The March 4 primary ballot features 48 Republicans seeking nominations for 15 statewide positions — quite the exercise in product differentiation.
If you limit the conversation to the eight nonjudicial races, you are still talking about 34 candidates. On its face, this is like standing in Aisle 3 at the grocery store, trying to decide which can of green beans to buy.
What’s a voter to do?
The candidates want to help, in their way. Each candidate has taken a position against the federal government in general and against the Democrat in the White House in particular. Everybody’s pollsters (including the Democrats’) apparently discerned the relative unpopularity of President Obama in Texas.
In the top two statewide races, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is running for another term, and Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor, are much better known than their rivals. So is George P. Bush, a candidate for land commissioner whose ballot strength stems from a famous family tree.
But many of the Republican candidates are struggling to differentiate themselves. Endorsements could be important this time, for the same reason brand names are important for the purveyors of canned vegetables. They offer voters a clue about the candidates. Here are the gun people, the home-schoolers, the different anti-abortion groups, the various Tea Parties, the economic conservatives and all the others.
This is, for instance, why Sid Miller, a former legislator now running for agriculture commissioner, speaks of his endorsements from anti-abortion groups, and why Barry Smitherman, running for attorney general, and Glenn Hegar, running for comptroller, turn up at gun ranges in their TV commercials. It is why so many of the campaigns feature photographs of candidates standing next to the Rio Grande looking concerned.
Miller, who describes his race as one “between a conservative and four moderates,” is just an example. His description of the race is not much different than the depictions of his opponents; they only differ on which one is which. Miller was asked last week at a forum hosted by The Texas Tribune about the issues facing the state’s next agriculture commissioner. Step 1, talk about the administration: “The biggest threat to agriculture is not drought. It’s not water. It’s an overreaching federal government,” he said. Step 2, on his endorsement from an anti-abortion group in an agriculture race: “It solidifies your Republican credentials and it speaks to a man’s character, what’s in his heart.”
The candidates seem to have a pretty uniform idea about who is voting. They are talking a lot about gun rights and abortion, border security and taxes — even in races for offices that do not deal with those issues. Republican primary voters appear to have transmitted a clear signal, and the candidates have worked to define themselves so that voters can distinguish them.
The number of candidates and the number of competitive seats present voters with a confusing menu of choices. Most contestants started with regional bases, that is, they were unknown across most of the state. A few have connections to various groups, or access to lots of money.
Money is easy enough to figure out. It pays for advertising and campaign workers who can help turn out voters. But in what is expected — based on recent history — to be a low-turnout election, connections might be a bigger thing than usual.
With the oft-noted exception of Bush, the contests from lieutenant governor down to railroad commissioner feature candidates of about equal public stature, many with the same constituencies. In the race for lieutenant governor, it is possible — likely, even — that voters in a particular part of Houston have voted for each of the four candidates — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick.
Now they are being asked to choose just one, casting a whole new light on the “favorite son” idea.
Voters are looking for guidance, but cannot find it in the simple formulation of Republicans over here and Democrats over there. With so many open races and so many ambitious candidates — particularly on the Republican side — the party labels are insufficient. The voters are standing there, in Aisle 3, waiting for some cues.