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Analysis: Texas Politics is So Boring in 2016, Folks Are Already Talking 2018

Outside of the presidential race, the 2016 election in Texas is pretty quiet — so quiet that a lot of political people are spending their time talking about 2018 — and even 2020 as well.

Ted Cruz, flanked by Gov. Greg Abbott and former Governor Rick Perry, campaigns in San Antonio a day ahead of Super Tuesday, Feb 29, 2016.

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Political Texans seem to have found their answer to a lackluster state ballot: They’re making things up.

About two months before an election that will send either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to the White House, the civics nerds of the Lone Star State are instead talking mostly about 2018 and 2020.

Will Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott ever run against each other?

Will former Gov. Rick Perry challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz? What about U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul?

Will either Cruz or Perry run for president again in four years?

Will U.S. Sen. John Cornyn stick with his plan to snub Cruz in 2018 the way Cruz snubbed Cornyn in 2014?

Will anybody challenge Attorney General Ken Paxton?

What about Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller? Challengers?

Are San Antonio’s Castro twins running for governor or U.S. Senate or something else in 2018?

Does former state Sen. Wendy Davis have another campaign in her future?

We’re bored, folks.

The presidential race is a big deal, generating plenty of talk. The debates are coming. The ads are coming. The race is on every screen in sight. Polls are everywhere, like candy pouring out of a piñata. Some, like the recent Washington Post/Survey Monkey survey that found Clinton and Trump in a virtual tie, suggest a close race in Texas.

Even if that’s not what happens — and it’s highly unlikely to happen — it’s fun to talk about.

But the rest of the ballot is sort of a snoozer. That flippant assessment comes with a built-in scold: These offices, from Congress to the courts, from regulatory commissions to the Legislature, are important and deserve your attention. Be an adult about it.

But many of them are completely noncompetitive. The candidates and campaigns, as usual, are out-shouted by the national race. But it’s hard to get voters ginned up about the Texas Railroad Commission or the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals. It’s even harder to elicit the interest of normal humans in races that didn’t even interest candidates from the political minority.

In 10 of the races for 36 U.S. House seats from Texas, only one major party entered a candidate. Unless the minor parties — the Greens and the Libertarians — do something historic, those contests are over.

It’s the same down the ballot. Ten of the 16 state Senate seats on the ballot feature only one major-party contestant. The same is true of 97 of the 150 Texas House seats on the ballot.

Whether that brings cheers or lamentations, this is a safe assessment: It’s not the kind of development that generates conversation and excitement leading into an election.

Politics is fun. People are interested. And when their attention turns from the circus at the top of the ballot to more local concerns, fans of this stuff give the 2016 ballot a glance and quickly move on to the next election, and the one after that.

Perry is on Dancing with the Stars this season, either rebooting his political career or celebrating the fact that he’s out of public office and off the campaign trail for the first time since he ran for the Texas House in 1984. Safe to say he still wants your attention.

Cruz is either a hero or a goat after his dramatic non-endorsement of Trump at the GOP’s national convention. Speculation about re-election challenges is more about his potential weaknesses with voters than about the strengths of his possible opponents. Perry says he doesn’t foresee a race with Cruz. McCaul admits people have been whispering in his ear. Davis says no. Joaquin Castro, the congressional twin (brother Julián is secretary of Housing and Urban Development), is giving the 2018 race a look.

Politics is fun. People are interested. And when their attention turns from the circus at the top of the ballot to more local concerns, fans of this stuff give the 2016 ballot a glance and quickly move on to the next election, and the one after that.

The Cornyn-Cruz drama plays like Ward Cleaver and Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver (sorry for the dated reference, kids) — a sober, fatherly type playing against a younger wisenheimer. The latest turn in that saga was Cornyn’s announcement that he won’t be trying to influence any Republican primaries in 2018 — including Cruz’s race here in Texas.

Abbott has the top job in state government, but the bigger political personality, Patrick, is in the No. 2 spot. And Patrick has made a minor art form of his denials of any interest in Abbott’s job.

Paxton and Miller have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune since their elections to statewide office in 2014. The attorney general faces — and forcefully denies — criminal and civil securities fraud charges related to his work as private lawyer. Miller is being investigated by the Texas Rangers for allegedly taking personal trips and billing them to the state. He has likewise denied doing anything wrong or illegal. Both men have suffered significant political damage while defending themselves — attracting speculation about their re-election chances in the process.

And there’s another presidential race in 2020, with at least one Texan, Cruz, on most lists of potential candidates. Given the popularity of Clinton and Trump, that contest could begin as early as November.

Or maybe not. Want to talk about it?

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

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Politics 2016 elections Dan Patrick Greg Abbott John Cornyn Ken Paxton Rick Perry Sid Miller Ted Cruz