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Analysis: Ugly Histories Trump Policy Issues

In this month's runoff elections, the candidates have concentrated on qualifications, personal history and reputation. Policy, for now, is taking a back seat.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick debated in Salado, Tx on May 20, 2014, ahead of the Republican primary runoff for lieutenant governor.

Many of this year’s primary election campaigns seem to hinge more on the antics of the candidates than on the future of the communities they hope to serve.

Unmarked manila envelopes from campaigns to reporters, full of headline-grabbing historical tidbits — bankruptcies, government filings, medical records, police accident reports and rap sheets — outnumber the white papers detailing public policy issues that might be addressed by competent leaders performing their official duties.

Candidates unleash such information because it can sometimes persuade voters, because the candidates are sometimes desperate, and because it is the sort of information that can distinguish them from opponents who just happen to agree with them on most issues.

In the last days of this runoff campaign, Texans have been treated to an unseemly walk through mental health records of a lieutenant governor candidate and complaints from the Texas Democratic Party that two of its statewide candidates are insufficiently loyal to the party.

Voters in some of Dallas County’s wealthiest sections are deciding a Republican runoff for the Texas House that features disputed tales of one candidate’s years-old traffic stops in Virginia and the other candidate’s public exposure of expunged arrest records. Morgan Meyer or Chart Westcott? Voters’ choice.

Another Dallas County Republican runoff has an incumbent state representative fighting for her job after initially declaring for another office and then comparing a fender-bender to the life-threatening battle wounds of one of her primary opponents. Those things, more than policy matters, are the contest’s talking points. So, voters: Stefani Carter or Linda Koop?

Several legislative candidates are attacking on procedural points, such as the sources of the opposition’s money — especially if it is from outside their districts — and whether the contributors are involved in some kind of ominous “dark money” operation that is not required to disclose their names. That line animates the House District 10 race between T.J. Fabby and John Wray, for example, and the Senate District 2 contest between state Sen. Bob Deuell and Bob Hall (a race that has also seen a steady ooze of personal attacks).

The candidates have their reasons for concentrating on reputation and résumés, especially in primaries, where ideological differences can seem slight.

Asked a couple of weeks ago how many times they had been on stage together for debates, forums and town halls, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his Republican primary runoff opponent, state Sen. Dan Patrick, put the number at about 30. Each can recite the other’s lines. Each knows how the audience reacts, how each argument works, which rhetorical arrows hit their marks and which fly wide of the targets.

In a public forum in the House District 16 runoff, Will Metcalf criticized Ted Seago for copying his plan on public education, according to The Cypress Creek Mirror. “He’s kind of taken what was on my mailout before the March 4 primary,” Metcalf complained. Seago said he devised the plan after talking with local school administrators.

You hear a fair amount of that when candidates debate. They seek harmony with their audience, and in primaries that means the candidates will often share similar positions. Their early work and their ability to connect with voters, however, can replace the need to be distinct on each and every issue.

Patrick has successfully positioned himself to the right of the incumbent, striking a chord other candidates in other Republican primaries are trying to strike — that of an “authentic conservative.” That appears to be strong protection against information that in other times has proved damaging; Patrick has fended off many of his opponent’s attacks.

The same appears to be true for state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, in his race for attorney general. He has branded himself as the conservative in the contest, and his opponent’s attacks on his practices as a lawyer and his delinquent disclosures of some business interests do not appear to have hindered his progress.

General elections have their share of personal attacks, but also include significant policy differences that periodically elevate the political discussions. But this is primary runoff season, when the arguments turn to ability and effectiveness, to personality and disposition, to the politics of personal aggrandizement and ruination.

To unmarked manila envelopes instead of policy white papers.

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Politics 2014 elections