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Running for Office, Campaigning on the Status Quo

The management is turning over in state government, no matter which party wins. But with a couple of exceptions, Republicans don't want to change the way things operate now.

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Texans will see a turnover in government next year, no matter who wins most of the statewide races. But for Republicans it shapes up mostly as a continuity election — one in which new people are proposing to pick things up right where their predecessors leave them off.

Rick Perry has been governor since December 2000, and now there is a joke that Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for Perry’s fourth term in office. (The author is Tom Pauken, a former Perry appointee and Republican Party of Texas chairman who is competing with Abbott for the nomination.)

Abbott’s spot on the management ladder has attracted three Republicans whose differences do not include proposals to change anything about that office. They do not even go so far as to say it’s time for fresh blood, although Abbott — the longest-serving attorney general in state history — has been in office since 2002.

No beefs from the Republicans there, and no Democratic candidate has appeared.

The story is the same at the state’s General Land Office, at the Department of Agriculture and at the Railroad Commission. In each case, an open statewide seat has attracted candidates whose portfolios of ideas include no major changes in agency operations. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman (he’s one of three at that agency) are all running for other offices without anyone nipping at their heels about their work in their current posts.

Democrats, once they are up and running, may well have things to say, but for now everything is copacetic.

Except where it’s not. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was elected in 2002, is fending off Republican primary challenges from Patterson, Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. Each of the three endorsed Dewhurst’s 2012 bid for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz and are now picking away at the job he has done as lieutenant governor.

Maybe they were endorsing him to move him on down the road. Whatever their motives, they are now trying to help him move out of the Texas Capitol in a whole new way. Politics is an opportunistic business, and Dewhurst’s show of electoral weakness and his long tenure in the job — with the inevitable legislative scars and might-have-beens that go along with that — have opened the door to challenges from ambitious underlings.

That’s the law of the pack.

The pack at one time included Comptroller Susan Combs. She was expected to be right there with the others chasing Dewhurst, boasting of a bursting campaign treasury and two terms in office as the state’s chief financial executive. But her eight years include a series of well-publicized mistakes that rendered her uncompetitive in the Dewhurst race and gave would-be successors lots to talk about.

The candidates dogging Dewhurst want to tweak this thing and fiddle with that, promising they won’t make the same mistakes they say he has made. The candidates running for Combs’s job, on the other hand, are saying they’ll protect state data records — that’s about a gigantic data breach on her watch — and that their official estimates of state revenue won’t be terribly wrong, as hers was in the 2011 legislative session. Had her numbers been correct, Republican budget writers later said, they would not have had to make multibillion-dollar cuts in public education spending. The cuts were restored in the latest budget, after better figures were available.

The comptroller candidates want to make changes, which only sounds unusual because their counterparts running for other offices are promising the status quo.

Mike Collier is not surprising anyone with his criticisms of the incumbent. He’s a Democrat. That said, it is nearly impossible to find champions for the office when he says the revenue numbers ought to be accurate or that the office should reinstate performance reviews of state and local government agencies or that private records ought to be locked down.

Unlike Dewhurst, Combs will not be on the 2014 ballot. Candidates don’t have a rationale for attacking her directly, except to claim that the agency would improve if they were elected. It makes a campaign that could have been about her one that focuses instead on the office.

The other contests on the ballot are about turnover. This one is about reform.

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2014 elections David Dewhurst