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Republicans Invoke an Off-Ballot Candidate

No matter what office they are running for in 2014, every Republican in Texas seems to be running against the same opponent: Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama speaking in Austin on Thursday, May 9, 2013.

Texas Democrats are trying to put together a ticket to run against the Republicans in 2014. But Texas Republicans don’t care whose names appear on the other ballot; they already know the name of the candidate they’re running against.

Barack Obama.

For Texas officeholders from Attorney General Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn down to your local Republican sheriff, the president is the guy on the other side. Lately, that conservative opposition has collected around House and Senate debate about repealing the federal Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

But the antipathy toward the president has animated Texas Republican politics for several years now, driving a huge change in the partisan makeup of the Texas House in 2010 and focusing Republican candidates on a common foe.

Primary elections are five months off. Candidates are raising money and traveling the state, although they can’t officially file for office until November. But the campaign against Obama is well under way.

This is not a new thing, but it imperils incumbent Democrats on the local and state level (and in the case of the latter, their ranks are already thin) and increases the difficulty for Democrats trying to battle their way into state offices held by Republicans for nearly two decades.

Texas chooses its state officeholders in nonpresidential years. Fewer voters turn out in those elections, and those who do take part often use the opportunity to send midterm love letters to sitting presidents.

An anti-Obama wave helped Republicans gain a supermajority in the Texas House in 2010. Midterm elections during Bill Clinton’s presidency also featured backlashes. Ann Richards fell to George W. Bush in 1994. Four years later, Republicans swept the statewide executive branch offices for the first time in a modern Texas election.

Jimmy Carter — who in 1976 was the last Democratic presidential candidate who carried Texas — saw his voters turn around two years later and elect their first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Voters share their anger with Republicans too. Ronald Reagan’s first midterm election in 1982 was accompanied by a Democratic sweep of statewide offices, including the ouster of Gov. Bill Clements, elected in Carter’s midterm. (He won back the office in 1986, when Reagan was receiving decent marks from Texas voters.)

In 1990, the Republicans thought they might have a sweep of their own, but the voters gave their fellow Texan George H.W. Bush a Hallmark card with Richards’ (Democratic) face on it. Two Republican newcomers made it into office that year — Kay Bailey Hutchison as state treasurer and Rick Perry as agriculture commissioner — but the rest of the executive office candidates were washed away.

Midterm beneficiaries are often the candidates from the party that doesn’t hold the White House. If the federal government is unpopular, and it often is, candidates from the party on the outs in Washington have extra ammunition.

Texas voters give the president mixed grades on job performance, with 43 percent saying he is doing a good job and 50 percent disapproving of the job he’s doing, according to a June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. A look inside those numbers reveals the polarizing effect Obama has: Nearly 84 percent of Democrats gave the president high marks, and 90 percent of Republicans gave him low marks.

But you do not need a poll to see it. Just look at what the candidates are saying.

Republicans in Texas are loudly distancing themselves from the president and his signature program, and as soon as their opponents from the Democratic side line up, they’ll be working hard to handcuff those Democrats to a president they believe is unpopular with Texas voters.

If Obama is popular a year from now, as candidates close in on the 2014 general election, Democrats will be begging him to visit Texas and to appear onstage with them. If his numbers then look like his numbers today, Republicans will be begging him to appear onstage with those same Democrats.

That’s the political part of the president’s job — to be the personification of his party, for better and for worse. Right now, at least in Texas, Obama figures into the calculations of every Democrat trying to decide whether to challenge a Republican, particularly at the statewide level.

Their Republican opponents are counting on him.

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