Analysis: The road from the Texas Legislature to statewide office isn’t Easy Street

Texas House members finish a legislative session. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, Glenn Hegar and Sid Miller made it. So did Rick Perry, John Sharp, Susan Combs and Dan Morales.

Lots of people in statewide office in Texas rose from the Texas Legislature. A few have come from the state’s congressional delegation. That list has governors, lieutenant governors, attorneys general, comptrollers and agriculture commissioners on it.

Lt. Gov. Patrick, Attorney General Paxton, Comptroller Hegar and Agriculture Commissioner Miller are examples, and each is trying to win reelection this year, two of them — Paxton and Miller — with primary opponents who’ve been legislating in Austin or Washington.

Most attempts to climb the political ladder fall short. It’s hard to take someone — even a powerhouse lawmaker — in the Texas House, Senate or congressional delegation all the way to statewide success. Being the talk of Austin or Washington doesn’t make a politician famous back home, much less in the rest of the state. A House member might be the most popular politician at home, but there are 150 seats in the Texas House, and that same popular politician might be a political nobody in the other 149 districts.

Some of them consider the odds and decide to do something else.

Last year, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, declared his candidacy for attorney general and then dropped out to run for Tarrant County district attorney, a smaller challenge than trying to unseat an incumbent — Paxton — from his own party.

This year’s climbers include state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, running for lieutenant governor; U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, running for attorney general; state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, who’s trying to win the Republican nomination for land commissioner; and state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, running for agriculture commissioner.

Every one of them, according to recent polling, is having a hard time breaking away from opponents in the March primaries. Buckingham is running for an open seat; current Land Commissioner George P. Bush is in the GOP primary for attorney general. The rest of the Republican legislators running for statewide seats face incumbents. Beckley, if she wins the Democratic nomination, would face Patrick — if Patrick wins the GOP primary.

The competition is fierce, especially when incumbents or other candidates already have statewide fundraising or support bases. Gohmert is well known among Republican activists, but he’s in a primary with the incumbent, Paxton, and two challengers who’ve won statewide races: Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman.

It can be done, however. Paxton was a state senator from McKinney when he won the AG job in 2014. His primary opponents were state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas and Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, a statewide elected official. Patrick rose against even greater odds in the lieutenant governor’s race, beating three statewide officials — incumbent David Dewhurst, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — to win the GOP nomination. In that year’s general election, he defeated another state senator trying to move to statewide office: Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

That’s the same year Republican Greg Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis in the race for governor — a contest between an attorney general and former Texas Supreme Court justice who had won several statewide races, and a state senator and former Fort Worth City Council member.

Unlike most new statewide candidates, whether they have held previous office or not, Davis got into that race after becoming a national figure during a legislative filibuster against an omnibus abortion bill, a star-making turn that assured her of the kind of support and money most legislators running for high office can only dream about.

Abbott won handily, but it wasn’t because he was running against a cash-strapped, unknown legislator. It was because he was running against a Democrat during a string of Republican victories in statewide races that began in 1996 and still hasn’t ended.

Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running for governor this year who broke into statewide politics against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, took a different path. He started as a member of Congress unknown in most parts of Texas, barnstorming the state and building a multimillion-dollar “outsider” campaign. He got much closer than Davis did, but fell short.

In a state where Republicans have won all of the statewide elections for 24 years, Democratic candidates face an additional obstacle endemic to political minorities. But legislators from both parties usually start with the same problem: Texas is a big pond, and lawmakers from Austin and Washington enter those waters as small fish.