Three Years Out, Texas Lt. Governor Race Heating Up

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs waits for Gov. Rick Perry at the meeting of the state's Cash Management Committee on July 19, 2011.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs waits for Gov. Rick Perry at the meeting of the state's Cash Management Committee on July 19, 2011.

The political seasons are overlapping this year. You don’t have to listen hard to hear people say it’s too late to get into the presidential race, or that it’s high time for the candidates to declare themselves in 2012 races for Congress and for state offices.

Candidates are popping up all over the place. One or two incumbent state legislators seem to drop out every week, prompting another round of announcements from an apparently bottomless pool of replacements. They’re on schedule. The primaries are less than six months away, and there are funds to raise and votes to corral.

But the 2012 announcements set off a scramble for some 2014 positions. Three statewide elected officials have their eyes on the lieutenant governor’s job now that David Dewhurst is running for U.S. Senate. It’s early to be maneuvering for an election that’s two and a half years away, they admit — but they admit it while pressing forward.

Comptroller Susan Combs is leading the pack. It’s not that she’s more popular or electable than Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson or Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — maybe she is and maybe she isn’t. It’s that she’s winning the finance primary.

For anyone other than a political fanatic or a political financier, this is like talking about who will be in the 2015 Cotton Bowl. Who knows, and what normal human would care? The fanatics and financiers, however, are tuned in, in large measure because the candidates are active.

At midyear, Combs had $5,355,235 in her political treasury, versus $1,086,812 for Staples and $310,962 for Patterson. Keep in mind that a week of statewide political commercials can cost well over $1 million, and those ads are the traditional way to attract enough attention to get elected in Texas.

The other two have taken notice. Patterson and Staples would like to let the air out of Combs’ tires before she drives away. You can tell because they’re leaving each other alone while they snipe at her.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune this week, Patterson argued that a data breach at Combs’s agency and her handling of it, along with her changed position on abortion rights, should disqualify her. The comptroller’s office accidentally left personal information about 3.5 million state employees and retirees exposed on the Internet for a year, then responded slowly and clumsily when it was discovered. More recently, Combs said she was abandoning the abortion rights position she has held for years, a switch she attributed to an unacceptably large number of abortions performed in the state and in the country.

“I don’t think that’s somebody who’s well reasoned and thoughtful enough to lead the Senate,” Patterson said, adding, “This will be for an opponent — whether it’s a Republican primary opponent or a Democratic generalelection opponent — the gift that keeps on giving.”

He made it clear that he’s not talking to voters, not yet at least. “It’s something that I think Texans who write large checks should know about, because the public will know about it in election time,” he said.

Earlier this summer, Staples got things going by raising questions about Combs’s delay of several weeks in telling people that their personal information had been exposed.

“I think when you’re driving down the street and you see someone’s house on fire and flames coming out the windows, you don’t need to drive around the block for two weeks and figure out who started the fire,” he said. “You need to go in there and get the people out of the house.”

He piled on last month, questioning Combs on the data breach and her position on abortion in a letter written to her and copied to Republican groups and to members of the news media.

Combs outraised both men, and by a wide margin, in the last campaign reporting period. The next one ends with the calendar year. And in the meantime, even though there’s a full set of 2012 campaigns under way, Staples and Patterson are trying to convince investors that she’s a bad bet for 2014.

What about Combs?

She’s busy raising money.

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