HOUSTON — One candidate has called for the impeachment of President Obama. Another wants the National Guard to help secure the border with Mexico. Yet another criticized the openly lesbian mayor of Houston for marrying her longtime partner in Palm Springs, Calif., saying it was “part of a larger strategy of hers to turn Texas into California.” And all the contenders want to allow licensed Texans to carry handguns in holsters on their hips.
Four powerful state Republican officials have been locked in a tight race for lieutenant governor — a job that in Texas is no mere sinecure, but one with powers that rival the governor’s when it comes to controlling what comes out of the Legislature.
In the runup to the March 4 primary, the race is illustrating the increasing shift of Texas Republicans to the far right, as the rivals — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is seeking re-election; state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston; Todd Staples, the agriculture commissioner; and Jerry Patterson, the land commissioner — try to appeal to the grass-roots and Tea Party conservatives who make up the bulk of the electorate in Republican primaries.
There has been much talk lately in national political circles about the demographic forces that might make Texas a competitive state for Democrats by 2020. But the battle to win the state’s No. 2 seat shows that much of Texas remains, for now, neither blue nor even purple, but a deep shade of red.
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Dewhurst and Patrick have talked about repealing the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established the election of U.S. senators by popular vote rather than by state legislatures, a favorite states’ rights cause of the Tea Party. Staples has touted his sponsorship of the state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And all four candidates want the religious theory of creationism taught in public schools, despite the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision that banned it from classrooms.
“Our children must really be confused,” Patrick said. “We want them to go to church on Sunday, and we teach them about Jesus Christ, and then they go to school on Monday and they can’t pray. They can’t learn about creationism.”
The candidates have been criticized by Democrats and even some Republicans for pandering to the far right. Asked if there had been Tea Party pandering, Patterson, 67, a former Marine who wrote the law that gave Texans the right to carry concealed handguns, replied, “Absolutely,” though he said it was being done not by him but his rivals. “It’s the propensity, particularly of Patrick, to tell people whatever he thinks they want to hear.”
The Wendy Davis factor
The race has also served as a postscript to one of the biggest legislative showdowns in Texas — state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster last year over a Republican-backed bill restricting abortion.
The filibuster on the Senate floor turned Davis into a national Democratic star and laid the groundwork for her run for governor against Greg Abbott, the Republican attorney general. But it also put Dewhurst on the defensive, as many party colleagues blamed him for mismanaging the filibuster as the presiding officer of the Senate and for helping facilitate Davis’ rise to fame.
Dewhurst was already seen as politically vulnerable after his loss in a 2012 runoff to Ted Cruz for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.
Dewhurst’s three rivals said he had failed to use procedural rules to end the legislative session before the filibuster began and failed to ensure the bill remained intact rather than stripped of a key provision, a move that set the stage for the filibuster when the bill came back to the Senate.
“That whole episode was just absolutely failed leadership, and where does that all lead?” Patrick said. “That leads to Wendy Davis raising $12 million, a lot of it from out of state, to come in and put a target on Greg Abbott and Republicans.”
Dewhurst, 68, has disputed those criticisms, pointing to the ultimate outcome — the signing of the abortion bill into law — as evidence of his leadership. He said he had learned from his loss to Cruz, who defeated him with Tea Party support. No one on his current campaign was on his 2012 campaign, he said, and he rattled off the names of Tea Party activists supporting him, including some who had backed Cruz in 2012.
“Certainly in the Senate race, we let others define me, before I had reminded voters who I am,” he said.
Dewhurst, the candidate who called for the president’s impeachment at a Tea Party forum in October, disagreed with Patterson that he was pandering to primary voters. “I’m running for re-election on my own record of conservative success as lieutenant governor,” said Dewhurst, who has held the office since 2003.
A very powerful job
The lieutenant governor’s office has long been considered one of the most powerful ones in Texas because the job includes controlling the Senate’s agenda. Although a few of the 41 lieutenant governors have gone on to become governor — including Gov. Rick Perry — the position has been not so much a steppingstone to the higher office, but a behind-the-scenes platform to shape the state.
Political analysts believe Dewhurst will be forced into a runoff in May. Although there is debate over who he will face, Patrick has emerged as a strong contender. Patrick, 63, the candidate who criticized the Houston mayor’s marriage, has a built-in soapbox — he hosts a radio talk show — and has gained a Tea Party following.
Staples, 50, has carved out a niche for himself on border security,
writing a book on the subject and creating a website, ProtectYourTexasBorder.com, to draw attention to the claims by South Texas farmers that Mexican drug-cartel violence was spilling over the border.
Patterson has earned high-profile endorsements, including from Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman and presidential candidate.