Political players in Austin stick to something called the "friendly incumbent rule."
It means they don't oppose — financially or otherwise — any officeholders who haven't given them good reason. It's why you rarely see the institutional political action committees lining up against current members of the Legislature or other officeholders who are seeking re-election.
The code keeps them out of fights that might later work against their interests, and it gives them an easy explanation for turning down support for candidates who might share their views.
It also generally means that you'll find the establishment all lined up on the same side in most races. Where the big-business trade PACs are, you'll find governors and attorneys general and comptrollers and folks like that.
Not this year — their differences are an early warning of friction in next year's legislative session.
East Texas has an easy example. There's Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, defending himself in a redrawn district packed with voters he has never represented. The governor and the attorney general and the comptroller have endorsed Christian.
But many of the big trade associations that might normally be with those heavyweights are instead with Chris Paddie, a radio station manager and personality who has also served as Marshall's mayor. Paddie has endorsements from trade groups for doctors, manufacturers, realtors, law enforcement groups, and even Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, whose Senate district overlaps the House district. While Christian been a reliable vote for social conservatives, the business groups say — for a variety of reasons — they can no longer count on him.
Legislative leaders mostly stay out of the way. It's just too dangerous for a speaker of the House, for instance, to take sides in a primary race. The politics of winning election from the elected representatives is messy enough. Better to wait, and deal with whomever the voters send to Austin.
But the differences between some of the Republicans running this year are striking, and they'll be consequential when the Legislature meets next year.
Here's Speaker Joe Straus visiting El Paso late last year, talking about government services instead of the price of government services: "We have no choice, unless we want to continue to try to grow our population and continue to shrink spending significantly," he told the El Paso Times. "I think at some point you can't cut your way to prosperity."
Keep in mind that he was talking on the eve of the election season, trying to set the stage for the political conversation to follow.
Gov. Rick Perry was nearing the end of his 15 minutes of presidential exposure. But he dusted himself off this year, offering a budget compact that deals not with the quality of government services but with the price of those services, limiting the growth of the budget and holding taxes at or below where they currently stand.
Straus was obliquely critical, avoiding a direct confrontation with the governor while showing Perry the back of his hand. "We welcome the input of the executive, but the Legislature needs to assert itself from time to time as well," he told a Washington group, as reported by The Dallas Morning News. "It's important that we remember the separation of powers and remember some of the lessons that we all learned or should have learned in civics class."
That should help you find the fault line between the House and the governor's office when lawmakers meet in January, and the institutional Republicans and trade groups now picking sides in the elections are intentionally or accidentally showing how they lean — more toward the House than the governor.
They're breaking the friendly incumbent rule while they're doing it. Texans for Lawsuit Reform taped a "Kick Me" sign to Sen. Jeff Wentworth's back in the San Antonio Republican's race for re-election. Christian has other groups nipping at his ankles. Freshman Rep. Marva Beck, R-Centerville, has institutional opposition. The divide is subtler in open seats — 30 in the state House, four in the Senate, six in the Congressional delegation — but the lines between different factions of the Republican Party are forming.
It's not clear where they'll form. But the regulars in the fight that usually move together — trade groups, lobbyists, PACs and other officeholders — aren't unanimous in their idea of what constitutes an ally, even in their own parties.
"It's two words, you know," a major PAC's director said recently. "Friendly. Incumbent."
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