Barack Obama and Ted Cruz aren’t running for Texas governor in 2014. But the candidates who are running are invoking Obama’s and Cruz’s names in ways that could raise some long-dormant tendencies of Texas voters.
There’s the tendency of voters to recoil from candidates who run too far left or right during a primary to remain attractive in a general election. And the inclination of voters to reject candidates who can’t assemble a primary election victory with different factions within the same party.
This kind of thinking makes little difference in races that do not feature serious Democratic candidates. The big-time candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general are all Republicans, so far. They can bash the president and the Democrats all they want, run as far to the right as they deem necessary and never check their rearview mirrors for trouble from behind.
For them, winning the Republican primary is tantamount to election. Unless the Democrats show up, Republican candidates will not have to return to a political position that is attractive to moderate Republicans and swing voters. And the president is in the first or second paragraph of many of their speeches and fundraising letters, serving as the unpopular foil for a conservative audience that does not like Democrats and does not like the federal government.
Democratic candidates are sprinkled among the contestants in down-ballot statewide races, but the challenge for them and for their Republican opponents alike is ginning up sufficient interest to make any impression at all. Running in the shadows is not the same as running in the spotlight; candidates in shadow races have to rely on famous names, party affiliation or rivals’ bloopers.
At the top, it is a bit more like a two-party state. Maybe the Republicans are right, and Texas is still firmly theirs to lead. But the Democrats are arguing with that, and sooner or later, they will win an election.
Step 1 is to prevail in a primary dominated by very conservative voters. Step 2 is to win a general election where independent voters and others who did not vote in the primary are needed. Simple, unless Step 1 takes the candidate past the comfort level of those general election voters.
Think of George McGovern, who was too far left, or Barry Goldwater, who was too far right.
So here comes Wendy Davis, talking about Cruz and his role in the government shutdown. “I think he demonstrated that being the loudest person in the room isn’t necessarily equivalent to being a leader,” she said recently. A spokeswoman for Cruz shot back, saying his long talk against federal health care was more laudable than Davis’ filibuster against an abortion bill.
So? Cruz used to work for Abbott. Davis, intentionally or not, is putting that link together for voters a year before the general election. It won’t make a difference, probably, with the primary voters who picked Cruz for the U.S. Senate 15 months ago, but it might make a difference with independents.
Between now and then, Abbott has to navigate a primary in which he has most of the advantages. He can thank his protégé for his wariness about Pauken; Cruz was supposed to be a pushover, too, and look how that came out.
Unlike the other Republicans in other races, the attorney general has to keep an eye on his own rearview mirror, just to make sure the Democrat from Fort Worth isn’t gaining on him.
The whole field could change by then. Right now in Texas, the federal government is unpopular, Congress is unpopular, the president is unpopular with Republicans, Cruz and Davis are both riding waves of favorable news coverage, and the health care rollout has made everyone forget how mad they were about the federal shutdown.
That scorecard is sure to change over the next year, if not before the primaries. The candidates will still be trying to tar each other with unpopular associations.
Davis might be running from Obama. Abbott — if it’s Abbott — might be shunning Cruz.
That’s how you’ll know the birds-of-a-feather thing is working.