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Why Do We Suddenly Care About Races for Lt. Governor?

The office of lieutenant governor is so important that five states don’t even have one, yet that hasn’t stopped the national political media from treating some contests for the office as crucial indicators of something.  

In the recent primary runoff in Texas, anti-establishment conservative state Sen. Dan Patrick unseated incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst by a sizable margin. The result received considerable attention since it fit neatly into the “tea party takeover of the Republican Party” narrative that has been struggling to survive since all but one GOP member of Congress won his or her primary through the end of May .  

Maybe it’s the proliferation of political reporters and news outlets or the lack of other serious contests, or a mixture of both, but the conclusion that a race for lieutenant governor has some larger, long-term political impact is still unproved. What if Patrick loses the general election to Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte? It would most likely be a statement about Patrick’s limited appeal and not evidence of a near-term shift of Texas into the competitive column.  

But what if Van de Putte leverages her office to become governor of Texas in 2020? Then Texas will have a Democratic governor. But that doesn’t mean the entire state is turning Democratic. States often give minority parties a chance to govern at the state level while turning away the “wrong” party in federal contests.  

Given the state’s growing minority populations, Texas could (and likely will) be competitive at some point in the future. But we are still multiple cycles from that happening. Democrats aren’t anywhere close to taking over any of the 24 Republican-held House seats, and the party struggled to nominate a candidate who wasn’t a Lyndon LaRouche activist to face GOP Sen. John Cornyn.  

Could the polarizing Patrick sabotage Republican hopes elsewhere on the ballot?  

We just saw that movie in Virginia last year, and it didn’t end quite the way conventional wisdom said it would.  

In 2013, Democrats rejoiced when Republicans nominated conservative lightning rod E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor of the commonwealth. He was supposed to be an anvil around the neck of Republicans.  

But just a week or so before the election, Jackson was hardly a household name. In a late October poll by Hampton University , less than half of registered voters in Virginia knew enough about him to have an opinion of him. His personal ratings were 18 percent favorable/23 percent unfavorable.  

Jackson lost his race, but Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli lost the gubernatorial race by a more narrow margin than expected, and Republicans expanded their majority in the House of Delegates.  

But shouldn’t we pay attention because lieutenant governor can be a launching pad for higher office? Not exactly.  

As Aaron Blake pointed out in a recent piece for The Washington Post , the office is more likely to get the state’s number two removed from political life entirely. “Since the start of 2012, six lieutenant governors have resigned, six more have seen frontrunning campaigns for governor or Senate crumble, and three have opted not to run alongside their bosses for reelection,” Blake found.  

Of those who tried to move up, Dewhurst’s loss to Ted Cruz in the 2012 Republican Senate primary is well documented. This cycle, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell is currently the underdog for the GOP Senate nomination in Alaska after looking like the very early front-runner.  

Six out of 100 current U.S. senators are former lieutenant governors. But two of them were appointed (Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz and Montana Democrat John Walsh). Two of them were elected to the U.S. House before the Senate (Hawaii Democrat Mazie K. Hirono and Nevada Democrat Harry Reid). Democrat Tim Kaine was governor of Virginia before getting elected to the Senate.  

Just 1 percent of the current Senate was elected from the lieutenant governor position: Idaho Republican Jim Risch, and he served briefly as a caretaker governor.  

It’s possible that a race for lieutenant governor can have a broader impact in a state and nationally. But until it happens, it’s OK to focus on races that actually matter.