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Candidates Walk Fine Line Between Primary, General Elections

The problem with very partisan primary elections is that the winning candidates risk being too partisan for general election voters.

Jim Mattox

During his 1990 runoff against Ann Richards, Jim Mattox worried out loud about the perils of primary elections. The problem, he said, was that to win the Democratic primary, he might have to run so far to the left that he would be unacceptable to the more moderate general election voters who would choose the next governor.

Mattox lost that remarkable runoff, in which he attacked Richards’ character rather than trying to run to her left. And he turned out to be wrong about that general election, largely because Richards’ Republican opponent, Clayton Williams, was a disastrously prolific quote machine.

But Mattox was not wrong about how primaries are won; he had seen it happen in the races for Texas governor and U.S. Senate that led up to his 1990 defeat.

This is not 1990, and Democrats and Republicans are not as competitive in statewide races now. But competition still exists in some local contests, and the problem that vexed Mattox now vexes some Republicans.

In the primaries, Republican candidates in particular answer to their party’s purists and, in the general election, to everybody who votes.

The state’s political maps put most candidates in safe zones, where Republicans do not have to worry about moderate or liberal voters, and Democrats do not have to worry about moderates and conservatives. The rest have to get out of their primaries without committing to anything that will endanger them in November.

They have to walk a line, sticking with conservative colleagues on legislative votes, but doing it without imperiling their re-elections.

Members of Congress are familiar with that terrain, but on the scale that has partisanship on one end and local issues on the other, Texas legislative races used to skew toward the local.

Republicans in El Paso have historically been more supportive of public assistance programs, for instance, than their counterparts from other regions of Texas: they are from a city where poverty is impossible to avoid, whether you are driving around in a ’63 Chevy or the latest Lexus.

A Republican elected from El Paso — no one from El Paso has ever been elected to a statewide office, by the way — is sometimes out of step with colleagues from other parts of the state just because of local issues. The late Jack Vowell, who served in the House throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, became his era’s Republican legislative expert on health and human services. The partisans left him alone.

Former State Rep. Pat Haggerty, a Republican, survived into the partisan era and then found himself on his own party’s hunting list. Dee Margo beat him in the 2008 primary and then lost that year’s general election to Joe Moody, a Democrat. Margo beat Moody in 2010 and this year faces the Democrat for the third time. It is a competitive area of the sort that would prevent Margo — assuming he wanted to — from running too far to the right in a Republican primary.

Margo occupies a marginally Republican district in an overwhelming Democratic county and has to hope for forbearance from the Republicans who do not have the same issues where they live.

The 2010 election sent a pack of Republicans to Austin. They had a conservative agenda during the next legislative session, got a lot of it passed, voted on some more things that did not pass and wrote a state budget that made cuts to Medicaid and education and other areas of state government — avoiding new taxes. It was a solid conservative effort, and plenty of candidates won their primaries this year because of it. That includes Democrats and Republicans — the agenda gave both sides something to talk about.

Some candidates still have to talk their way out of it. Like the Republicans who voted for the budget and who are now in tight elections in districts where some of the cuts were unpopular. Like Hispanic Republicans who got stuck between their party and their voters on sanctuary cities legislation or voter ID, and like those who voted to cut Planned Parenthood out of the Women’s Health Program and left some areas of the state with little access to family planning services.

It is a relatively short list of races; the Republicans could lose every single competitive legislative seat and still hold majorities in both the House and the Senate. For the candidates themselves, it is tricky business. Those partisan votes in Austin are dangerous.

Mattox, who died in 2008, might have said it differently. He was watching Texas politics become more like Washington politics.

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