Without Major Opposition, Abbott Won't Have to Explain

Greg Abbott on July 14, 2013, announcing his run for governor.
Greg Abbott on July 14, 2013, announcing his run for governor.

The trouble with a big, noncompetitive election is that the rich folks get to make all of the decisions.

A candidate with no real opposition — no opponents who can put together enough oomph to demand a real debate on the issues and qualifications — is a candidate who doesn’t have to answer the kinds of questions voters want answered before they make their choices.

Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor with all of the big-money Republicans locked up and most of his Republican competitors — Tom Pauken is the most prominent — effectively locked out. He recently filed campaign finance reports showing he raised $4.8 million in the last two weeks of June and reached the midyear mark with almost $21 million in the bank. That’s really smart: if Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had been able to keep all of the money away from his competition last year, he would be in the United States Senate and Ted Cruz would be a lawyer in Houston.

Good for Abbott, maybe, but not necessarily for voters.

The last open-seat race for governor of Texas, in 1990, attracted two statewide officials; a former governor; a former railroad commissioner and congressman; a former Texas secretary of state; a highly regarded Dallas lawyer; and a very rich West Texas oilman. It attracted another seven candidates, too — most of them relatively unknown both before and after that race, having apparently signed up just to see if lightning would strike.

By the time it got down to Ann Richards, the Democrat, and Clayton Williams Jr., the Republican, voters had a pretty good idea of why everybody wanted to be in office, where they stood on issues and whether they could string words together in complete sentences, under pressure.

This wasn’t just a general election thing. True, both of the major parties were strong — both had a shot at that and other offices — and both took away some wins. But the primaries were competitive. The Democratic primary, in particular, was a knockdown, drag-out brawl that went to a runoff. One candidate — Jim Mattox, then the state’s attorney general — was accusing Richards, then the state’s treasurer, of a history of illegal drug use, while at the same time calling himself “the only candidate in this race who has been proven innocent by a jury of his peers.”

The Republican primary was entertaining, if less competitive. Williams won without a runoff.

This year’s race doesn’t look competitive, at least not yet. Abbott just got into it, and hasn’t answered Pauken’s call for debates. The Democrats don’t even have a candidate.

Political journalists like competitive races, so there is a bias here. But voters do, too. Competitive races are fun to watch, engaging and revealing. In spite of the layers of consultants and image sculptors and professional fabulists, something about the nature of the candidates comes out.

The contestants have to say what they’re for, what they’re against and why. They have to defend themselves. They have to dissect their opponents. You might not like the results of one contest or another, but a hard-fought political campaign at least lets you know what you’re getting.

A race with little or no competition carries the risk that Texans will have to vote without knowing enough about the person they’re electing.

Although he holds a powerful job, Abbott has spent most of his time in public office outside the center ring where the governor resides. His politics and policies are still largely unknown.

Like this: one of his regular dodges is that his own personal views on a particular issue don’t matter, because his job is to enforce the laws passed by the Legislature.

Good answer, for a lawyer.

But he’s asking to be elected to an executive position, and it’s time to start taking positions. Abbott might well do that on his own, but without a serious competitor he won’t have to endure the full examination. Read “serious” there to mean “enough of a political threat to require engagement.” Pauken or someone else might draw him out, but Abbott is the only person in the race starting from a position of strength.

Weird, right? All that talk about pent-up political ambition among the Republicans and they’re letting Abbott glide in without a fight? 

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