Political season heats up


CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Republican candidates for Texas’ top offices have had their soft openings; Labor Day marks the beginning of the real campaign season.

Now that the March primary is six months away, it’s time for one of the most wide-open elections in a decade to begin picking up steam, at least for Republicans. Only one Democrat has announced for statewide office.

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But in a red state like Texas, where no Democrat has won statewide in 20 years, the Republican primary is where the action is. There are 22 candidates for the top eight jobs, six of which have no incumbent.

So far Attorney General Greg Abbott has only one challenger for the governor’s mansion: Tom Pauken, a Vietnam veteran, former Reagan administration official and until recently the Texas Workforce commissioner. Abbott is well in the lead in the money race with more than $20 million to Pauken’s roughly $100,000.

Abbott isn’t taking any chances, though, making public appearances across the state to meet with the Republican mainstream and tea party activists alike. He’s also raising more money, since political operatives say the minimum buy-in for the general election is $40 million between now and Nov. 4, 2014.

The races farther down the ticket are far more competitive, and therefore potentially more dramatic.

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Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst goes into his re-election bid weakened by a 2012 election loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and the alleged embezzlement of $2.3 million by a former campaign manager of donated money. The former CIA officer also got into hot water when he called a suburban police department to see if he could get his step-niece released after she was arrested for shoplifting.

Cruz identified Dewhurst’s vulnerable right flank, prompting state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples to jump into the race to prove they are the most conservative. Dewhurst has attempted to win favor by hiring tea party veterans to help with his campaign and making sure anti-abortion restriction became law. But that’s not enough for those who insist he should no longer preside over the Texas Senate.

Patrick, a Houston radio host, has invoked “the Holy Bible” to oppose a San Antonio ordinance that would ban discrimination against homosexuals. Patterson is best known as the author of Texas’ concealed handgun law, while Staples has made hawkish policies on border security and immigration his signature issues.

All of Dewhurst’s challengers complain about his poor leadership over the last decade, but Dewhurst points out that the state’s economic growth — even through the Great Recession — occurred under his watch.

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The third most important job in state government is arguably the attorney general office, which Abbott has left open for either state Rep. Dan Branch, state Sen. Ken Paxton or Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman to compete for in the Republican primary. All three men are promising to sue to block the Obama administration’s policies with the same vigor that Abbott did.

There are four Republican candidates for state comptroller, the state’s top revenue and disbursement officer. State Sen. Glenn Hegar from Katy, Kerrville state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, tea party activist Debra Medina and former Corpus Christ state Rep. Raul Torres have all promised to bring conservative innovations to the office.

For these top posts, all the candidates have lengthy experience in Texas politics, but the other races offer some fresh faces, the most high-profile being George P. Bush, nephew of former President George W. Bush, making his first bid for elected office for land commissioner.

One word none of the candidates mention is moderate, unless they are using it to describe their opponents. Presumably based on polling of Republican primary voters, all of them are claiming to be authentic, conservative fighters who oppose the Obama administration in general and the Affordable Care Act in particular.

With so many candidates for these top jobs, they know the odds of winning outright are thin and many will concentrate on getting into a two-candidate run-off. That means the candidates will need to differentiate themselves from one another, and that usually comes in the form of attack ads. By February, many television viewers will be longing for the dog-days of summer.