An effective campaign pitch to voters usually needs to answer one crucial question: How will you differ from the current officeholder?
For incumbents, the answer is usually “not much.” For someone challenging an incumbent or running for an open seat, candidate responses can range from “more of the same” to “a complete 180.”
More than six months ahead of the 2014 primaries, three of the statewide Republican races already have the entire incumbent-performance-review spectrum covered. In another, the contestants scarcely mention the current officeholder.
At the extremes are the races for attorney general and lieutenant governor. While Attorney General Greg Abbott runs for governor, those vying to replace him are vowing to continue “Abbott’s legacy.” The lieutenant governor’s race, meanwhile, is an early contender for nastiest primary of the election cycle, as state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples; and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson take turns mocking Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and conveniently ignoring any of their own past praise of his leadership.
Then there’s the race to succeed Comptroller Susan Combs. She announced her retirement from public office in June after deciding against a long-planned entry into that crowded race for lieutenant governor. In her seven years as comptroller, Combs has given antagonists a lot to talk about. She made life easy for critics in 2011, when a data breach by the agency exposed 3.5 million Texans to potential identity theft. She also has fought back allegations of cronyism related to the awarding of millions of dollars in tax incentives and questions of her competence related to a revenue estimate ahead of the 2011 session that missed the mark by billions of dollars.
Yet thus far, the four Republicans hoping to replace Combs are avoiding any mention of her, focusing instead on keeping Texas’ economy humming along. When asked recently to rate her performance, their answers were all positive, though perhaps carefully worded.
“She’s done a lot of good things, transparency in particular,” said state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville. “I think we have a pretty good office; that’s been the case for many years over a number of comptrollers. There’s always things you can improve.”
The other three candidates echoed Hilderbran in praising Combs’ work in making the state’s finances more accessible to the public.
“I think she has really got to be commended on the work she’s done on transparency,” said former gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina.
“I think that was, without question, an important step in our evolution in state government and she’s due credit for that,” added former state Rep. Raul Torres.
State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, defended Combs’ 2011 revenue estimate, pointing to the erratic nature of the state’s oil and gas industry.
“As someone who lives in the industry corridor and knows how volatile that market is, it is sometimes hard to forecast and know ahead of time those ups and downs,” Hegar said. “She’s got a hard job to get the most true and accurate numbers that she can.”
Some of this praise and defense of Combs is undoubtedly due to the fact that she is retiring and in a position to endorse a successor. Yet her past missteps may take a larger role in the race as the primaries inch closer. Many Texans do not fully understand the comptroller’s duties, and much of what they do know is tied to instances when the office has drawn controversy.
Getting primary voters excited about one candidate over the others may require talking about all those things not getting talked about right now: data breaches, subsidies, revenue forecasts — and Combs’ role in all of it.