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Early in Election Cycle, 2014 Ballot is All Red

The 2014 election cycle is shaping up as a busy one, with open seats across the statewide ballot. Republicans are lining up fast for those spots, but so far, the Democratic side of the ballot is empty.

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Ambitious and sometimes wildly optimistic candidates for statewide offices are running all over the place, energized by the number of potential open seats on the 2014 ballots.

And so far, they are all Republicans.

Next year’s elections could feature more open seats for statewide office than any ballot since 1990.

Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t said he would run — he hasn’t said he wouldn’t, either — so his seat could open.

Attorney General Greg Abbott has everything in place for a run at Perry’s spot except the date on the news release; that would open his spot.

Comptroller Susan Combs announced she would not seek re-election in 2014, creating an opening.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples have both announced plans to run for lieutenant governor; that’s two more.

And Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman has been privately exploring a run for attorney general, which would open his spot.

With all of those opportunities knocking, Texas Republicans are pushing and elbowing like Black Friday bargain hunters. The Republican primary for lieutenant governor already has four names attached to it, including that of the incumbent, David Dewhurst. Attorney general? Five names. Comptroller? Five names. Land? Just one: George P. Bush, and so far nobody has volunteered to test the ballot strength of that name, even if it is attached to a political sapling. Agriculture? Four names. Railroad? Two.

Democrats? None.

They have some stars. But Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio has said he doesn’t think 2014 is the right year for a Democrat. And State Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth plans to run for re-election instead of higher office. The search continues.

“If you get one strong candidate to jump in, others will follow,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “The other thing you need is a strong party.”

The woes of Texas Democrats are well documented. They haven’t won a statewide race since 1994. The normal expectation is that a Democrat will get 43 or 44 percent in a statewide race.

Twenty years will wear a party down. But politics is full of optimists and risk-takers who keep things interesting. The two most popular officeholders in Texas in 1989, according to some polls, were United States Senator Phil Gramm, a Republican, and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, a Democrat. At one point, there was discussion that Hightower might challenge Gramm in the 1990 race.

It didn’t happen. Gramm easily beat Hugh Parmer, a former Fort Worth mayor and Democratic state senator. Hightower, who became entangled in a scandal, lost to a risk-taking, party-switching, backbench state representative named Rick Perry. One reason Perry was on the Republican ticket was the same thing facing Democrats in Texas now — the prospects were so bad that no strong candidate wanted to take the chance. The other Republican who won an executive branch spot that year, Kay Bailey Hutchison, was running against a Democrat named Nikki Van Hightower, who was apparently hurt by having the same name as the agriculture commissioner. Hutchison’s career, like Perry’s, took off from there.

That’s the sort of genesis story politicians and consultants tell one another to rev people up about a tough race. They have to skirt scary stories of failures, like 2002’s “Dream Team” ticket, a list of Democrats with solid résumés topped by a neophyte multimillionaire for governor, Tony Sanchez. They had money, big budgets and open seats available, and got walloped.

That happened to the Republicans, too, back in the day. With two or three prominent exceptions — including John Tower and Bill Clements — Republicans didn’t stand a chance in Texas elections until the mid to late 1980s, and the ballots in those years were filled with the names of people who would never hold statewide office.

In those races, the Texas Republican Party slowly built the fund-raising and political organization that now dominates state politics. The Democrats hope that wheel will turn their way. First, they need some candidates.

“The stars have to align in the right way,” Hinojosa said. “I’m not fooling myself. A lot of things have to happen.” 

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