While the political attention of many Texans is focused on the 2008 presidential election, and, for a more involved few, control of the Texas House of Representatives, some folks are already looking ahead to 2010. That’s the next time that most of Texas’ non-judicial statewide offices are up for election.
There had already been speculation that a sizable game of political musical chairs could be shaping up, with various statewide officials trying to move to other offices.
That speculation, which includes Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s strong hints she’ll run for Texas governor, helped prod Gov. Rick Perry to say he’s running for re-election in 2010.
Some think Perry’s serious. Some think he’s trying to avoid lame-duckism. One thinks Perry might just be messing with Hutchison’s head. Prior to the 2002 election, and again in 2006, Hutchison hinted at running for governor, then backed out.
Perry’s repeated assertion that he’ll run may put a temporary damper on at least the public discussion by officeholders hoping to move up the ladder. But behind-the-scenes jostling for position likely will continue.
The Texas pecking order for statewide offices is a result of the aftermath of the Civil War. Like several other Southern states that endured heavy-handed, centralized Reconstruction governments after the Civil War, Texans responded in 1876 with a new constitution designed to avoid any concentration of power.
Thus Texas statewide elected officials today – in addition to two United States senators – include not just a separately elected governor and lieutenant governor, but also an attorney general, agriculture commissioner, land commissioner, comptroller, three railroad commissioners, nine Supreme Court justices, and nine justices of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
One result is that in a state as large as Texas, with around 20 media markets, it can be a difficult and expensive chore to become sufficiently well known to compete for those elected offices.
Some wealthy people have managed to get themselves elected directly to top positions, such as former Republican Gov. Bill Clements (1978) and former Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby (1972). But the less well-heeled usually work their way up the political food chain, often coming through the Texas Legislature, less often from Congress.
The so-called “down-ballot” statewide offices become stepping stones to loftier positions. Perry, for instance, went from the Texas House to agriculture commissioner to lieutenant governor before becoming governor. Hutchison, another former Texas House member, was elected state treasurer in 1990 before winning a special Senate election in 1993.
In the 2006 election, then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ran for governor as an independent (and lost). Susan Combs, a former Texas House member elected to replace Perry as agriculture commissioner in 1998, ran for and was elected comptroller.
Her vacancy from the Ag Commission job was seized on by State Sen. Todd Staples, who earlier had served in the Texas House. He ran for the job and, with no primary opponent, cruised to victory in the November election with 54.8 percent of the vote. He’s ambitious, and if you think he’s interested in spending the rest of his life as agriculture commissioner, we’ve got some feral hog belly futures to sell you. A previous Ag Commissioner is now governor, which isn’t lost on his would-be successors.
There was a slight shuffle in 2002, when Republican John Cornyn left the attorney general’s office to run for a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Greg Abbott left the Supreme Court to run to succeed Cornyn as attorney general. David Dewhurst, who was land commissioner, ran for lieutenant governor.
A much more significant shuffle re-arranged the deck in 1998, the year the Democrats got wiped out of statewide office. Then-Land Commissioner Garry Mauro challenged then-Gov. George W. Bush for re-election and got buried.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Attorney General Dan Morales didn’t seek re-election. Comptroller John Sharp ran for lieutenant governor, and was nosed out by Agriculture Commissioner Perry and Bush’s coattails. Cornyn was elected attorney general, and Republican Railroad Commissioner Strayhorn (Rylander back then) was elected comptroller.
So Republican and Democratic hopefuls look ahead to 2010, wondering what jobs might be worth trying for. Meanwhile, both parties are also wondering, after the stunning turnout in the primary elections, whether 2008 will be a watershed year, with significant movement toward the Democrats in Texas, or whether it was just a passing storm.
Veteran Texas political writer Dave McNeely can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.