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Analysis: When Power Doesn't Spell Victory

Power in elected office doesn't always translate into success in elections. Just ask Leticia Van de Putte. Or Trey Martinez Fischer. Or John Carona. Or David Dewhurst.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte on February 24th, 2015, her last day as Texas Senator

You cannot remain powerful in politics if you are not forced to flex your political muscles.

Ask Leticia Van de Putte. Or Trey Martinez Fischer. Or John Carona. Or David Dewhurst.

All four — and they are just fresh examples plucked from a longer list of vanquished politicians — were generally considered to be powerful and fearsome in Austin, where tenure can lead to authority and influence. But all four lost their most recent elections after long stretches of uncompetitive political cycles. Each had been able to remain in office without fearing a rival would truly test them.

Van de Putte, a highly regarded Democratic state senator, could probably have won another term in that position without drawing opposition in her primary. And hers is a district that would be difficult for a Republican to win in a general election.

She ran for lieutenant governor last year, helping fill out a ticket topped by Wendy Davis, whose filibuster on anti-abortion legislation made her a liberal hero and launched a campaign for governor.

Few expected either to win, and when the 2014 general election was all said and done, neither they nor any other statewide Democratic candidates had broken the 39 percent mark.

But Van de Putte had an ace in the hole, potentially turning her popularity in her home district and the publicity boost of a statewide campaign into a successful run for San Antonio’s open seat for mayor. It had been held, after all, by a Democrat — Julián Castro, now U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development — and was occupied by a city councilwoman appointed while saying that she wouldn’t seek a full term. That wasn’t unlike Van de Putte’s own statement, during her statewide bid, that she would not run for mayor.

Both ran. Ivy Taylor, giving the senator her first taste of home-cooked competition in some time, won on Saturday. She’ll get a full term as mayor while Van de Putte goes home.

Something like that happened to Martinez Fischer, too. He lost the special election for Van de Putte’s empty Senate seat to fellow state Rep. José Menéndez.

Menéndez finished second in the first round but won the runoff with ease. In Austin, where Martinez Fischer has often made a force of the Democratic minority in the Legislature, he was regarded as the man to beat. A rematch is likely next year, when the full term is up for grabs, and the electorate could change. In the primary, only Democrats will be voting. In the special election earlier this year, anybody could vote and the two camps have argued over the influence of Republicans.

Either way, actual competition might be the most unusual component. San Antonio races are suddenly up for grabs.

It helps a lot when the maps favor you. With only a few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature and the Texas congressional delegation are safe from November challengers. And if they have things under control in their local districts — i.e., they haven’t created any friction among their own party’s factions — they don’t have anything to worry about in their primaries, either.

Dewhurst and Carona were victims of that primary problem. In a splintered Republican Party, each found himself painted as too moderate for the electorate. Both Dewhurst, the former lieutenant governor, and Carona, a former Dallas senator, are conservative.

But Dewhurst was defeated twice in as many elections by Republicans who positioned themselves to his right. The first, Ted Cruz, started as a virtual unknown in an open primary race for the U.S. Senate. Dewhurst finished first in the primary with three other candidates, but failed to break 50 percent. He lost the runoff to Cruz by almost 14 points. Two years later, he found himself in another four-way primary, this time in a race for re-election to a fourth term as lieutenant governor. He finished second in the first round, well behind state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, who, like Cruz, positioned himself to the incumbent’s right. The runoff was a blowout; Patrick won with an advantage of 30 percentage points.

What happened to Dewhurst was happening to Carona at the same time. Carona narrowly lost his re-election to Don Huffines in a bitter and expensive Republican primary. Huffines, like Patrick, ran to the right and was rewarded by GOP primary voters looking for hard-core conservative candidates.

Some were undoubtedly drawn to the polls by something that is often missing in these kinds of elections: a choice between competitive people and ideas.

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