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In Primary Season, a Key is to Get Names Known

Many of the candidates who are well known in political circles are strangers to voters. In most races — even for statewide offices — the leading candidate is "Undecided."

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The first problem with the 2014 primaries is that almost everybody is a nobody.

The standard and somewhat lazy view is that the Democratic candidates do not have the prominence they need to get the attention they require to compete with Republicans in Texas elections. It’s not altogether wrong — it’s just that it’s not really confined to the Democrats.

The biggest bloc of votes in polls for most Republican primaries is don’t know/undecided. Voters don’t know most of these people.

In an October University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, those who were undecided made up 42 percent of voters in the Republican primary for governor, 48 percent in the Republican primary for United States Senate, 46 percent in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, 74 percent in that party’s primary for attorney general and 75 percent in the primary for comptroller.

Two of those races — for Senate and for lieutenant governor — feature incumbents. That has to make the incumbents nervous on some level. John Cornyn has been in the Senate since 2002. He was the state’s attorney general before that, and on the Texas Supreme Court before that. He has been on the statewide ballot over and over again. So has David Dewhurst, first for a victorious bid for state’s land commissioner and then for a turn as lieutenant governor, a position he now occupies. He lost a 2012 U.S. Senate race to Ted Cruz, which might be part of the issue: Some of those undecided voters in his race might be people who voted against him in 2012 and are thinking about what to do this time.

It is true, too, for Greg Abbott, the longest-serving attorney general in state history and, before that, a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.

Those three have something in common beyond their frequent appearances on statewide ballots. Each has enough campaign money to tell voters who they are and what they are about. By the time early voting starts in February, every likely primary voter with a TV set, a web browser, a mailbox or a doorbell will know who they are.

The other nobodies have a tougher row to hoe. With the notable exception of George P. Bush — if Texas politics were set to the music of “The Lion King,” Bush, a land commissioner hopeful, would play Simba — most of them are virtually unknown to the state’s voters.

Barry Smitherman was on the statewide ballot in 2012, running successfully for a spot on the Railroad Commission of Texas. But he and the other two Republicans in the attorney general's race — state Rep. Dan Branch and state Sen. Ken Paxton — started the political season with three in four Republican voters uncommitted.

Politicians like to talk about their bases of support; these are more like toeholds.

Candidates like to point to their home bases, too. Dan Patrick, a Houston state senator running for lieutenant governor, has a radio show and has run several times in Houston. He’s got a home crowd. Dewhurst is also from Houston, but has not run for office there except as a statewide candidate. Candidates like him and Smitherman might think of themselves as Houstonians, but they have never run locally and intensively like candidates for city or county or legislative jobs have to do.

Other down-ballot candidates have the same difficulty ahead. Each has to find a way to become known — and known for the right reasons — to enough people to win a primary (or at least to get into a runoff in May). Most of the attention will be on the loud and the rich candidates who tend to congregate at the top of the ticket.

Big names can help (see Bush, George P., above). Money certainly helps, if it is enough to buy expensive TV ads or to help put together a political network in a hurry.

In general elections for the last several years, it has helped to be running under the red Republican banner; if voters cannot identify a candidate by name, the party ID gives them a clue. But in the primaries, most statewide candidates have a nobody problem — voters do not know them.

In races in which several candidates have the resources or skills to stay competitive, the low name recognition can be useful. They get a chance to introduce their opponents to voters before the opponents can do it themselves.

Guess which way leaves a better impression?

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Politics 2014 elections