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Republican Attorney General Hopefuls Try To Outdo Each Other On The Conservative Scale

In the three-way Republican race for attorney general, candidates are trying to outdo the next as the most conservative. Their strategies may make political sense, but they don’t exactly reflect what the attorney general actually does.

It’s noon and GOP candidates are campaigning where the votes are.

“Welcome to the Republican Women of Arlington. We’re getting to the primary, March 4th,” says Delores Pell, group president.

Top concerns among this lunch crowd include social issues like prayer in schools and gun ownership. Gayle Crouch and Jacqueline Maroof are also concerned about security.

“The border. Securing the border is very important to me,” Crouch says. “I welcome the Mexican people but I don’t want the terrorists coming in, too.”

Jacqueline Maroof asks: “Does immigration fall under…? I don’t feel like we follow those rules. It is difficult to follow rules.”

Attorney general candidates hear the voters loud and clear. At a recent debate in Denton, all the GOP candidates, including State Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, vowed to secure the border.

“On the Texas border, there’s a shift change for the border agents, and there’s a break when no one’s there,” Paxton says. “Sounds like a pretty easy solution, at least as a start. We do need to put more money on border security. We’ve done that and we need to do more of it.” 

The thing is, these candidates know border enforcement is a federal, not state, responsibility, according to Jim Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and helped conduct a recent political poll with the university and the Texas Tribune.

“Even if it’s a stretch to think the attorney general or most statewide officials are going to have much to do with border security, nonetheless, candidates are going to continue to talk about it,” Henson says.

Henson is not surprised the attorney general candidates are attacking the federal government.

“It’s low-hanging fruit if you’re a Republican candidate to run against the Obama administration,” Henson said.

Specifically, candidates are attacking the Environment Protection Agency, which current Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has sued many times.

Here’s an ad from Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman: “I stood up to President Barack Obama and his job-killing policies and sued Obama’s EPA seven times to protect Texas jobs and energy for our families.”

In truth, the attorney general involves a lot of management: more than 4,000 employees defend Texas and the Constitution. One of the office’s biggest responsibilities is tracking down parents who owe child support, and defending consumer protection laws. The attorney general’s office also fights Medicaid fraud and assists crime victims.

Candidate Dan Branch, a state representative Dallas, addresses some of those duties in this ad: “I’ll protect our children from online predators and go after deadbeat parents to ensure kids get the support they need. My 30 years of legal experience have prepared me for this responsibility”

With three candidates who aren’t well known statewide, this race could end up in a runoff. And while candidates are touting their conservative credentials, they’re also playing up some special relationships. Smitherman chaired the Public Utility Commission, and then became Railroad Commissioner, thanks to the appointment by Gov. Rick Perry. Branch is closely tied to House Speaker Joe Straus, a childhood friend. And Paxton is supported by tea party favorites, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.