This is insanely early, but if presidential races can go on for years and years, there is no reason to avoid talking about the 2018 race for Texas governor.
Such a topic can be easy to forget as you enjoy Tuesday’s inaugurations of a new governor and lieutenant governor. It will be the first time voters have filled both offices with new people at the same time since Ann Richards and Bob Bullock swore on the Bible 24 years ago.
Inauguration Day is all harmony and ceremony. A legislative session is like a kindergarten party: Everybody’s fine when they get there, but they go crazy when the games are underway and they miss their naps.
Watch this legislative session with 2018 in mind: Debates in the Legislature often foreshadow issues in future campaigns. A potential break between a governor and a lieutenant governor, for example, could be the seed of a future race. A political fumble at the top, where all three — governor, lite guv and speaker — are Republicans, could create an opportunity for the other party.
These things happen. Republican Bill Clements snuck past John Hill in 1978, when Democrats were the boss of everything in Texas and many of you were not yet born. Before he lost that general election, Hill beat incumbent Gov. Dolph Briscoe and former Gov. Preston Smith in a primary that illustrated the splits in the Democratic Party.
Things are different now, but they’re interesting in ways that they have not been interesting for more than a decade.
The governor and the lieutenant governor have made their bones.
Greg Abbott is the state’s longest-serving attorney general and was strong enough coming into the open race for governor that none of the state’s blue-chip Republicans risked entering the primary. The only other politician who could put that kind of scare on people was named Bush. Abbott then proceeded to an easy victory over Democrat Wendy Davis. He enters office politically strong and with more than $12 million in his political war chest to defend himself.
The other fellow on stage Tuesday took a harder path into office, defeating an incumbent lieutenant governor and two other statewide Republican officeholders in his first statewide race. Dan Patrick was a firebrand in the Senate, lighting up the populists and movement conservatives in the GOP without becoming the sole property of any of the third-party conservative groups clamoring for influence in state government.
They have two regular legislative sessions between now and the next election for the big state offices. The harmony might last all the way. That should be obvious much earlier, during the session that started last week and runs through Memorial Day.
The House and the Senate will fight like siblings, as they always do. They will rattle and shake with internal debates, as always. Their differences could define the session. But the relationships at the top will have as much to do with it. House Speaker Joe Straus has established himself as an enemy of temper tantrums and other small dramas. Patrick is unproven, and sits at the helm of a Senate that is full of freshmen and sophomores eager to make a mark.
Abbott is unproven, too — the only one of the three without legislative experience. He has been through enough scraps to have a little feel for it, but being in the mix every day is a different thing. And one role of governors is to sit between the squabbling legislative chambers and try to make peace.
Abbott and Patrick could end up in perfect sync, going into 2018 ready to keep doing this for another four years. Straus would be ending a fifth term as speaker then, ready to break the five-term record or to move on to something else. Nobody has done it since 1956, but it is possible for a former speaker to become a governor.
It is easier for lieutenant governors to do it. After all, they have run statewide, have political friends all over the place and — sometimes — a pretty good record to run on. Rick Perry was a lieutenant governor. It helped that he ascended into the office when George W. Bush became president, but the political base was there and he held the job for 14 years.
If the new guys find themselves at odds, and if Republican voters are shopping around in 2018, Abbott and Patrick are the most obvious candidates for governor. If they are getting along, they will be, more or less, a ticket — lowering the chances that anyone will challenge them.
Texas won’t know whether it has put partners or rivals into office until sometime in session. Sometimes, you have to hand the kids their balloons and cupcakes and set them loose. They’ll either get along, or they won’t.