Sizing up the 2014 Republican primary

February 10, 2014 11:58:13 AM PST
The party primaries are coming up on March 4, with early voting starting next week, so a review of what's at stake is timely. I'll start with the 2014 Republican Primary because that's where most of the action is. The dominance of the GOP in Texas is reflected in the fact that 34 candidates have filed for the eight statewide non-judicial positions up this year. Starting at the top of the ballot, here's how I see these races shaping up.

US Senate: Two-term incumbent John Cornyn has drawn seven challengers, including Congressman Steve Stockman of the 36th District. Despite the crowded field, Cornyn should easily prevail as Mr. Stockman has not campaigned (at least in Texas) and the other folks have almost no campaign money or name recognition. About all we'll find out in this race is the size of the hardcore anti-party establishment vote in the Texas Republican Primary. My guess is it is about 30 percent, with Cornyn, the number two Senate Republican in Washington, getting the balance.

Governor: Attorney General Greg Abbott has three opponents, including one named SECEDE Kilgore. None pose any threat to Mr. Abbott whose campaign has long been focused on his likely Democratic opponent, State Senator Wendy Davis. Expect Abbott to take over 80 percent of the primary vote.

Lt. Governor: Now things get interesting. Incumbent David Dewhurst has three opponents, all credible challengers. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples gave up their statewide jobs to take on the 12-year incumbent, as did State Senator Dan Patrick of Houston. Dewhurst has, in my judgment, run a lackluster campaign to date but should still lead into a runoff against one of his rivals. My money is on Senator Patrick, who enjoys a talk radio base in Houston, has statewide credibility with Tea Party activists, plus a decent war chest for TV ads down the stretch.

Attorney General: With Greg Abbott moving on, three serious contenders are fighting to be the state's lawyer for the next four years. State Representative Dan Branch appears to be the favorite of the Austin establishment while State Representative Ken Paxton has more support from Tea Party activists. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman has had statewide exposure, and should get enough votes to force a runoff, but the mostly likely matchup is Branch v. Paxton in April.

Comptroller: Another open race here, with four contenders trying to succeed the retiring Susan Combs. Debra Medina got 19% in the 2010 Republican Primary for governor against Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, but State Senator Glenn Hegar is better funded and seems well positioned to make a runoff against Ms. Medina or State Representative Harvey Hilderbran.

Land Commissioner: For the first time since 2004, a Bush will be on the statewide Texas ballot. George P. Bush, son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is expected to easily garner the nomination against an unknown and underfunded opponent.

Commissioner of Agriculture: Five candidates, none known to most state voters, are hoping to replace Todd Staples. Eric Opiela was praised in an endorsement a few days ago by the Houston Chronicle editorial board, but in a down-ballot race he may not fare well against opponents with more common names like Sid Miller (definitely not praised by the Chronicle) or Tommy Merritt. A runoff is assured here, but in a dart-throwing race, anybody could make the finals.

Judicial Races: There are five statewide contested races for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. In the Supreme Court races, the challengers Robert Talton and Sharon McCally, opposing incumbents Nathan Hecht and Phil Johnson, have support from trial lawyers unhappy with the strong anti-tort leanings of the current court. Talton and McCally are underdogs, but their presence adds interest to these "below the radar" races.

Harris County: There are few local contests in the Harris County Republican Primary, but four incumbents do face meaningful challengers. Court Koenning, a longtime GOP consultant, is taking on District Clerk Chris Daniel, who was swept with the Tea Party tsunami back in 2010. Next, Family Law Judge Denise Pratt drew four opponents after being the subject or a series of critical stories in the Houston Chronicle. Party leaders failed to get her to step down, so primary voters get to decide her fate.

Another endangered incumbent is Harris County Republican Chair Jared Woodfill. Mr. Woodfill has drawn two opponents, including Paul Simpson who challenged him in 2012. This time Mr. Simpson has the support of popular County Judge Ed Emmett, which should improve his odds of taking out the incumbent. This race should provide some insight into the struggle within the Republican Party between the moderate conservative establishment (Simpson is their guy) versus the social conservatives Jared Woodfill is counting on.

Finally, Representative Sarah Davis, the only Republican legislator who voted against the sonogram legislation backed by pro-life groups in Austin, is opposed by abortion opponent Bonnie Parker. The 134th District, which includes the Texas Medical Center and many upscale neighborhoods with highly educated voters, has the largest number of Planned Parenthood supporters of any house district in Texas. That said, pro-choice voters do not have much of a history of voting in Republican Primaries so Sarah Davis is at risk of losing her seat in a low-vote primary.

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