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Analysis: In Primaries, Political Issues Trump State Issues

Maybe you were looking for a policy debate on transportation or water or school finance? That's not what the political candidates are talking about. They're focused on issues that motivate primary voters.

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The people who want to run the state government certainly care a lot about making sure Texas has enough water, about handling transportation issues, and about solving the latest version of the persistent school finance riddle. Some know a lot about budgeting and taxes and public health and education, and they have ideas ranging from wholesale overhauls of state agencies to adjustments that might improve this or that bit of government machinery.

You wouldn’t know it from their campaigns.

Instead, they are talking about topics that motivate and influence their primary voters: President Obama, concealed and open carry of handguns, increased law enforcement presence on the border between Texas and Mexico, prayer in schools, marijuana as a boon to agriculture, and whether comedians in cowboy hats should be on a serious political party’s ticket in November.

Some of the serious business of government is boring. Some of it does not reveal much difference between the candidates, and elections are all about showing voters the differences and then asking them to make choices.

Nobody who wants to get elected is saying the roads are unjammed, that the rivers are flowing or that public education in Texas is the nation’s best. But talking about real problems is tricky, since it forces a candidate to pick sides, and since picking sides is what separates one group of voters from another. And most of what lawmakers do once they are in office is hard to explain in 30-second advertisements, on short and colorful mailers, or in anything that requires short, black-and-white answers.

Budgets are complicated. Lawmakers get some of what they want and have to swallow some things they do not want. Sometimes at the end of a legislative session, you can tell who might run for higher office the next year just by watching their budget speeches and votes.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, voted to advance the state budget until the final vote in last year’s legislative session. That turnabout so angered the Finance Committee chairman — Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands — that he wrote an editorial excoriating Patrick and concluding that “he was looking for an excuse to distance himself from our good work to advance his own political interests.”

Patrick, of course, is now a candidate for lieutenant governor, joining in criticism of the incumbent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for growth in the state budget since Dewhurst took over in 2003.

At least two statewide candidates are running commercials showing them in gun ranges. State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democratic candidate for governor, said recently that she is open to allowing licensed Texans to wear unconcealed handguns. Her likely opponent in November, Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, made a couple of campaign stops with the rock musician Ted Nugent to fortify his standing with Second Amendment enthusiasts. Some people might not like the controversial and outspoken Nugent, but the Abbott campaign is betting that most of them are not Republican primary voters.

The main duties of Texas’ attorney general include acting as the state’s in-house law firm, as its largest enforcer of child support, but those are not issues in the primary campaign between three Republicans, because it is not where their differences are found. Instead, the differences are in their résumés, in their affiliations and endorsements, and in what they have done or not done in their various public offices.

Every election year is preceded by speculation — a period when the various possible contestants and important supporters are figuring out who will run, and for which office.

Gov. Rick Perry announced fairly early that he would not seek another term, and that means neither he nor anyone else will have to do a line-by-line defense of his tenure. Comptroller Susan Combs was considered a formidable candidate for lieutenant governor, but decided not to run. She would have faced a referendum on her time in office, about a data breach that left personal information of 3.5 million teachers and state employees exposed, and about a huge 2011 underestimation of how much money would be available for the state budget — an error that Republican budget-writers blamed for huge cuts in public education spending.

Had they run, their contests might have been focused on what candidates do once elected to high office — kind of an “eat your vegetables” approach. Instead, in these primaries, the candidates are serving red meat.

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Politics 2014 elections