DALLAS — The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor do not seem worried about Democratic challengers and independent voters, or particularly concerned about whether their public conversations and debates fuel the Democrats’ election-year motif of a war on women.
If they were, they would not be talking like this. You would not have seen what you saw during the debate early this week as they all raced to the conservative end of the pool, hoping to win the hearts of the Republican voters they will face in the primary election in March.
Instead, you would have seen a quartet of Republicans trying to win a primary without blowing their chances of winning over the more moderate voters who will come out in November.
If this election goes the way of other recent Republican primaries, the candidates’ first encounter will be with a small and conservative bunch. Fewer than two of every 25 Texans will be voting in the primary. General elections draw larger turnouts with different voters. The Democrats will be there, of course, along with political moderates, independents and the sometimes-engaged voters who might be drawn out by a noisy race for governor.
Judging from their responses, the Republican candidates are thinking about the first cohort and not the second. All believe, with varied degrees of enthusiasm, that creationism should be taught in public schools. All four, talking about a recent case in Fort Worth that got national attention, said state law should be rewritten to override a family’s desire to remove life support from a clinically dead woman until her child can be delivered. And each underscored his position on the issues by saying that abortions should not be allowed except when the life of the mother is in danger; that is a break from a more conventional Republican position that would allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
Maybe they will regret it, but that is a bet against the political judgment of four candidates with deep experience. Each has several elections under his belt. Two have lost high-profile races (and three will be putting a loss on the board before the year is half over). They are wily, cautious, paranoid, nervous, wary and able to understand the numbers in a poll.
Each is tuned, in other words, to catch any inkling or whiff of a change in the electorate. They know the comments they are making now can and will be used against them in the November race against the Democrat, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, but they do not seem to care.
Their positions could play in other races, not that that is their problem. Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, will probably face State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, in the governor’s race. Neither officially has a party nomination, but they are already clashing, and the conversation of the last two weeks has established gender as part of the debate.
A candidate in a competitive two-party state has to keep an eye on that second contest, to make sure not to become so extreme in pursuit of the primary nomination that the moderates and independents jump ship in November.
The four debaters on display this week — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — have a lot to worry about. Three will be out of the race soon. At least two will be out of the race really soon — when the March 4 votes are counted. They are thinking about whether there will be a runoff and, if there is one, who will be in it. After the debate, three candidates were feeding reporters a variation of, “As you can see, this is a two-man race between me and the lieutenant governor.”
Van de Putte, a state senator from San Antonio, does not appear to be on their minds. In a general election, clips from their debate could become material for attack ads for her campaign, or for Davis’ offensive against Abbott.
The Democrats hope this is a powerful weapon, persuasive to people who might otherwise not vote, or vote for Republicans.
If Monday’s discussion was any indication, the Republicans are not fretting about anything other than their fellow Republicans.