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Analysis: It's the President, Stupid

This isn’t going to go down as a year when big ideas and political celebrity decided the elections. It’ll go down as a referendum on the Democrat who has been in the White House for the last six years.

President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at the Paramount Theater in Austin July 10, 2014, following a two-day swing t...

This isn’t going to go down as a year when big ideas and political celebrity decided the elections. It’ll go down as a referendum on the Democrat who has been in the White House for the last six years.

Republicans in Texas, like Republicans all over the country, are running against Barack Obama this year, overshadowing candidate personalities and shoving aside issues that might be of interest to voters.

For instance, in his first debate with Democrat Wendy Davis, Republican Greg Abbott got a chance to ask a question himself. He went here: "Do you regret voting for Barack Obama?" It worked pretty well, too: Davis didn’t answer.

During an exchange in another debate — one between lieutenant governor hopefuls Dan Patrick, a Republican, and Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat, the federal dragon appeared again, when he accused her of voting to expand Obamacare and against an interstate health compact favored by Republicans. “When she says some people like Washington more than others, she likes Washington more than others,” Patrick said.

It’s not always like this. Issues can drive elections, too. The lottery was a big one, once upon a time. Federal judges taking control of Texas prisons and state hospitals and state schools made a campaign debating point of activist courts in the 1980s. The Trans-Texas Corridor. Federalism. Juvenile justice, welfare and education. Crime and the death penalty.

Interesting personalities — and personality flaws — sometimes hog the center ring. Ann Richards and Clayton Williams. Tony Sanchez Jr. and Rick Perry. Perry and Carole Strayhorn and Chris Bell and Kinky Friedman. George W. Bush and, in a notable exception to this year’s trend, his nephew George P. Bush.

This year, Texas voters have their pick from a lot of smart, college-educated, capable people. Bushes notwithstanding, there are not, however, a lot of rock stars on the ballot. The two biggest names in Texas Republican politics, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, can’t be found there. Some of the biggest names in Texas Democratic politics, like San Antonio’s Joaquin and Julián Castro, aren’t there either.

The governor’s race is the top attention-getter, as it usually is in non-presidential election years. Davis and Abbott have already been advertising for weeks and dominating this year’s somewhat subdued political season. Abbott is even running an issue ad, saying he wants the state to use all of its highway money on roads instead of legislative pet projects. The biggest such diversion pays for the state police, a detail left out of the ad.

But Abbott’s website illustrates the point about this year’s subject matter. Under issues, he lists several that spotlight the Obama administration, including Obamacare, reining in the federal Environmental Protection Agency, defending voter ID laws (the U.S. Justice Department is one of the state’s opponents there), and defending the 10th Amendment and “combatting federal government overreach in Texas.”

If he didn’t think those things were popular, they wouldn’t be there.

Davis has spent most of her advertising money attacking Abbott, attempting to disqualify the acknowledged front-runner and to get voters to look for an alternative: Davis herself. Her issue emphasis is education, which has the advantage of generally playing well for Democrats but the disadvantage of not being a hot button for Texas voters at the moment. Her main attack against Abbott on education has been his defense, as Texas attorney general, of the state’s school finance system. A state district judge declared it unconstitutional; Abbott is appealing that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

Most of the ideas from those and other campaigns have appeared as policy papers, one-off speeches before civic groups and pages on under-visited websites — not as crowd-pleasing shouts for tax cuts or new roads or gambling or whatever it is that the candidates think will bring voters streaming out of their homes to cast ballots. Some years, issues turn voters’ heads. Some years, it’s other stuff.

The Republican primary produced some sparks over policy, particularly as candidates tried to distinguish themselves on immigration, border security and on issues that matter to social conservatives who have an outsize voice in those intraparty elections.

Immigration, a front-burner issue in last spring’s Republican primary for lieutenant governor, is still on the plate in the general election, but the conversation between the candidates is limited now. In the weeks before the March primaries, the four Republicans running for that office seemed to be in a town hall or a debate almost every day. In the general election between Patrick, who survived that primary, and Democrat Van de Putte, who was unopposed in her primary, there has been only one debate.

That’s one reason you probably haven’t heard her proposal for two free years of community college, which seems like the sort of campaign promise that might get a little bit of attention. It has not. The president has. Of the top contests, the race for lieutenant governor has been the most substantive, with the candidates actually arguing about policy differences. It’s just that they haven’t given voters many opportunities to see them in action.

Most of the Democratic candidates are trying to convince voters that their opponents should not be elected — flaunting everything from Abbott’s oversight of economic development funds to Patrick’s decision not to make his tax returns public to attorney general candidate Ken Paxton’s citation and fine from the State Securities Board.

And most of the Republicans are talking about the best-known Democrat on the planet, who happens to be very unpopular in Texas right now.

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