Ted Cruz had a mandate.
So did Joe Straus.
Each was elected by voters eager to reject the status quo. Cruz elbowed his way into the U.S. Senate with the support of populists who were voting against an established lieutenant governor, even though that candidate, David Dewhurst, shared most of their positions on policy.
Straus, the speaker of the Texas House, was answering a different electorate, but one that had a specific goal in mind: representatives who wanted to upend his predecessor in favor of someone they felt would give them more say over the business of the House. A coalition of Democrats and disaffected Republican state representatives pulled together a majority and replaced Tom Craddick of Midland with Straus, a relative newcomer from San Antonio.
Like the results or not, the dynamics in each race sent someone into office with a pretty clear idea of what the voters were after — a message that was also clear to the party regulars and officeholders who were watching. For any Republican who was not already alert to the Tea Party activism animating conservative voters, the election of a political novice from Texas was like a flare in the nighttime sky. And for the powers that be in the Texas Capitol, Straus’ election was a signal that Democrats had to be reckoned with, and that the House in general was rejecting a top-down management style.
This does not look like one of those elections — especially if the winners are Republicans. Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, are running mainly on their biographies. The dialogue has other layers, to be sure, but the messages are about how the candidates confronted major obstacles and struggles in their lives: his crippling injuries and recovery, her upbringing and two terminated pregnancies.
Officials who are not elected after a campaign formed around a movement or a particular issue go into office missing one of the pieces that would help them govern: a mandate from voters that will help them get other policy makers and officeholders on board.
With a governor’s campaign that is based more on personalities than on differences over particular policies, it might be hard for the winner to tell legislators that voters have delivered a set of marching orders.
A Gov. Davis would have an easier time, coming into office with a repudiation of the ruling party in her back pocket. That worked for Ann Richards, a Democrat, who followed Bill Clements, a Republican, into office in 1991, and it worked again for George W. Bush, a Republican who replaced her four years later.
Each had more to say, however. Richards talked throughout her campaign about the people who had been shut out of Texas government, promising that the state’s boards and commissions would be run by appointees who looked more like the state’s population. Bush talked four issues into the ground during his campaign — proposing changes in state policy on welfare, education, civil litigation and juvenile justice — and came into office with an agenda built before the election ever took place.
A Gov. Abbott has to offer change without criticizing the governor he wants to succeed. The electoral advantages are all his: He is a Republican in a Republican state; the president is a political burden for Democrats; and he has won several statewide elections, while his opponent is running her first.
He would enter office with a Legislature and courts dominated by his party, and an executive branch peopled with appointees and hirelings put in place during Gov. Rick Perry’s tenure. That is a setup for keeping the status quo.
Almost two months remain in the race. Voters will see the candidates in a couple of debates and in millions of dollars’ worth of television ads. When they finally vote, they will have something in mind: party, personality, gaffes and perhaps even the candidates’ positions on issues. Whatever that something is, or is perceived to be, will constitute the electorate’s message to lawmakers.
That will be the mandate.