Texas Governors Race: Tom Pauken Jumps In and Runs a Little to the Right

With Gov. Rick Perry riding off into the sunset next year, and maybe running for president in 2016, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor of the Lone Star State. Abbott is arguably the second most popular Republican in Texas (behind Sen. Ted Cruz), he's armed with a $22 million war chest, has assembled a staff full of seasoned professionals, and he's an inspirational stump speaker. As a lawyer Abbott is formidable, and as a Republican he is among the 29 statewide elected officials who have maintained and expanded the GOP's dominance. Whether Democrat state Sen. Wendy Davis runs for governor or not, whether Battleground Texas ever reaches its goals or not, Greg Abbott has to be the odds-on favorite to succeed Perry.

But as the primary gets going, Abbott does have challengers: former Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken, and former Univision TV personality Miriam Martinez. Pauken realizes that he is a heavy underdog to Abbott, and will try to carve out space on the right to address what he sees as shortfalls in Abbott's record. Martinez is a self-described moderate who supports "comprehensive immigration reform," relatively unknown outside the Rio Grande Valley, but well known within that Democrat-dominated area of the state and in Spanish-language media.

pauken-1Tom Pauken's resume stacks up strong against anyone else who has ever run for or been elected governor of Texas. The 69-year-old Victoria native cut his political teeth working on Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. He was elected national chairman of the College Republicans the following year, and then he went off to war. Pauken wasn't drafted into the US Army. As a supporter of the Vietnam war, he felt that it was his duty to enlist and fight. So he did, serving in military intelligence in Vietnam in 1969, and was among the veterans whom many on the left mistreated upon returning from the war.

In the early 1970s, Pauken went on to work in the Nixon and then the Reagan White Houses, and during the latter he headed a federal agency. Once back in Texas has been involved in venture capital and politics. He most recently served as the chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, a position to which he was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.

While Pauken headed ACTION during the Reagan years, an agency which was re-badged Americorps under President Bill Clinton, he saw how the federal government was funding Alinsky-ite programs nationwide. So he led a successful effort to defund that program. Clinton and especially Obama have put funding such programs back on the front-burner through the 2009 stimulus and Obamacare, but Pauken's effort during the Reagan years shows that he isn't the kind of official who goes to Washington, becomes a part of it, and fights to expand his personal power at the expense of the taxpayer.

He was out of politics for a few years, but came back in at a pivotal moment in Texas' history.

"I got back involved, in terms of state politics, in 1994, when I saw a Republican Party that had become a top-down party that had gotten away from our conservative principles, too much influence of the political consultants," Pauken told me when we met for a half hour in downtown Austin last week. He says he decided to run for state chairman of what was still the minority party even though he was outfunded by the incumbent. He won, and at the same time the Texas GOP flipped the state to Republican control at the top. George W. Bush ousted Gov. Ann Richards despite her national fan base in the media and the Democrat elites. Despite the Texas House coming close to tipping back to the Democrats circa 2006 and 2008, the Republicans have never really looked back. From 1994 forward, Republicans have built and built, winning all statewide offices, taking the majority of both houses in the legislature, and in the last few years becoming the majority party across local offices as well. Mitt Romney defeated President Obama by more than 15 points in Texas in 2012, and Romney wasn't even most Texas Republicans' first choice to head the party's ticket.

In a conservative state like Texas, and contrary to what Battleground Texas thinks, Texas is conservative, there's only one place to run in a statewide Republican primary: to the right. But running to the right of the pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Washington Abbott is going to be tough. There's very little air over there and Abbott means to keep it that way.

But Pauken sees openings.