Texas political scramble: Perry’s plans create statewide shift

Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry’s decision not to seek another term is expected to uncork the most pervasive political reshuffling in more than a decade as officeholders at all levels of government seize the opportunity to move up in next year’s elections. The marquee contest, obviously, will center on choosing the next occupant of the office that Perry has held for more than 12 years. But scores of other races are taking shape as political leap-frogging creates openings in statewide offices, the Legislature and local city councils and county government.

‘’It’s almost like Perry’s announcement becomes the starting pistol for a lot of these guys,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Gearing up for a seemingly unprecedented crop of contested GOP primary races, at least 20 Republicans – more than half of whom are either statewide officeholders or legislators – have emerged as candidates or potential contenders for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and railroad commissioner.

“I’ve never seen the multitude of statewide Republican primary races that each have this many candidates,” said Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri, who has been active in Republican politics for more than four decades. One candidate who could escape a serious battle is 37-year-old George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and the nephew of former President George W. Bush. Making his first political foray in the race for land commissioner, the Fort Worth businessman with the famous name has been traveling the state for months in his bid to be the next steward of Texas public lands. Thus far, he has yet to draw a challenger. No Democrats have officially stepped forward in statewide races, but Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa predicts that his party will field candidates for every statewide office on the ballot. State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, an overnight national media celebrity after her filibuster against a Republican abortion bill, has become the most visible potential candidate as she considers a possible race for governor. Tanene Allison, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said Democrats are currently focused on battling the latest version of the abortion bill in the special legislative session.

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“After that we’re going to work on (recruiting candidates) who embody the values of Texans,” she said. “Democratic Texans are fired up and ready to take the fight to 2014.” National Democrats are waging a “Battleground Texas” campaign to erase the party’s nearly two-decade-long drought in statewide politics but Munisteri and other Republicans predict that Texas will remain a Republican bastion long after next year’s elections. Democrats haven’t won a statewide office since 1994, enabling Republicans to solidify control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. Perry has been at the top of the Republican power structure since becoming governor in December 2000.

Perry’s record-long hold on the office has had the effect of restricting movement up the Republican political ladder. Attorney General Greg Abbott, widely touted as Perry’s heir-apparent for the Republican nomination in 2014, had signaled, for example, that he would not run for governor if Perry chose to seek an unprecedented fourth term. The last incumbent governor who chose not to seek re-election was Republican Bill Clements, who served two non-consecutive terms in the 1980s and decided against running for a third term in 1990. Now, with Perry stepping aside, Munisteri is predicting a “seismic shift” in leadership as new faces fill the governor’s office and other positions. The complete picture of the 2014 elections will begin to materialize in less than four months when the 30-day candidate filing period begins on Nov. 9. In the meantime, here’s a look at the early state of play for major races: U.S. Senate Republican incumbent John Cornyn, a former state attorney general and Texas Supreme Court justice, is seeking re-election to a third term in this top-of-the-ballot race and has not drawn an announced competitor in either party. Hinojosa said several Democrats are seriously considering running but said he would be breaking a confidence to identify them.

Governor Abbott, attorney general since 2002, has long been considered the Republican heir-apparent to replace Perry and has raised more than $18 million for the upcoming race. Perry’s announcement last week frees him to make a formal announcement. He made his official announcement Sunday July 14. (See ‘Abbott offically announces’)  Thus far, the only other announced candidate is former GOP chairman Tom Pauken, who is seeking to reach out to Texans “who feel they aren’t being heard by political insiders who wield power.” After surging to national Democratic stardom following her filibuster on the Senate floor, Davis has easily emerged as her party’s favorite to run for governor and is considering taking the plunge. “Wendy Davis knows that I want her to run,” said Hinojosa, the state Democratic chairman, describing the two-term senator as Texas Democrats’ “best shot…in a generation” to take the governor’s office back. “This is a decision that she has to consider. It’s not an easy task but I believe that if anybody can do it, she can do it.” Conversely, Munisteri, the GOP chairman, said he would welcome a Davis gubernatorial bid, predicting that Republicans would not only beat Davis in that race but would also pick up the Tarrant County Senate seat that she would be forced to vacate to seek higher office. “I’d love for her to run for governor,” said Munisteri. Davis has further heightened her statewide profile in a recent eight-city “Standing With Texas Women” tour sponsored by Planned Parenthood over the abortion debate. Her spokesman, Rick Svatora, said she has been considering her options on whether to enter the governor’s race or seek re-election to another term in Senate District 10. In a statement after Perry’s announcement, Davis said, “I feel confident the next campaign will sort itself out in due time. For now my priorities remain the same – focusing on the work at hand and fighting to make Texas a great place for all families.”

Lieutenant Governor If Democrats don’t recruit Davis or another credible contender in the governor’s race, this is the contest that will generate the most heat. Republican incumbent David Dewhurst, who has been the state’s No. 2 officeholder since 2003, is embroiled in a four-way primary struggle against Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, State Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, has been perceived as vulnerable after being defeated by tea party-backed Ted Cruz in last year’s primary runoff for the U.S. Senate seat that Cruz now occupies. The specter of vulnerability intensified on the chaotic final night of the first special session when the abortion bill died amid shouts from gallery spectators supporting the Davis filibuster. Dewhurst spokesman Travis Considine said Dewhurst is currently focused on the special session. “We’re eager for the lieutenant governor to speak with grassroots supporters all over Texas about the successes of this session,” he said.

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Attorney General Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman and State Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, are both pursuing the state’s chief law enforcement job. State Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney is also thought to be seriously considering the race.

Comptroller Comptroller Susan Combs’ decision not to seek re-election has already generated a spirited Republican primary for the job of the state’s chief financial officer. Announced or prospective candidates include: State Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr. of Katy; State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville; tea party activist Debra Medina of Wharton (who ran for governor against Perry in 2010); and former state Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi.

Railroad Commission At least three Republicans want to replace Smitherman on the three-member commission that regulates the oil and gas industry: State Rep. Stefani Carter of Dallas; Dallas businessman Malachi Boyuls, who is George P. Bush’s business partner; and geologist and Republican activist Becky Berger of Schulenburg.

Agriculture Commissioner Among those seeking Staples’ job are State Rep. Brandon Creighton of Conroe and former Republican State Party director Eric Opiela of Austin. Former State Rep. Tommy Merritt of Longview reportedly has been eying the post as well.