide races, this is just Round One,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
Analysts say only two candidates on the GOP ballot look to avoid a runoff: Abbott, who is seeking the governor’s mansion, and George P. Bush, a grandson and nephew of former presidents, who is running for land commissioner in his first bid for elected office.
Unknown is whether U.S. Sen. John Cornyn will avoid a runoff in his re-election bid. He faces seven challengers, including Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, who is under a cloud of ethics questions.
Republican pollster Mike Baselice said Cornyn’s opponents do not have much cash to get their message out, which works against them in a relatively quiet race.
“There’s so little talk about the U.S. Senate race, we shouldn’t even be talking about it anymore,” Baselice said.
Others think Cornyn has not quite locked down the nomination. Democratic consultant Jason Stanford said dissatisfaction with Cornyn’s performance within tea party groups could lead to a protest vote against the two-term senator.
Tea party activists have questioned Cornyn’s conservative credentials, even though he had the second-most conservative voting record in 2012 in the U.S. Senate, according to National Journal magazine. He also serves as the Senate minority whip, the second highest GOP leadership position in the U.S. Senate.
“This is the tension between being in leadership and being an insurgent,” Stanford said. “A lot of Republican voters feel like they are outsiders trying to storm the castle.”
Tea party support
Stanford said candidates hope to duplicate the strategy U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz used to win his seat during the 2012 primary election: force opponents considered “establishment” Republicans into a runoff and drum up enough tea party support to beat them.
That tactic certainly is in play in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst lost to Cruz in the 2012 U.S. Senate race. But Dewhurst is expected to make it to the May 27 runoff in his GOP race for re-election. He faces three challengers: Houston state Sen. Dan Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
All three challengers have been attacking Dewhurst for his leadership, and all four claim to be the most conservative. The race has been full of harsh rhetoric on immigration and has turned particularly nasty between Patterson and Patrick.
Patterson hired a private investigator who has turned up three men claiming they worked for Patrick’s now-defunct restaurant business while in the country illegally about 30 years ago. Patrick has denied the allegations, and a number of tea party groups across the state have publicly expressed support for him.
Patterson could end up hurting himself in addition to Patrick, Jones said. “The two people involved in the fight are the ones that get hurt,” he said.
Candidates in the attorney general race have shied away from mudslinging.
State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, considered the frontrunner for attorney general race, is up against state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, and Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, who are vying for the tea party vote.
Branch is the only candidate running advertisements in all four of the state’s top TV markets, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Austin.
“As attorney general, I’ll have a special file for Washington’s bad ideas,” Branch declares in his latest video ad that also shows him feeding a paper marked “Obamacare” into a shredder.
Paxton’s ad – airing in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio – shows the candidate going hard after the same voters who boosted Cruz to victory in 2012 by including the freshman senator praising Paxton at an event in Allen as “the only constitutional conservative” in the race.
“Ken Paxton stands and fights whether it’s against Obamacare, whether it’s fighting for voter ID or whether it’s fighting to defend our religious liberty,” Cruz says in the ad.
If Paxton makes it into the runoff, Jones said, he likely will “attack Branch and try to portray him as a moderate.”
Down the ballot
It is a trickier situation farther down the ballot. Candidates running for comptroller, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner have little to no statewide name recognition or campaign funds.
Four GOP candidates are competing to replacing outgoing Comptroller Combs: state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, former gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina and former state Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi.
Five Republicans are trying to replace Staples: Uvalde Mayor J. Allen Carnes, Austin-based lawyer Eric Opiela, former Railroad Commission candidate Joe Cotten and former state Reps. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, and Tommy Merritt, R-Longview.
Another four GOP candidates are slugging it out for railroad commissioner: geologist Becky Berger, venture capitalist Malachi Boyuls, former state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, and oilfield engineer Ryan Sitton.
“You just have all of this pent-up political ambition that is finally breaking loose,” Jones said. “For many candidates, they realize it’s now or never.”
Races are far less crowded on the Democrat ticket. Primary voters will sort out the five candidates running for U.S. Senate and three running for agriculture commissioner, including satirist Kinky Friedman, who lost a 2010 bid for the same office.
Early voting continues through Friday. Election Day is March 4.