AUSTIN -- Barely a trickle of voters made their way Tuesday afternoon through the early voting location at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center in East Austin, but on the web and broadcast airwaves across the state, a hard-fought battle is reaching a fever pitch.
"Clearly, the hottest race is the lieutenant governor's race. It's the most pivotal of all positions," said longtime politics watcher and Quorum Report editor Harvey Kronberg.
A seasoned observer of dozens of election cycles in Texas, Kronberg says the four candidates seeking the GOP nomination for perhaps the state's most powerful political office are pulling no punches.
"They're clearly convinced that the only election that's going to matter is the March primary," said Kronberg. "Because in the efforts of each one getting farther to the right to the other, they're not leaving much room to get back to the center, which is where elections are traditionally won in November."
All four candidates are opposed to exceptions for rape and incest when it comes to abortion. Each wants better border security and creationism taught in Texas schools. On most of the pivotal issues, the four candidates' policies offer subtly differing shades of the same general philosophy. With a month before the March 4 primary, each is spending big money to distinguish himself and damage his opponents.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports detailing spending between Jan. 1 and 23, incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst laid out $1.1 million and hit the final stretch with $649,000 on hand. After spending $2.3 million in January, state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston still had $289,000 on hand. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson spent just $152,000 last month, but entered the last leg with $448,000. After dropping $2.7 million in January, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples hit the straightaway with $600,000.
The latest political advertisements suggest what each campaign sees as its path to victory. The television spot airing statewide for the Dewhurst campaign begins touting job creation and tax cuts in Texas under the incumbent's tenure as lieutenant governor. Patrick's latest ad emphasizes his conservative Christian faith, with the the Houston radio host declaring, "I honor God first, not government."
"The conventional wisdom forever has been that it would be Dewhurst in the lead with Patrick as number two," said Kronberg. "There are some efforts now to bloody up Dan Patrick in his home base of Houston and drive up his negatives. That could lead to two results: Dewhurst winning outright, or if they're successful in Houston, Dewhurst finding himself in a runoff with Patterson or Staples."
Patterson's most recent ad highlighted the contributions of Tejanos at the Battle of the Alamo, which coincided with the launch of his campaign's Hispanic outreach program. Staples latest ad took aim squarely at Dewhurst, aiming a particularly stinging broadside at the incumbent over campaign debt accrued during Dewhurst's unexpected loss to Ted Cruz in the 2012 race for Texas' open U.S. Senate seat.
Yet while the four candidates' race to the right of one another, Kronberg warns the positions that appeal to tea party voters may not resonate as well with chambers of commerce and business interests which have historically exercised significant political power in state elections.
"They're absolutely appalled. I don't think there's any question about it," said Kronberg; suggesting businesses are more concerned with infrastructure, reliable water and power, and an education system that produces a skilled work force. "All of those things cost money, and walking into the legislature with a massively growing economy and a massively growing population and simply saying that we're not going to spend any more money, in fact we're going to shrink the per capita expenditures, is antithetical to investment. And that's where business is at."
Early voting ends Friday, Feb. 28. If no candidate wins more than half the vote on election day March 4, the top two vote winners will head to a May runoff. The Republican nominee will face Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte in November.