Candidates in Down-Ballot Races Bid for Attention

Their names have appeared on statewide ballots representing major political parties over the last 16 years, but you might not know them: Marta Greytok, David Hartman, Marvin Gregory, Teresa Doggett, Pete Patterson, Joe B. Henderson, Marty Akins, Tom Ramsay, Sherry Boyles, Maria Luisa Alvarado, David Van Os, Fred Head, Valinda Hathcox, Dale Henry.

For the most part, these down-ballot candidates and others like them couldn't get voters' attention for more than a day or so. It's hard to have any influence on the outcome of an election if you can't raise money and voters don't know you're running. Behind this year's marquee race — the one for governor that's starting to crowd out the ads for soap and cars and beer on your TV — are contests for lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner, along with the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Most Texans can't name the incumbents in those posts, much less the challengers. Try it yourself and check the list.

And it's not only candidates at the bottom of the state ballot who breathe the exhaust of the lead car. It's possible to be invisible right there at the top and not get much notice.

Barbara Ann Radnofsky ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, challenging Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison in a year when political eyes were locked on a four-way race for governor featuring Rick Perry, Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman.

"They sucked the oxygen out, to be frank about it," Radnofsky says.

She wrote a book to build name ID. Few read it, but she got some press because she wrote it on her BlackBerry while she was traveling, a factlet that turned into a story itself and then into a sideshow story about how fast she could scribble on the device. It ended up on national TV: "I typed off against Mark Halperin," she remembers, referring to the Time magazine political scribe. She lost the race anyway, 62-36. Now she's running for attorney general against Republican incumbent Greg Abbott. The money folk and the media are focused, as usual, on the governor's race.

This time, she says, there's another factor working against her: People who might contribute are looking over their shoulders. "There's a sense that there will be retribution for donating to the challenger and reward for donating to the incumbent," she says. She offers no evidence to support that, but says she's made 15,000 money-raising calls on her way to that impression.

Radnofsky also is confronting political momentum. Abbott has more money in his accounts than anyone else in state politics — including the gubernatorial candidates — and it's difficult to raise money when you're opponent looks so formidable. You have to convince folks you've got a shot before they'll invest.

Look how this race began, with a story in the Austin American-Statesman on June 24, 2009. The article was about the decision by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, not to seek her party's nomination for governor. She suggested voters look to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. The last paragraph started this way: "In other political news Tuesday, Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky issued a statement confirming her plans to run for Texas attorney general."

That wasn't necessarily a bad day for someone in her spot.

"It is what it is," says Watson, who ran against Abbott in 2002. "You learned real quick that you weren't in control of your destiny," he says of the experience.

He was part of the "dream team" pulled together by Democrats to run that year: former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk for U.S. Senate, Laredo gazillionaire Tony Sanchez for governor, former comptroller John Sharp for lieutenant governor and Watson for AG. "Ego being what it is, anyone willing to put themselves on the ballot … thinks they'll be the breakout," Watson says. Instead, he says, he considered it a win to be included in that "also" paragraph at the bottom of a story about something else. Attention from finance folks went the same way, he says. He was No. 4 in line.

"The only limitation to that was that Ron had a federal race. But for federal [campaign finance] limits, I wouldn't have gotten any money at all," he jokes. He actually raised millions for his race, but it wasn't enough to turn the tide. The Republicans on the ticket that year — John Cornyn, Perry, David Dewhurst and Abbott — swept into office.

Judges from both parties have been running like this for years. Their political fates are synced to the political winds, for the most part — Republicans win in Republican years, Democrats in Democratic years — but they've become expert at working the margins. It costs $1.5 million or more to run a statewide commercial on television for a week in Texas (at a rate that'll be seen by enough people to matter), and judges and other down-ballot statewide candidates rarely have enough to last more than two weeks at that pace. They have to figure out how to stretch the money.

Wallace Jefferson, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, decided to spend all of his money in Houston in 2002, hoping to win enough raw votes there to offset weaknesses elsewhere. "He had a good story and was able to stand out," says Todd Olsen, a GOP consultant who has worked on a number of judicial contests over the years. One of Olsen's clients, then-Justice Al Gonzales, saved his money until the end of the 2000 GOP primary race and ran statewide commercials for the last 10 days. When the votes were counted, the early vote wasn't great — lots of those people voted before his ads ran — but the boost from Election Day voters took him over the top.

"All those candidates feel they can't get to Broadway," Olsen says. "What they're trying to do is looking at the differential and wondering, 'How do I change this?'"

New media helps. Websites that promote candidates and antagonize their opponents have become commonplace. More importantly, the internet, social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and even good ol' e-mail allow candidates to cheaply work around the lack of attention they get from mainstream media.

Hank Gilbert, a Democrat running for agriculture commissioner, has been able to win attention with web videos and guerrilla marketing in his race against incumbent Todd Staples this year. Staples has responded with web attacks, too, and voters can now choose on the web between "guilty, guilty Gilbert" and "sleazy, sleazy Staples."

"It used to be, you get one good story about your race," Watson says of the statewide candidates in the shadows. "It may be that, in the future, you can use the new media to become known. I think you're seeing some of that already."

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