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Politics Among the Elephants

The finance primaries started this week and the special session has another week to run, but the season's first skirmishes among Texas Republicans are starting to appear.

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When everyone in public office is in the same political party and playing nice, you can forget that this is a competitive business.

And then it’s time to look at open seats, to talk about running for office, and the good will evaporates.

A tax bill got stuck between two potential candidates for comptroller, with Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, sending it over to the Senate and Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, sending back something completely different with a take-it-or-leave-it topspin. That got worked out, but it might just be the first page.

Two senators who might be running for statewide offices are snarling over budget votes, with Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, peeved at Dan Patrick, R-Houston, after Patrick voted against a conference committee report on the floor of the Senate after voting for the budget at every stop up to that point; a bit of a for-it-before-he-was-against-it situation, in Williams’ eyes. Williams then smiled on a playground putsch that would have combined Patrick’s Senate Public Education Committee with Kel Seliger’s Higher Education Committee and put the Amarillo senator in the chair, with the Houston senator on the bench. Williams is interested in running for comptroller. Patrick is considering a run for lieutenant governor. If both hit their marks, the 2015 session could be a real blast, at least for spectators.

And a governor who, if he decides to run again, could be battling another staunch conservative — the attorney general — and who started the week by telling budget conservatives their numbers were fishy. A Rick Perry-Greg Abbott race would have two headliners from the same part of the GOP battling for the state’s top job. Perry generally is a hero to groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation. So is Abbott. But the governor found himself sideways with the group this week over its calculation — picked up in a stinging editorial in The Wall Street Journal — that the state government and Perry himself spent the first five months of 2013 on a spending binge. “I did read some of the criticism, and I’m not sure that those who were making that criticism have a really good handle on the Texas budgeting process,” Perry said. “Frankly I don’t understand their math.” Lots of people are betting this particular confrontation won’t take place, but political races are made of differences among competitive people.

This goes on, rippling through the races that are already setting up. Lite guv could involve Patrick and three statewide officials, including the incumbent. Two of the prospective candidates for attorney general — Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas and Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney — are from the same part of the state but from different sectors of the GOP. Former Rep. Tommy Merritt might be in the race for agriculture commissioner, with Rep. Brandon Creighton among the other contestants. Same party, different subgroups.

The next nine months — assuming the GOP primaries are held in March, as scheduled — could strain the family ties in the Republican Party. In some ways, they already have.

The Democrats have not stepped up, so far. They have a second-mouse-gets-the-cheese problem, in that nobody wants to be the first to test whether the Republicans have enough weaknesses to lose a statewide seat to a Democrat. Taking the risk is hard — that’s the second mouse’s dilemma. The first mice lose everything, until one of them makes it through the traps. That one will have the jump on all the other mice.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are making their own primary elections more and more interesting every year. The big show is in their big tent.

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The finance primary started this week. Unelected candidates like Debra Medina and George P. Bush have been free to raise money all year, but state officials have been under a blackout during the session that ends on Sunday. They have until the end of the day on June 30 to raise the balances in their political accounts in time to brag on the July 15 mid-year reports. And since those will be the last look at warchests until January, it’s important to show some strength. It’s a good time not to be rich.

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Perry has cut off the flow of new subjects onto the special session agenda, at least for this special session. Not to predict the future, but something will have to change for everything now on the plate to get finished before this session ends on June 25. Redistricting is on its way in the Senate and bumpy in the House. Both sides are nervous about voting on abortion restrictions, but that issue is inching along. Transportation funding is hard because it requires supermajorities — it’s a constitutional amendment, needing two-thirds from both houses. The idea in the works is from the upper chamber, but involves the Rainy Day Fund. At least a third of the House is allergic to that, and some of the others are whispering about trading support for transportation against their desire not to vote on the abortion omnibus bill. 

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Politics 2014 elections 83rd Legislative Session