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Running for Office With Second Chances in Mind

The short game in Texas politics is the year ahead — the primaries in March and the general election in November. But a loss in 2014 might lead to something bigger in a future election.

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Everybody who put their name on the Texas ballot last week — the filing deadline for the 2014 elections — wants to win.

But not all of them expect to win, or even need to win, to keep their political careers alive. More than half of the people who signed up to run in next year’s elections are going to lose. That’s the math. Lots of losers move up eventually, often because their unsuccessful runs help build the organizations, financial contacts and reputations required of most winners.

When Ted Cruz, a Houston lawyer who had been the state’s solicitor general, filed to run for the U.S. Senate, he was relatively unknown to political folks and completely unknown to voters. The not-so-unreasonable conventional wisdom was that he would run a respectable race, build up his organization and acquaint himself with voters, lose graciously — probably to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — and set himself up perfectly for a 2014 race to replace his boss, Attorney General Greg Abbott.

It went better than expected. Had he lost, however, he would be perfectly positioned today for the other contest, which instead drew a Texas railroad commissioner, a state senator and a state representative on the Republican side. Cruz would have been a formidable candidate — the only one in the pack with experience in the agency and in practicing law on behalf of the state of Texas.

Phil Gramm, a former U.S. senator, lost a race for that job in 1976 before running successfully for Congress two years later, starting an arc that took him through a party change and into the Senate less than a decade later. Even George W. Bush lost a race, for Congress, years before returning to politics to run successfully for governor and then president. He did not have to make his name in the same way — that road was paved by his grandfather and father — but the loss did not harm his political career.

Gov. Rick Perry is one of those odd birds who never lost a race until his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He is currently field-testing the idea that voters’ rejection of him was not permanent. The same goes for Dewhurst. Having lost to Cruz in 2012, he is seeking re-election over three other elected officials who used to be his allies.

One of those contestants, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, lost to Dewhurst once before when he was trying to move from the state Senate into the land commissioner’s job in 1998. He came back four years later and won it when Dewhurst ran for lieutenant governor.

Some candidates quit after one loss. Tony Sanchez Jr., lost an expensive governor’s race to Perry in 2002 and has not been deeply involved in politics since. Once was enough for him.

Kent Hance, the outgoing chancellor for the Texas Tech University System, gave up a congressional seat to run for the U.S. Senate in 1984. He lost. He ran for governor in 1986, after switching parties, and lost. He came back and served on the state’s railroad commission, rebuilt his political operation, and again ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990. He was resilient, if nothing else.

He might provide an example for some in the current batch of Democrats.

Now, the Texas Democrats are gathering around state Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, who is running for governor, and Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, who is running for lieutenant governor. Their partisans hope the two campaigns will mark the beginning of a thaw in their party’s fortunes in Texas.

Others in the party think it is going to take a while — that 2016 or 2018 might be a better year for a liberal on the Texas ballot. Among them are the Castro twins in San Antonio — Mayor Julián and Congressman Joaquin Castro — who decided to sit out this campaign, in spite of high hopes from others in the party that one or both would pick up the standard and run.

Those who hesitated might be missing their place in line. The Democrats who run and lose this year — if they don’t embarrass themselves or make disqualifying mistakes — will be ahead of the game in 2016 and 2018.

Everybody else might have spotless records, but next year’s losers will have a head start.

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Politics 2014 elections Wendy Davis