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Analysis: A Kink in the Democrats' Chain

Texas Democratic leaders tried to keep Kinky Friedman off of their November ticket, for fear voters will not take him seriously. But if he wins a runoff for agriculture commissioner in May, he might offer them their best odds for a win.

Kinky Friedman is shown at his Medina, Texas, ranch.

The Texas Democrats’ best hopes of entering the statewide win column in November’s general election could lie with Kinky Friedman. Wouldn’t that be awkward?

Friedman is in a May 27 runoff with Jim Hogan to be the Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner. And he is one of two Texas Democrats — the other is Kesha Rogers, who is in a U.S. Senate primary runoff — whose opposition in the first round of the primaries included their own political party.

During the primary campaign, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a candidate for lieutenant governor, recorded a telephone plea targeted at Democratic voters, urging them to vote for Hugh Fitzsimons III — "the only real Democrat in the race." Her fellow San Antonian finished third. Here’s what she said in that robocall about the most famous guy in the race: “It would be no laughing matter to let comedian Kinky Friedman win a spot on the ballot with Wendy Davis and me in the fall.”

Friedman finished just behind Hogan in the primary. Friedman is the better known of the two — an assessment shared by Hogan himself — and some in the party are talking about kissing and making up with the Kinkster.

This is not just a riff on weird politics.

On the other side of the field, Republicans are trying to decide between two former state representatives who are in a runoff for agriculture commissioner and were each tossed out of office by the voters in their home districts.

Either Sid Miller of Stephenville or Tommy Merritt of Longview would arguably be the weakest link in the GOP’s chain of statewide candidates — the best place for the Democrats to strike.

And the most famous name on the Democratic ballot, at the moment, belongs to the mustachioed, black-hatted singer and comedian from Medina, Texas.

The odds are against Friedman, but they were were also against Rick Perry in 1990, when he won the same job against Jim Hightower.  

For any Democrat in Texas to win a statewide race this year, something out of the ordinary will have to happen. The ordinary result for the last 20 years has been a Republican victory. The closer races, for the most part, have been toward the bottom of the list of statewide races on the ballot. Democrats nearer the top came close in 1998, but since then, Republican candidates do better at the top than at the bottom.

Even there, a finish above 45 percent is rare. And the money is at the top of the ballot.

The governor’s race will probably dominate the state’s political news between now and November. It’s where the money will be, too, which means it is where the noisiest ad campaigns will originate.

The race for agriculture commissioner is far down the list, both in terms of voter interest and the interest of people who write checks to political campaigns. It is the backwater of state politics, which makes it a great place for a candidate who is well known and doesn’t need the help of the financial people to get the attention of voters.

Miller and Merritt have never run statewide races. Friedman ran for governor in 2006 in a pack that included Republican Rick Perry, Democrat Chris Bell and Republican-turned-independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn (who has since divorced and changed her last name back to Rylander). Friedman finished fourth.

Let us argue the case on behalf of the Republican candidates.

One, Friedman got decimated in the 2006 race even though — and perhaps because — the voters knew who he was.

Two, it’s a Republican state, and the Democrats are unlikely to win, especially with a candidate who can be difficult to take seriously.

Three, Friedman’s idea of legalizing marijuana and making it a cash crop in Texas is out of the mainstream and cannot possibly be a winning issue in a Texas election.

The other side? He is better known than either Miller or Merritt. They, like Friedman himself, have been rejected by voters, and the deficiencies that made their opponents successful are there for new opponents — like Friedman — to exploit.

It will be hard for all of the candidates to raise money — an advantage for the best-known candidate, as long as it’s not a bank robber.

Marijuana — if it doesn’t turn off the voters — sets Friedman’s campaign apart. It’s something for voters who are not otherwise interested in the Texas Department of Agriculture to talk about. Public opinion is shifting; the governor recently talked about decriminalizing pot. Perry is not for legalization, but decriminalization is a long way from the zero-tolerance policies that were in vogue a few years ago.

Friedman also has something in common with Miller and Merritt that could be useful in a persistently red state: Each of them can always fall back on his differences with the Texas Democratic Party. 

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Politics 2014 elections Sid Miller