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A Sales Pitch Aimed at the Audience, Not the Job

Campaign advertising is all about what appeals to the audience of voters — even if that means ignoring the office the candidates are seeking.

In full campaign mode Texas candidate for Attorney General Barry Smitherman tells the audience why he believes he'd make a good AG during a campaign stop at the Harris County Courthouse Bay Area Annex in Houston on Nov. 19, 2013.

The state’s top lawyer is not really a crime fighter, but you wouldn’t know that during election season.

The biggest section of the Texas attorney general’s office, in fact, is child support. The attorney general handles the state’s legal business, such as the tax liens filed by the comptroller and the detailed paperwork behind bond issues. Those issues do not get much attention unless mistakes are made, like taxes going uncollected or some hole appearing in the child support safety net.

Otherwise, the everyday work of an attorney general is not all that interesting to voters.

The headline-grabbing cases change with the politics of the officeholder, most recently focused on differences between the state and the federal government on issues like endangered species and environmental regulation. But candidates don’t promise specific lawsuits. That comes later. From time to time, the state does step in to help local prosecutors — only at the prosecutors’ request — in death penalty cases the locals can’t afford to handle on their own. The state lawyers generally sit second chair, assisting the locals. That’s about it for crime.

But this is election season. During political campaigns, crime often gets more attention. Candidates spotlight those parts of their résumés, as when Barry Smitherman, a Republican, talks up his days as a former lawyer in the Harris County district attorney’s office. He is neither the first nor the last; a commercial for one candidate a few years ago showed her blasting away at a gun range, a way of flexing that anti-crime muscle. It’s interesting to voters — and that makes it interesting to candidates.

That’s why the first big announcement of an endorsement for a Republican candidate for comptroller of public accounts came from an anti-abortion group. It’s not that the state’s tax collector and chief budget officer has anything to do with health policy. It’s that Republican primary voters want to know whom to support in that race, and Glenn Hegar, the Republican state senator from Katy who announced that endorsement, wants to have something in common with those voters, something those voters will notice.

The state of Texas does not levy property taxes. In fact, voters took property taxes out of the state constitution years ago, allowing them at the local level only. Those taxes are a key source of money for public schools, however, and they are relatively high.

Here’s a line from the comptroller’s website on property taxes in Texas: “Texas has no state property tax. The Legislature has authorized local governments to collect the tax. The state does not set tax rates, collect taxes or settle disputes between you and your local governments.”

But in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, which has four candidates trying to win favor from voters, state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston has promised to lower property tax rates. Give him this much: It would be a popular change, if he had the power to grant it.

The state does have an indirect influence on property taxes, because public school districts get a large amount of their money from the state. The bigger the state’s share, the lower the local share. The lower the local share, the lower the local districts can set their property tax rates. All the state has to do is increase spending on public education, and the pressure on local districts to raise taxes drops. Even if Patrick — or anyone else — proposed an increase in the state’s public education budget, the state can’t require the local districts to change their tax rates.

Don’t blame the politicians. State government jobs aren’t the sexiest gigs. Voters have little reason to pay attention to the inner workings of those offices most of the time. They assume everything is going more or less like it is supposed to — until an alarm goes off somewhere and tells them otherwise. They have people to watch that stuff for them — the officeholders they elect — and do not necessarily want or need to know the details.

It’s rational, but it also means the candidates have to jump up and down, figuratively speaking, to get the attention of voters every election year.

The focus now is on Republican primaries, because so few of the Democrats seeking statewide office have opponents in their primary. The Republican races are crowded. Primary voters are conservative.

The candidates have to sell themselves. That’s why the subjects up for discussion are crime and abortion rights and taxes.

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Politics 2014 elections