AUSTIN, Texas — In a state with 26 million people, the leaders of Texas are routinely chosen by 750,000 people.
That’s roughly how many votes that Republican candidates have needed to win the nomination for governor in the last two primary elections. Anyone who wonders why Republican statewide candidates are running so hard to the right, or why Greg Abbott makes campaign appearances with shock rocker Ted Nugent, need only understand the 1.49 million GOP primary voters.
The Republican primary has been the de facto election in Texas because Democrats have not won a statewide office in 20 years. The strength of the Republican brand and the ease with which voters can select all of the party’s candidates with a single button in the voting booth means Republican candidates have coasted through the November general election in recent years.
Republican campaign consultants, therefore, spend a lot of time trying to understand the Republican primary voter, and what they’ve learned is clear in the candidates’ speeches, television commercials and mailers.
GOP voters want “authentic conservatives” who support gun rights and the death penalty while opposing abortion and illegal immigration. They hate the Environmental Protection Agency and federal programs such as the Affordable Care Act and, but adore U.S. troops and Christian values. And they really don’t like President Barack Obama.
When Abbott appeared with Nugent, he was trying to demonstrate his support for gun rights and anti-Washington rebels. Many Republican primary voters will admire him for standing up to the national media, which was shocked that a Republican leader would appear alongside a man whose comments many complain are racist and misogynistic.
In the lieutenant governor’s race, Republicans David Dewhurst, Jerry Patterson, Todd Staples and Dan Patrick all want to outlaw abortion under any circumstances unless the health of the mother is in danger.
The candidates for attorney general have spent much of their campaign establishing their conservative credentials, promising to continue Abbott’s tradition of suing the federal government when they pass laws that could hurt the Texas economy.
Finding ways to cut property taxes have popped up in the state comptroller’s race, even though that responsibility falls square on the shoulders of the Legislature.
Six of the top seven races on the ballot have no incumbent, which has created crowded races with candidates who have little or no name recognition. That has led each to strive even harder to portray themselves as the true conservative while pointing out the inconsistencies of their opponents.
This quest for ideological purity has also placed the most experienced candidates in the most difficult positions, defending decades-long voting records.
Many of these races will go into two-candidate runoffs slated for May 29, where the pool of Republican voters will shrink further. Only 1.1 million people voted in the Republican runoff in 2012, and that was a record year because of Dewhurst’s race against Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate. Dewhurst entered that race the leader in the primary, only to lose after Cruz portrayed him as a moderate.
Democrats see opportunity in the rightward swing of the Republican candidates, but first they must add to their base. In 2012, only 590,000 people voted in the primary, though in 2008 more than 2.8 million voted in the presidential race between Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The primary should provide some indication if efforts to rebuild and re-energize the Democratic Party have added to their ranks. They may not have the same number of competitive races as the Republicans, but since voting is a habit, they need to establish it among their supporters now if they hope to win in November.
In the first few days of early voting, only the GOP has seen an increase in primary voting. Maybe this year 775,000 people will choose the top Republican candidates.
Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cltomlinson
Chris Tomlinson is the AP’s supervisory correspondent in Austin, responsible for state government and political reporting.