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Analysis: A Political Summons That Doesn't Get an Answer

When political people stumble, the opposition usually pounces. But that only happens when the opposition is ready.

The Texas Capitol, May 15, 2015.

Texas Republicans are lucky they live in a one-party state: Some of their statewide officeholders are turning in early job performances that would make strong opponents dance a jig.

A viable political opposition would be making hay of the mistakes of top Republicans like the attorney general and the commissioner of agriculture, and — that “and” is the most important element here — its voters would be rallying to the call. Looking for signs of a long-awaited Democratic resurgence in Texas? Sorry.

Voters make parties work, and Republican voters so outnumber Democratic voters in Texas that the people who win statewide elections don’t have to worry about what the Democrats might do. The threat of competition that might regulate the people in power doesn’t exist.

You can see how competition works at the national level. Republicans rally around every real and imagined hiccup from the White House or the Clinton campaign or the regulatory agencies controlled by Democratic appointees. And Democrats go off every time they see or think they hear a burp from the House or Senate leadership, or the various campaigns of the GOP candidates for president.

It’s not that way in Texas. Party leaders in Texas do what their national counterparts do, but can’t put together a big enough audience to make it matter. When a Republican in Texas fumbles the ball, the Democratic voters aren’t there to pick it up. It might be consequential to the fumbler — the team might replace that particular player — but it doesn’t hurt the GOP team.

A minority political party has a long way to go if it can’t even advance on the other team’s miscues.

Some of the Republican advantage is baked into the state’s political maps. It’s impossible to turn most Republican seats in the Texas Senate or House — or in the state’s congressional delegation — into Democratic seats. The same is true of virtually all of the seats held by Democrats: They were drawn for one party only. The trick, of course, is that the Republicans drew more Republican-only seats than Democratic-only seats. The Democrats, when they were in power, did the same thing. That’s politics.

But there are a few statewide races on next year’s ballot and a congressional race that will have attention from national party leaders in both camps. If Texas politics worked like national politics, the parties here might be making meals of their opponents’ stumbles, hoping to benefit their own candidates up and down the ballot. Not here.

Eight months into a complete turnover in statewide officeholders, Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, faces criminal charges. And while a few partisans have jumped to his defense, his colleagues in the Republican firmament have not, instead offering tepid, neutral comments like “let the system work” and “innocent until proven guilty.”

They are practicing the fine art of not saying anything now that might make them look complicit or stupid later, as his legal troubles gestate and come to term. If Paxton is exonerated, they said nothing to hurt him. If he is not, they said nothing to remind voters they’re on the same team.

Then there is Yosemite Sid — Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller —whose public appearances have delighted headline writers and some of his supporters while eliciting forehead slaps and silence from his fellow officeholders. The state’s farmer-in-chief has, in his eight months with a taxpayer-funded megaphone, come out for cupcakes in classrooms and the return of deep fryers to public school cafeterias.

His campaign Facebook page shared a post featuring a picture of an atomic bomb blast and the words “Japan has been at peace with the US since August 9, 1945. It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world.” His political staff removed it, said one of his workers had posted it and stopped short of an apology. This wasn’t his first swim in those waters. In a public appearance in January, he said he was kept up at night with “long-range concerns as I hold those two grandbabies on my lap. I have to wonder, when they have grandbabies to hold in their lap, will we be a socialist country? Will we be a Muslim country? Are we doing enough?”

You can argue about what Democratic voters might think about Paxton and Miller. But those Democratic sentiments, whatever they are, apparently don’t matter to the Republicans. If they were worried about the reaction from the other party’s voters — or concerned that GOP officeholders were creating opportunities for candidates from the other side, they’d be doing something about it.

The Democrats would be making hay, stoking their partisan fires. The Republicans would be playing defense, disowning their errant officeholders.

If and when Texas becomes a two-party state, that’s how you’ll know. 

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Politics Ken Paxton Sid Miller