The fractured nature of the race for Texas governor has some candidates for other offices a bit nervous and off-balance. Unless they are in strongly Republican or strongly Democratic districts, they worry whether voters will make it down the ballot to their races.

Many Texans have yet to realize that there is no runoff in the governor’s race. Let me repeat that: There is no runoff in the governor’s race. Whoever gets the most votes will occupy the governor’s mansion for the next four years, even if he or she is way short of a majority.

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Usually the contest is between just the Republican (incumbent Rick Perry) and the Democrat (Chris Bell), with some token votes to a Libertarian (James Werner of Austin) or Green Party candidate (the Greens didn’t qualify for the ballot). But this time, the independent candidacies of Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn have jumbled things up.

Since most candidates down the ballot are Republicans or Democrats, there’s an incentive for them to want a straight-party vote. But a legislative candidate in a swing district – one that can go either Democratic or Republican in November – has to be careful about wishing for that. On the one hand, the candidate definitely wants to encourage his party’s base vote to turn out. But he also must try to attract voters who support someone other than his party’s candidate for governor.

In addition, voters will face two Congressional elections above the governor’s race on the ballot, that of U. S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison versus Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky of Houston and Libertarian Scott Lanier Jameson of Plano, and then one of 32 races for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Below the level of governor, before state legislative and county races, voters will be asked to make choices for lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner, Railroad Commission member, and justices for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

The Republicans have controlled every statewide office since the 1998 elections. There was still some Democratic enthusiasm in 2002, when the party fielded the so-called “Dream Team” of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk for U.S. Senate, Laredo banker Tony Sanchez for governor, former Comptroller John Sharp for lieutenant governor, and former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson for attorney general.

But after that ticket was resoundingly stomped in the first election after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Democrats got discouraged. Their 2006 slate is their weakest in years, if not in history. With at least a national pendulum appearing ready to swing back toward the Democrats, and Perry stuck in the mid-30s in the polls, some Yellow Dogs wish more formidable candidates like Sharp and Kirk were on the ballot. (And Sharp and Kirk probably wish they were, too.)

In fact, the Democrats’ weakness has opened the door for another party. The Dems fielded just one candidate for the five Texas Supreme Court seats that are up for election and just one (J.R. Molina of Fort Worth) for the three Court of Criminal Appeals seats. But the Libertarians found candidates for seven of the eight court jobs. In order to get on the 2008 ballot, the party needs to draw at least five percent of the vote in just one statewide race. And with no Democratic candidate in so many of the court races, the Libertarians are bound to get at least that much of the vote from Democrats who won’t vote Republican.

The down-ballot races may not seem important; they are basically for administrative offices that are filled in many states by appointment. But the holders of those offices wield some powerful influence in Texas.

First, the lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner, plus the speaker of the Texas House, get the job of handling legislative redistricting if the legislature can’t get it done – and that can affect the balance of power in the state tremendously. Beyond that, the down-ballot posts are the on-deck circle for the major offices in Texas. The state’s top five elected officials each held one or more lower-ballot jobs before their current position: Gov. Rick Perry (agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor); Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (land commissioner); U.S. Sen. Hutchison (state treasurer, a post since abolished); U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (Texas Supreme Court, attorney general); and Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott (Texas Supreme Court). Hutchison and Dewhurst, neither of whom seem to be sweating re-election, might both run for governor in 2010 – another reason for voters to pay attention to their races this time around and for both candidates to drop some campaign cash on tv ads in the closing weeks.

All of which makes it important to bone up on the stances of some candidates besides Kinky, Carole, Chris, and Rick – and not just on the issues they will face in the particular offices they are running for this time, but also on matters like reproductive choice, school finance, and others. As we can see, yesterday’s agriculture commissioner might be tomorrow’s governor.

You can reach Dave McNeely at