Analysis: “Who?” for Governor of Texas

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It’s not that the Democrats don’t have any candidates for governor of Texas; their problem is that the state’s voters know next to nothing about the eight people who are running. A melodious name might be more valuable in this primary than a winning political philosophy.

All eight Democrats start out at the same point: getting asked about their beef with Gov. Greg Abbott. They drop “I’m in,” and the news tribe starts its downpour of questions: Why do we need a change? Why are you the answer? What’s your plan for November? Do you have any money for this? Can you get any money for this? Democrats are hopeless, right? Why would a smart person jump into a race against an incumbent with more money than Bluebeard the Pirate?

All of that is important, but it’s really not the first round of questions the candidates have to answer. The race against Abbott doesn’t start until the Democrats have a nominee. Whoever faces Abbott next November has to first get out of the primaries alive.

With a crowd like this, and with relatively unrecognized politicians like these, that’s a hard race.

This is more like a baby-naming contest than a political race, in this way: Voters don’t know the candidates. Unless they learn a lot between now and primary voting (which is what campaigns are supposed to be about), they’ll be at the polls next year looking at a list and deciding which name sounds best. That’s a great way to name the newest member of the family, but it’s a dubious way to pick the newest member of the government.

The race against Abbott (and probably, a Libertarian and a Green and some independents) is a long one. In political terms, November 2018 is light years away.

March 6 primaries, on the other hand, are right on the other side of the holidays. Early voting begins Feb. 20 — just seven weeks into the new year.

It’s an argument, sort of, against the state’s ridiculously early political primaries. There are 10 months between the primary and general elections (not counting runoffs). That’s a long run of fundraising and opposition research that is milked by expensive political consultants who now operate almost all the time — through the year-long election cycle, the legislative cycle that follows, and then all over again.

Voters learn more about general election candidates than about primary candidates. That’s a function of the time available and also of the culling that takes place in the primaries. The Democrats, for instance, will be narrowing their field of gubernatorial contenders from eight to just one. It’s easier to focus during the general, even if that means the primary voters have to act without as much information about the candidates.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez starts the Democratic race with an advantage. She has held office before, winning four consecutive elections in the state’s second-largest county, and by steadily increasing margins. That’s not like winning a statewide election, but it’s more than anyone else in the Democratic primary has done. If nobody else has the resources to make themselves and their ideas known, it might be enough for Dallas County’s sheriff to win at home where she’s known and roll the dice in the state’s remaining 253 counties.

Start her, for that reason, as the front-runner. But Andrew White, son of the late Gov. Mark White — an education reformer who died earlier this year — is mounting a race, as are Tom Wakely and Jeffrey Payne, who’ve been in longer and have been working the state in hopes of winning the nomination.

Being a front-runner at the start might not be all it’s cracked up to be. And that flock of questions about the incumbent and his money and the state’s modern Republican election history will intensify when there’s a Democratic nominee.

Up to now, the plight of Democrats — and their failure to produce a “serious” candidate for the state’s top office — has been a regular story line. There are no famous names here, few political accomplishments to bolster a candidacy, and Abbott isn’t an archetypal battered incumbent trying to overcome his own failures in a bid for re-election.

He’s a well-financed, popular figurehead for a political party that hasn’t lost a statewide election in Texas in almost three decades.

For the eight Democrats in the race for governor so far — and anyone else who joins their ranks by the end of business on Monday — winning the party primary is just the first hurdle.

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