A Shadow Election Before Candidates File for Office

State Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, at her desk on the House floor on May 16, 2011.
State Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, at her desk on the House floor on May 16, 2011.

Stefani Carter lost the largely invisible election in which most of us never cast a vote: She lost the finance primary.

Carter, a Republican state representative from Dallas, was one of eight candidates lined up to run for the Railroad Commission of Texas — a panel of three officials elected statewide to regulate the oil and gas industry. A sitting commissioner, Barry Smitherman, is running for attorney general, and a crowd formed to replace him.

In announcing her decision to seek re-election to the House instead of the statewide office, she said this week that she had talked to a lot of people and received “a tremendous amount of support.” Still, she said, “I have also been strongly encouraged by many constituents, as well as many business, political, and grass-roots leaders, to continue to represent them as their conservative voice in House District 102.”

She did not mention the money, but the money was not there. During the three months that ended Aug. 25, she raised just $15,083. And in a statewide race in a state like Texas, money means a lot. It’s not everything, and candidates are not sold like dishwashing soap — well, not exactly like soap — but running is expensive and a statewide candidate with a winning smile, a great political message and no money is almost always a candidate on the way back home. Carter was the first this year to realize that two out of three won’t do the trick.

Carter is not the first legislator to drop out of a statewide race — that was state Rep. Brandon Creighton, who decided to run for a state Senate spot instead of agriculture commissioner. And his decision did not appear to be financial: he had $861,657 in the bank at midyear and raised more than half a million more before the end of August.

Other statewide Republican candidates (there aren’t a lot of Democrats on the roster yet) share Carter’s pecuniary distress, and they have time to change their minds, too. Candidates do not start filing for office in Texas until November.

It is hard to raise money when there are so many open seats and so many ambitious people running. It is difficult for donors, too, who want to help future officeholders more than they want to help noble candidates who will lose in the March primaries or the May runoffs. A donor can always sign up later, after the race is over, when candidates are trying to retire campaign debts and build their banks to ward off future challengers.

Carter’s departure from the race leaves six Republicans vying for attention, trying to make sure their names appear in news items about the contest and elbowing to appear — for the benefit of donors — as strong enough to merit support or to make a contributor reconsider before backing someone else. The pack includes a couple of former state representatives and four candidates with private sector backgrounds and varying amounts of political experience.

They do not have to show their hands again, financially, until mid-January (nor does Carter, and it is certainly possible that she has raised much more money since that August report). That date falls more than a month after the filing deadline for the election. The public will not know how the candidates stand financially until then — and it will be too late for them to drop out or change their minds and switch races.

The candidates won’t know, either. This is a classic game of liar’s poker, in which they will work to show superiority in other ways — crowds, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, town hall appearances — to sway the decisions of the money folks.

Carter, meanwhile, faces another set of political issues. When she declared her intention to run for the Railroad Commission, the line of contestants for her House seat began to form.

It would be nice if they would gingerly step aside now that she has changed her mind, but that is not how it goes in politics. Carter, who was unopposed in her 2012 primary for re-election, will have to fight her way out this time.

She will also have to hope that some of the donors who were not interested in the first race will be interested in the House race. It is not as expensive as a statewide race, but $15,000 isn’t a lot of money in a legislative contest, either.

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