Analysis: Despite Calendar, Campaigns Take a Back Seat

Analysis: Despite Calendar, Campaigns Take a Back Seat

This is the time of a political year when voters start — slowly — to pay attention to the candidates, issues and arguments ahead of a general election. But this year, there is something else to watch instead.

The summer is coming to an end. The kids are back in school. And the political ads have started appearing around the TV shows frequented by viewers who are suspected of also being voters.

We have arrived at that time of the election year when the big candidates start presenting their pitches to voters, the time when the political class expands — or hopes to expand — to include people who vote in November but do not pay attention to every single little thing that happens in politics between elections.

But a surprise complicated the beginning of the season. While Wendy Davis was running early commercials putting Republican Greg Abbott in a negative light, and Abbott was running commercials putting himself in a positive light — and ignoring Davis — a Travis County grand jury whipped out a two-page indictment that moved the spotlight from the two major party candidates for governor.

The grand jury charged Gov. Rick Perry with coercing a public servant and abusing his official capacity of governor by threatening to veto funds for state investigations at the Travis County district attorney's office if DA Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down after her April 2013 drunken driving arrest.

Davis and Abbott share a problem. They’re candidates for the top office in state government and trying to get attention that is focused on the current governor. Perry is like the Dos Equis guy: He’s the most interesting man in state politics.

The governor’s continued prominence in political news could be an annoyance for a Republican candidate trying to get out of the long Perry shadow.

But Davis has an even bigger obstacle: Her not-on-the-ballot running mate has been an unpopular Democratic president. The last time Texas Democrats ran a midterm election with Barack Obama in the White House, their partisan parity in the Texas House was destroyed. The 2010 election turned a 76-74 Republican advantage into (after a couple of post-election party switches) a 102-48 Republican advantage.

Perry’s response to the indictment — he gathered a posse of criminal and civil lawyers and is running an aggressive campaign against Lehmberg, featuring video of her indefensible behavior during and after her drunken driving arrest — threatens to put another unpopular phantom Democrat on this year’s November ballot.

Abbott and Davis have both been remarkably quiet about the governor’s indictment. Abbott’s initial response was to question how Perry could face criminal charges for using his veto and told Fox News, “I don’t know what to think about it.” Davis was circumspect, too, telling the Houston Chronicle she was troubled and adding, “There will be, I’m sure, more information that comes to light.”

Both are taking the safe bet by not letting the governor’s legal fight become a proxy for their own race to succeed him. Campaigns are full of enough dangerous traps without adding to the mix, especially by taking sides in a dispute they do not control.

Contrast that with what the partisan fire-breathers from the right and left have been saying since the indictment was issued. Perry’s defenders immediately wailed about what they called a partisan prosecution that ought to be reined in, while his detractors quickly called for his early resignation.

The top candidates dodged, but the criminal case is already fodder in other political venues. Some conservative activists trying to gin up support for a new speaker of the Texas House, for instance, immediately began circulating lists of Republican House members who last session voted against moving state prosecutions out of the Travis County DA’s office and into the state attorney general’s office. Their complaint was that the vote left the investigations in the hands of Travis County and thus set up the governor’s indictment.

If nothing else was keeping statewide candidates out of the fray, the prospect of taking sides in a contest for speaker of the House would certainly scare them off. House Speaker Joe Straus is expected to seek a fourth term in the chair. To defeat him, a Republican challenger running as a more conservative alternative — state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, has declared his candidacy — would have to win the support of at least 76 members, presumably Republicans. A fracture over something like the indictment might be helpful, in some eyes, to peeling those legislative voters from the pack.

None of that is on the November general election ballot, though, and the Perry indictment’s effect there will not be clear for a few weeks. It might not register at all when it comes to the election. This particular attention deficit disorder is not a permanent one. The governor’s legal mess will have spikes of interest before the elections, but a lot of what the lawyers will be doing is intensely interesting to the players and much less interesting to anyone else. They have several procedural battles between now and any argument of the case itself.

Davis and Abbott have plenty of money to break through the distractions, and their race is likely to command the conversation when Texans are deciding whether to vote and for whom.

In the short term, though, the Perry case has been more interesting than the November races, distracting voters who might otherwise hear something catching in a position paper or an early commercial. What would ordinarily mark the start of the Abbott and Davis show is, instead, something else.

The best-known political names of the moment are Rick and Rosemary.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/08/27/analysis-your-attention-please/.

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