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Analysis: Out of Office, but Not Out of Politics

Former Comptroller Susan Combs, who is off the list of statewide elected officeholders for the first time since 1999, still has a sizable political treasury and a desire to make voters out of conservative Texans who don't pay attention to politics.

Former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs

Susan Combs, the state's comptroller of public accounts for eight years, left that post this month as quietly as you can leave statewide office.

The other Texans serving out their time in statewide office last year were either on the ballot looking for another job, on the ballot trying to keep the jobs they had, or off the ballot and thinking about national affairs and Iowa and New Hampshire and where to live after turning in the keys to the Governor’s Mansion.

Only Combs decided not to run for office — in 2014 or in the future.

Most of her former colleagues — the most powerful executive branch officials just a few weeks ago — are now out of work. Combs, meanwhile, has opened shop a few blocks from the Capitol, pushing ideas through a new website she hopes will engage conservatives who don’t take part or vote right now. She’s also thinking about giving to candidates whose politics she supports and doing some speaking on the side.

Combs wants to get the attention of people from her ideological neighborhood, to engage them to get them to vote in support of conservative causes and candidates. That hasn’t been happening, as you know if you watch voter turnout statistics, or got a look at the relatively sparse crowd that gathered for this week’s inauguration ceremonies. “What do people listen to?” she says. “What breaks through the noise?”

She left government work with a large stack of bills in her campaign accounts — money that has to be used within the legal definitions of campaign and political spending. She can contribute to other candidates, and they will probably be lining up as soon as they snap to how much money she’s got and whether they can get any of it. She can spend it on public affairs work, promoting ideas and proposals and candidates that she agrees with. And she can spend it on office space and staff to help get all of those other things done.

The work on her website — lonestarsuccess.com — looks a lot like the kinds of information put out by the comptroller’s office on her watch. Combs wants to describe what government is doing, make it more transparent, poke at relations between the state and federal governments, and lead inactive Republicans and conservative independents to issues and the activism she extols.

Government is too hard for regular people to penetrate, Combs says. On the federal level, things are big. And at the local level, cities, counties and municipal utility districts, in her view, sometimes operate as closed systems.

“How many of the uninformed know what’s going on,” she said. “I worry about the malaise of Texan and American voters. How do you bridge that energy gap?”

Combs ended 2014 with $5.68 million in her political account. The only sizable check she wrote during the last six months of the year was for $75,000, to the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee.

She’ll use some of the money to pull together material for her site. She has several videos and blog posts already up. They are basically commercials for the state, comparing the state’s taxes, Rainy Day Fund savings, housing costs and the like to those in other states. If they had a name on them — Combs is nowhere to be found here — they would look like campaign ads. They look instead like the commercials Texas runs in other states to try to get people elsewhere to move here.

Combs said she has no plans to run for any other office, so that’s not the aim. And this is not exactly a think tank, knocking out white papers and specific policy proposals. The videos she has produced so far brag on Texas but don’t ask the viewer to do anything.

They are positive, with no call to action. They do credit conservative leadership for the state’s positives. “I hope people who see it decide conservative policy is a good thing,” she said. “The focus is, ‘Here’s what will work for you.’ I want people to feel empowered — not to feel they can’t make a difference.”

It’s definitely a soft sell, and she’s using social media to try to boost the number of people who see it. She will add as she goes, she says, and plans to make some political donations this year and next.

She is finished with running, but still wants to have some influence and to engage conservative voters.

“I tried to change behavior when I was in office,” Combs said. “And that’s still what I’m trying to do. I want to change people’s behavior.”

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