Elections aren’t as competitive as they look.
What you mostly hear about — what we mostly write and talk about — are the races that either have a lot of candidates or a lot of heat or are close for other reasons. Arguments and oddities get the attention — a sharp exchange over health care for women, a dog on the roof of a candidate’s car or a moment of fog-headed incompetence in a debate.
All that stuff about civics and responsibility is a cover. We — voters, reporters, all of us — come for the dramas and the stories.
Attention draws voters, and for candidates who need that help, it’s a boon. But lots of elections are decided quietly, without drama. The candidates slip into office like cat burglars.
Now that Texas candidates have filed for the primaries, it’s clear that half of these contests aren’t contests at all. The ballot is full of contests only a mother would watch.
Why would a voter?
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has been in the Legislature since 1973. He has a Republican opponent this year, but it’s a Democratic district and Whitmire has the best defense an incumbent can have: money. He ended the year with $5.1 million in the bank — far more than any of his fellow legislators and a lot more than any sane challenger would put together for a position that pays $600 a month.
He’s like the kid with the beginnings of a mustache who shows up to wrestle at a middle school meet. It might be advisable for his opponent to find a magazine or a nice book to read.
Maybe it’s that voters are, in some of these cases, getting what they want. Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, doesn’t have a primary opponent and doesn’t have a major party general election opponent.
It doesn’t matter whether the opposition is happy or scared, so long as they don’t show up.
Redistricting is part of it, but it doesn’t help to be in a district where only one party’s candidates have a reasonable chance of winning. All of the parties field show candidates, which can pay off. After the 2010 elections, the Republican sweep was so big and unexpected that veteran officeholders and lobbyists had to scramble to find out basic information about the people who were on their way to Austin. Some of those districts weren’t designed to elect Republicans. And in the redistricting that followed, the Republican mapmakers found it impossible to protect all of the tenderfeet from the normal Democratic tendencies of their voters at home.
Competition, when it comes, is expensive. Most voters don’t have any pressing need to know the names of their state lawmakers, so they don’t.
The cheapest and easiest way to get re-elected is to run without opposition. For everyone who is not a statewide candidate, redistricting can take care of November by knocking the other major party candidates out of contention.
All that’s left, then, are the primaries, where a combination of luck, political talent, money and timing can tamp down the ambitions of potential opponents.
It happens more often than you’d think. Everyone in the state Senate is up for re-election this year, so there should be dozens of races under way. But look at the ballots. Four senators are retiring or running for other offices. Ten senators don’t have major party opposition. Another 12 have opponents in November, but only one of those, Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is in a district where her party affiliation puts her at risk. Of the 27 incumbents defending their positions, only she and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, with two primary opponents, started the election season on red alert.
Confusion might account for some of it. Because of delays from redistricting litigation, the state had two filing periods for political candidates, and even the pros were baffled by new lines and rules and competitive situations.
The lineups aren’t unusual, though. A relatively small number of candidates will find themselves in truly tough contests in either the primary or in the general election. Fewer still will have fights in both rounds. And many, now that the filing periods are over, already know the outcomes.
After the voting formalities, they’ll take office next year.