Nearly 700 candidates have paid their fees and filled out the forms required to get on the ballot this year. But only a handful of races will serve as bell cows. A look at those amount to a quick read on what is happening in Texas politics.
The top of the ticket is easy. Every political nerd in the country will be watching to see what happens as the probable nominees for governor — Greg Abbott, the Republican, and Wendy Davis, the Democrat — campaign to replace Gov. Rick Perry. The results there and in other statewide contests will reveal whether Texas remains solidly red or whether — and to what extent — Democrats are in the first stages of a renaissance.
How strong is U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, and how strong is the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party? U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, may not be the perfect vessel for the populists, what with running questions about his campaign finances, but the top federal race on the Republican primary ballot is a chance to gauge the actual size of the noisy anybody-but-Cornyn crowd.
A Bush will appear on Texas ballots for the first time in a decade, with George P. Bush running for land commissioner. Bush, a political neophyte, is a pre-emptive favorite solely because of his name, but his primary against David Watts will measure the strength of the family name, first with Republicans and then with the general electorate in November.
Three state Senate races offer peeks into the power of incumbency, geography and ideology. In Dallas, Don Huffines, a Republican, is challenging John Carona’s conservatism and long tenure in the Legislature. In the Hill Country, two challengers hope to unseat state Sen. Donna Campbell, a freshman Republican from New Braunfels, on the grounds that she is a fringe candidate and does not live in the district’s population center. And in a West Texas district that stretches from the Permian Basin north to the Oklahoma border, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is being challenged by Mike Canon, a former mayor of Midland.
Much of the action in Texas House races orbits the leadership of the House itself, and pits factions that support and oppose Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, against each other. That overlaps the broader family fight in the Republican ranks between establishment and populist wings, moderates and conservatives, incumbents and newcomers.
One El Paso race offers a glimpse into that city’s shifting Democratic politics, pitting an incumbent, Naomi Gonzalez, against a former state legislator, Norma Chavez, and a newcomer, Cesar Blanco. Another, this one a Republican race in a politically fluid part of western Dallas County, pits former state Rep. Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie against Rep. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving.
The House’s Republican fissures are evident in a Central Texas race where Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, faces a re-election challenge from Danny Pelton and Eddie Ray. Pelton was recruited by and has the support of some of Sheffield’s Republican colleagues in the House, making this an unusual breach of an informal but traditional code against political fratricide.
In East Texas, Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, is in a similar fix, with an outside challenger who is rumored to have allies in the House. But Schaefer is from his party’s conservative wing. No current members are openly supporting his opponent, Skip Ogle, but this is another primary battleground.
One race springs from the best-known skirmish of the last legislative session: the abortion debate. The only Republican who voted against new restrictions — Rep. Sarah Davis, from West University Place — faces a primary challenge from Bonnie Parker. Other than the governor’s race, their match is the most obvious test of what the Legislature did last summer.
Finally, there is a North Texas matchup between Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, a leader of the House’s Tea Party conservatives, and Andy Cargile, who has served on a local school board. That’s a straight-up high-profile duel between the two predominant wings of the Republican Party in Texas. That makes it, like the others, a bell cow.