Politics

State Senator Dan Patrick's entry shakes up the 2014 Republican Primary: The Second of two Entries

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

National publications like The Washington Post and Politico have focused their coverage of the 2014 Texas Republican Primary on Congressman Steve Stockman's run at senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn.

I can understand their interest in the race  the Texas senator is number two in his party's leadership in D.C.  but I think the incumbent will beat back his challenger fairly easily for a host of reasons (money, relatively unknown opponent, negative stories about Stockman's political operations over the years to name three). By contrast, the lt. governor's race should be highly competitive, with a good chance that the 12-year incumbent, David Dewhurst, will be denied a fourth term. And, as noted last week, Houston's Dan Patrick is the major source of his difficulties. Patrick has parlayed his talk radio exposure into a strong base of support among GOP primary voters in Houston and has a statewide following among Tea Party activists. That combination gives him a good chance to get into an April runoff, where he hopes to replicate Ted Cruz's 2012 success against David Dewhurst in their contest for a U.S. Senate nomination.

Senator Patrick chances have been enhanced by his campaign's ability to pull the race to the right by appealing to strong conservatives. The best example of this has been his injection of the Texas "Dream Act" issue into the primary. In 2001, State Representative Rick Noriega of Houston, a Democrat, pushed a bill through the Texas Legislature that offered in-state tuition to young children brought into the U.S. illegally, who had completed high school in the state, and avoided any further legal complications in this country. The bill passed overwhelmingly as I recall, with something like 137 House members for it and just five opposed, and with no opposing votes in the Senate. Governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law.

The bill has helped several thousand young people, mostly Hispanic, afford higher education at public universities across the state. It was not controversial for most of the last 12 years. However, in 2011 the Mitt Romney presidential campaign identified the law as a good way to portray his principal rival, Governor Perry, as being "soft" on the hot-button immigration issue roiling the Republican Party. When the former Massachusetts governor hammered Perry on the issue in a Florida debate, the Texas governor lost his cool and attacked critics of the legislation as "lacking a heart." That was a huge error on Rick Perry's part, as his support among Tea Party conservatives collapsed in a matter of days, well before the "oops" moment when our governor struggled to name the three federal departments he intended to close if elected president. When Governor Perry self-destructed, Mitt Romney now had a clear path to the Republican nomination as the only electable candidate left in the field.

The power of the immigration issue, and its specific manifestation in the Texas Dream Act, was not lost on Dan Patrick. The Houston senator launched a TV ad a few weeks ago claiming he would repeal the law, and implying that his three opponents would not. Dewhurst, the presiding officer in the Texas Senate since 2003, and former state senators Jerry Patterson and Todd Staples, were quick to announce that they too were now committed to getting rid of this odious legislation. Their protestations aside, Dan Patrick had put them on the defensive on an issue that resonates with Tea Party supporters and other strong conservatives.

This looks like a very smart move on the part of Dan Patrick in securing the nomination of his party. Whether it is a smart move for the Republican Party in Texas is not at all clear. The GOP is trying to reestablish its credentials with Hispanic voters, who have been trending Democratic since the 2004 elections. Given that effort, jumping on the Texas Dream Act, which is extremely popular with Latino voters, is not going to help that effort, especially if Dan Patrick rides the issue into the nomination.

That possibility sets up a potentially fascinating fall General Election contest, if we end up with the Tea Party favorite Dan Patrick facing off with the feisty Latina state senator Leticia Van de Putte from San Antonio, the likely Democratic nominee for lt. governor. Most of the press coverage to date has been on the Wendy Davis/Greg Abbott matchup for governor, but a Patrick/Van de Putte face-off could be even more competitive and certainly more entertaining. Stay tuned.

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