Tom Pauken has chosen a hard road.
He’s a Republican running for governor in a race that could feature either the longest-serving governor in state history, one of the best-financed potential replacements in history, or both.
He says that Gov. Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, are exemplars of a leadership style that’s more about the politicians than the policies, and he wants to change all of that.
First, he will have to get people’s attention.
Pauken, who got his political start in the Reagan administration, is a former Army intelligence officer and Vietnam veteran, and a former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. He ran for Congress and lost twice to Jim Mattox. Years later, he ran for attorney general and finished third in a race eventually won by John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator.
Perry appointed him to a spot on the Texas Workforce Commission, and Pauken used that, in part, as a forum for his argument that the state’s public schools aren’t getting youths ready for careers.
He has been a loud critic of one-size-fits-all testing in public schools, arguing that the state shouldn’t try to send every high schooler to college, but instead should give some of them the technical or vocational training they need to go to work after high school.
That continues a long-running argument with George W. Bush, who was elected governor the same year Pauken became chairman of the state Republican Party and who, as president, championed the No Child Left Behind Act, which Pauken now condemns.
Pauken’s platform calls for local control of public education. Without being specific, he wants to revise the financing of public schools to make them less dependent on property taxes; he also wants term limits for statewide officials and has pledged to eliminate what he calls crony capitalism from state government.
He’s a self-described Reagan Republican — a label that invokes a conservative hero but that has lost some of its currency in a party swept by a wave of Tea Party fiscal conservatism and, in Texas, by a resurgent strain of social conservatism.
His challenge will be to show some difference between himself and the alternatives, whether that comes in the form of Perry, Abbott or someone else.
That part is a business proposition — sometimes the hardest part of a political race in Texas. It costs money to make your views known, your face recognizable, your name a household word. Abbott already has it. Perry has proved over and over again that he can raise what he needs.
Perry is formidable in state politics, never losing an election in Texas — let’s just tiptoe around that presidential disaster — since winning a seat in the State House of Representatives in 1984.
Abbott hasn’t had a genuinely tough race in his political career, and if money is an indication, he doesn’t have a hard race in front of him. The attorney general closed last year with $18 million in his bank account, and is expected to show off a bigger number in his next campaign finance report in mid-July.
This is a long-shot candidacy. Pauken is running as a different sort of Republican in a party that seems to embrace candidates like Perry and Abbott. Those two, in fact, seem to have captured the brand for now.
Pauken is trying to hit a gap between voters and their governor, or between voters and their attorney general, that other candidates haven’t seen. None seem willing to challenge either Perry or Abbott, or to try to get between either man and the Governor’s Mansion.
“We are picking up some good support,” Pauken said recently in an email about his chances against Abbott. “Would not be in this if I did not see a pathway to victory. If ‘gargantuan’ amounts of money dictate the results, then he wins. But I don’t find a real depth of support for him as governor.”
Abbott starts as the only alternative, he said. Pauken has to show voters another one. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
Ted Cruz wasn’t on the public radar 18 months ago, and now he’s a U.S. senator.