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With most Texans’ eyes on Abbott and O’Rourke, down-ballot races could offer more drama

The races for Texas lieutenant governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner have potential intrigue.

Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick
Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick during a general meeting as part of the 2022 Republican Party of Texas State Convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas on Friday, June 17, 2022.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.

The governor’s race between incumbent Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke is the main attraction of the Texas midterm season.

The candidates could spend more than $150 million between them, which would nearly obscure some down-ballot contests that are just as compelling. The governor’s race is getting top billing because the state’s senators are not up for reelection, leaving the Texas executive posts as the most critical contests.

Even as the Abbott vs. O’Rourke showdown sucks most of the political oxygen, several other statewide races will have a similar, if not greater, impact on Texas politics.

The lieutenant governor’s contest features incumbent Republican Dan Patrick, the most powerful player in the Texas Legislature, against Democrat Mike Collier. The other must-watch race features incumbent Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton and former ACLU lawyer Rochelle Garza. And pay attention to Central Texas lawyer Susan Hays’ challenge of incumbent Republican Sid Miller for agriculture commissioner.

“These are sleeper races,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “There’s potential that one of those races might be won by a Democrat.”

Rottinghaus said shifts in political power often start with down-ballot races.

In 1990, Democrats scored a major victory when Ann Richards beat Republican Clayton Williams for governor. But Republicans had two critical down-ballot wins: Rick Perry beat Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner and Kay Bailey Hutchison defeated Nikki Van Hightower for treasurer.

Though in 1979 Bill Clements was elected the first Republican Texas governor since Reconstruction, those 1990 down-ballot races kick-started the coming GOP dominance.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, shared a light moment during the Texas GOP gubernatorial candidates debate on Jan. 29, 2010, at WFAA Channel 8 studios in downtown Dallas. (File Photo/Staff) (Louis DeLuca / AP)

Perry and Hutchison emerged as popular elected leaders, with Perry becoming governor and Hutchison a U.S. senator.

In 2010, Perry beat Hutchison in a much-anticipated race for governor and ultimately served as former President Donald Trump’s energy secretary.

It was downhill for Democrats.

They won their last statewide race in 1994, and by 2003, Republicans had control of both chambers in the Legislature.

“They really worked the angle to get the Republicans in a better position,” Rottinghaus said. “History has shown that they’re the ones who were the tip of the spear. It was the down-ballot races where you started to see Republicans really pierced the armor of the Democrats in a consistent way.”

But we’re not living in the 1990s, and Texas Democrats don’t appear to be backed by a national revolution in their favor. Republicans have strong advantages for the midterm cycle. They have more voters in the Texas electorate. And the unpopularity of President Joe Biden combined with the continued impact of higher prices for goods and services make winning a statewide race a daunting challenge for Democrats.

“The problem setting up the tables is that a lot of the money that is sitting around is being hoovered up by O’Rourke,” Rottinghaus said. “They’re going to struggle for attention and for money and that’s going to limit the ability to flip those seats.”

The Patrick vs. Collier race is a rematch from 2018, when the incumbent won by 5 percentage points. Collier says he has the crossover appeal to beat Patrick. He’s running as someone who can fix the state’s power grid and create sensible solutions to other problems facing Texans.

But Patrick is a darling of the latest incarnation of Texas conservatives, and they love his toughness in the Legislature and willingness to hammer through legislation, no matter how unpopular it is outside the Republican base.

Patrick will also have the money he needs to win, and he’s done a better job over his last term of building a machine to churn out conservative votes.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick photographed Air Force One as it took off from Dallas Love Field Airport after President Donald Trump participated in a roundtable conversation about race relations and policing and attended a fundraiser at a private residence on Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Dallas. (Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer)(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)
Texas lieutenant governor challenger Mike Collier
Texas lieutenant governor challenger Mike Collier listened to speakers during the Lady Bird Breakfast fundraiser at the 2022 Texas Democratic convention at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, on July 16, 2022. (Tom Fox/Staff Photographer)(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer )

For Democrats, Patrick’s relentlessness in getting legislation passed makes him their biggest adversary.

While the lieutenant governor is one of the strongest Republicans on the ballot, Paxton can be considered the weakest link. Legal troubles, including felony fraud charges and an FBI investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption, have made him vulnerable, though he keeps on winning. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

Paxton’s rivals in the GOP primary warned that Democrats could beat him in November.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton gave a speech during a general meeting as part of the 2022 Republican state convention at George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Friday, June 17, 2022. (Lola Gomez/Staff Photographer)(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)
Texas Attorney General challenger Rochelle Garza
Texas Attorney General challenger Rochelle Garza (at podium) addressed delegates and guests during the Lady Bird Breakfast fundraiser at the 2022 Texas Democratic convention at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on July 16, 2022. Joining her on stage (from left) were 15th Congressional District candidate Michelle Vallejo, Texas comptroller of public accounts candidate Janet Dudding and Texas agriculture commissioner candidate Susan Hays. (Tom Fox/Staff Photographer)(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer )

Garza is making her first run for statewide office and has been a leader in trying to preserve reproductive rights for women, as well as other issues that could strike a chord with voters. Democrats, including progressives, are trying to mobilize voters angry about the Supreme Court decision to abolish constitutional protections for abortion rights.

Some observers say Garza could become a breakout star in the race for attorney general. But Paxton has often been underestimated, only to find a way to win primary and general election contests. He’s seeking his third term, and if he gets conservative voters to stay with him, it could be tough for Garza to win.

Rottinghaus said he’ll also be paying attention to the Miller vs. Hays showdown for agriculture commissioner.

Miller is obviously a character and has a tremendous number of enemies that he’s made,” Rottinghaus said. “Susan Hays is a brash Texan out of central casting, so that can be an interesting race.”

Hays has been campaigning with O’Rourke in some areas, which could help raise her profile.

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