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Governor's Race a Contest in Search of Contestants

If Attorney General Greg Abbott wins the governor's race without a battle, he could claim a bit of Texas election history. Open races for governor are almost always a lot more competitive than this one is shaping up to be.

Attorney General Greg Abbott is being treated like a shoo-in for Texas governor next year, and if he makes it into office without real competition, he would be writing an odd chapter into the state's political history.  

There have been three open races (i.e., with no incumbent running) for governor in the last 60 years, and each of them was more competitive than the contest shaping up right now.

It’s important to repeat the words “right now,” because surprises can and often do happen in politics. Democrat Wendy Davis is still flirting with a run, and she might give Abbott more of a challenge than he’s expecting. A series of gaffes or unforced errors, for example, could turn this coronation into a slugfest.

Abbott could also draw more opponents into his primary, which might push the race into a runoff, where things could get unpredictable. Currently the only known GOP primary challengers are former Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken, who has credibility with conservatives but only a fraction of Abbott’s financial resources, and Miriam Martinez, a former TV reporter in the Valley. They are both longshots until they prove otherwise, either through a show of organization around the state or fundraising prowess that could fuel a statewide campaign.

With the proper caveats out of the way, and given the heavy Republican leanings of the Texas electorate, it’s fair to say this is Abbott’s race to lose. And that makes him quite a standout in the modern history of open Texas governor's races. 

The last open race was in 1990, when Republican Gov. Bill Clements decided to retire, sparking highly competitive primaries in both major parties, and a runoff on the Democratic side. That was followed by a major upset in November, when gaffe-prone Republican Clayton Williams, who had been favored to win, lost to Democrat Ann Richards.

The seat was open 22 years earlier, in 1968, when Democrats dominated Texas in the way the GOP does now (though a lone Republican, John Tower, held statewide office as a U.S. senator). During that 1968 governor’s race, conservative Democrat Preston Smith, then lieutenant governor, had been considered the favorite. But he found himself in a runoff with liberal Democrat Don Yarborough. Smith won that two-man race and easily beat the Republican in the fall. 

A dozen years earlier, U.S. Sen. Price Daniel was considered the heavy favorite in an open race for governor, a job that he famously said he’d rather have than that of president of the United States. But a crowded 1956 Democratic primary produced a runoff between Daniel and liberal Ralph Yarborough (no relation to Don) and it turned into a nail-biter. Daniel won it by fewer than 4,000 votes.

In those days, before Republicans began running competitively statewide, most of the action happened in the Democratic primary. And often a conservative Democrat ended up in a runoff with a liberal (or more liberal) Democrat. Now, nearly all of the action for statewide office is on the Republican side.

During that period of Democratic dominance, dating from the time the runoff system was devised in 1920, there was only one open governor’s race that did not lead to a second-round runoff between the top two vote getters, according to election returns posted in the online Texas Almanac.  It was in 1938, when W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a popular radio personality, musician and flour salesman, faced 13 candidates in a crowded Democratic primary for governor. Even with the competition, he won in the first round with about 51 percent of the vote. 

There is plenty of time for more Republicans to jump into the 2014 race or for Pauken or Martinez to gain some traction — for something unexpected to happen. But at this point, Abbott — 75 years after O’Daniel was elected governor — is well poised to claim an easy victory in an uncrowded GOP contest in the first round, after which he would be heavily favored to win in the fall in a state where Democrats haven't found their footing.

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