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Analysis: Attention Not Trickling Down to Texas Runoff Hopefuls

On the eve of Election Day in 22 state runoff races — 16 of them following the Republican primaries — Texas voters seem to be concerned with other things.

Reserved parking places awaited voters at the Hays County Government Center in San Marcos on Feb 25, 2016.

We are in a national election year. State issues don’t seem to matter. Local issues don’t, either, except through the national/federal filter.

Want evidence? You could see some of the signs when Texas Republicans  held their convention a week ago in Dallas. The issues of the day were Ted Cruz’s exit from the presidential race, Dan Patrick’s grandstanding on transgender bathrooms, the start of Greg Abbott’s book tour promoting state’s rights and persistent attacks on President Obama, Hillary Clinton and the federal government from just about every candidate and officeholder in sight.

Texas Republicans don’t have Wendy Davis to kick around any more. They’re not talking about other Texas Democrats, either. National politics is this year’s North Star for those navigating the political waters.

This is a partial explanation for the biggest obstacle in the way of the 44 politicians on the ballot in various runoff races Tuesday. Most people are not paying attention to their races — or to the local issues that might animate them.

On the eve of election day in 22 state runoff races — 16 of them following the Republican primaries — Texas voters seem to be concerned with other things.

The candidates at the GOP gathering did their best. Would-be Texas Railroad Commissioners Wayne Christian and Gary Gates were working delegates. So were aspirants to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and various congressional and statehouse positions.

They didn’t get much love from the convention organizers, though, relegated to waving from the stage in lineups of legislators instead of time at the microphone. That was the treatment for state Reps. David Simpson of Longview and Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who are vying for the party’s nomination in the contest to replace Kevin Eltife in the Texas Senate.

National politics is this year’s North Star for those navigating the political waters.

They and others got smaller opportunities, talking briefly in caucus meetings and one on one with delegates during the three-day gathering. Many of the GOP’s candidates didn’t show up, choosing to stay closer to home and to the runoffs they are trying to win.

The dozen Democrats in Tuesday’s runoffs didn’t even get a chance to decide whether going to a convention for self-promotion was worthwhile: The state’s Democrats don’t meet until June 16 — well after these runoffs are over.

It’s an off year for top state offices. With none of the big statewide offices on the ballot — U.S. Senate, governor and so on — there is little to compete with the thunder coming from the presidential race. Downballot candidates from the state’s Railroad Commission down to county clerk races across the state will be competing with the national campaigns for attention and advertising time.

In the general election, many voters will probably revert to the easiest shorthand available, casting straight-ticket ballots or basing their downballot choices on whether they agree with those candidates’ favorites in the race for president.

November turnout should be big; it usually is in presidential election years. Turnout in this year’s March primaries was swollen, too, with undecided contests for both of the major-party presidential nominations.

None of that is happening in the runoffs. No presidential candidates. No high-dollar ad campaigns. And nothing to identify the candidates to voters who might not know much about them.

It’s a low-interest, low-information affair. Some of the races are local, and those local candidates for House and Senate seats were more likely to stay away from the biennial gathering of Republican activists for a simple reason: That’s not where their voters were.

Statewide candidates had better reasons. State party delegates can have outsized influence in low-information races. They take what they know about Judge X back home with them, passing it along to other activists — the people most likely to vote in low-energy primary runoffs.

Statewide candidates were more in evidence at the convention. Three races for the Railroad Commission and for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals are on the Republican ballot. Only one statewide race — for the Railroad Commission — is on the Democratic ballot.

Everything else is regional or smaller, ranging from legislative seats to the State Board of Education.

The hopefuls’ chances Tuesday depend on a few things they can control — voters contacted, speeches made, babies kissed — and several things they can’t — weather, voter turnout and the attention focused on national politics.

The national campaigns dominate news coverage and political conventions and public attention. For state candidates, it’s been hard to break into the conversation.

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