Lt. Governor Race: the 'Luchadora' vs. the Tea Party radio host

Correction: September 17, 2014, 12:02pm

A previous version of the pie chart incorrectly identified some of the polling data. The chart has been corrected to reflect the accurate numbers. The original story follows below.


A few Saturdays ago, I spent several hours hanging around a Texas Association of REALTORS conference in San Antonio, trying to catch state Sen. Dan Patrick, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor on the November ballot. His campaign office had canceled a previously scheduled interview and had yet to respond to my follow-up queries. I figured this might be my last, best chance to get him on the record.

I arrived at the convention center early and caught the speech by his Democratic rival, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. Hearsay in the hallways: The candidates were scheduled some two hours apart so they wouldn’t have to run into each other. But not to worry, Patrick was running late.

When he finally arrived, he was whisked onstage, where he made time to take a selfie before starting his speech. Afterward, a staffer brushed me off, assuring me they were still working on my questions. (And, at the eleventh hour, I received a few short answers by email).

Van de Putte, on the other hand, is as accessible and personable as her gregarious onstage personality suggests. We had sat down for an hour-long interview in a San Antonio law office earlier in the week.

These two contrasting candidates are duking it out for one of the most, if not the most, important position in the Texas Legislature. They’ve spent the better part of this year raising money and energizing their base voters. Patrick fought three opponents in the Republican primary this past spring, which ended when he beat incumbent David Dewhurst in a nasty runoff; and Van de Putte, being the first serious Democratic lieutenant governor candidate in more than a decade, has been traveling the state introducing herself to voters from all corners of Texas.

With Labor Day behind us, the campaigns are kicking into high gear, and the veteran senators each face a different challenge as they prepare for the final weeks of their race for lieutenant governor. According to a June poll by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune, Van de Putte was 15 points behind Patrick, and she must find the resources to stay competitive in the race and close the gap; and Patrick, the frontrunner, with landslides more money but exponentially less appeal, must tone down his primary campaign rhetoric to appeal to a larger group of Republican voters and maybe even Hispanic voters.

Lieutenant Governor 101

The powers of lieutenant governor far exceed what you may have learned in your Texas government classes.

Under the Texas Constitution, the lieutenant governor becomes governor should the current leader die or leave the state, even if it’s just for a few days. The position’s real power, however, comes not from the Constitution, but from the rules of the Senate itself.

The lieutenant governor appoints senators as chairs and vice chairs of every committee and has great leeway in deciding which bills go to which committees. So in theory, a lieutenant governor can appoint friends and allies to certain committees and send bills he or she wants to see passed to those groups. The lieutenant governor also decides which pieces of legislation come to the Senate floor, and when, and can call a vote at any time.

“The lieutenant governor is considered, while the Legislature is in session, the most powerful of state offices in Texas,” said University of Texas at Arlington political science professor Allan Saxe. “The Texas state Senate also has obligations to affirm, or not, various governor appointments, and that gives the lieutenant governor even more authority than his or her comparable House presiding office, the Speaker.”

The night Patrick won the runoff, and in several speeches since then, he gave us a glimpse of how he might lead the Texas Senate.

“We’re going to prioritize water and transportation, and we’re going to reduce state debt,” he told his supporters back in May. “And as I’ve said from the first debate last September, we are not going to give power to half the Democrats to be chairmen of committees in the Senate.”

Calling himself a “conservative leader and a problem-solver,” Patrick wrote in his answers to my questions that he will reduce the number of Democrat chairmen. “I cannot say whom the chairs will be but all the senators will be considered,” he wrote.

Patrick has also been vehemently opposed to the Senate’s “two-thirds rule,” which requires that two-thirds of the Senate’s 31-member body has to agree to debate a bill. Intended to foster bipartisanship, Patrick said during the primary that the rule “allows for the tyranny of the minority,” and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he chose to abolish it entirely as leader of the senate.

A Texas Senate run by Van de Putte, who was elected by her colleagues last session as president pro tem during the 2013 regular session (which essentially means she would have served as governor should Gov. Rick Perry and Dewhurst have been out of the state), would be one of pragmatism and inclusiveness, she said.

“I want to put an end to this bullying, intimidation, heavy-handed style, ‘my way or the highway’-type mentality,” she said. “That’s not governing. That may be a great way to campaign, but Texans deserve way better.”

Leticia: Pharmacist, Abuela, Luchadora

A daughter of San Antonio’s West Side, Van de Putte and her family have been in Texas for six generations. She grew up blocks from her grandparents and cousins and aspired to own her own pharmacy just like her grandfather. Van de Putte credits her supportive family and teachers for what she’s accomplished and said her work is still driven by her six children and six grandchildren.

Van de Putte’s recent legislative track record includes bills that improve access to financial assistance and education for veterans, occupational licensing for military families and strengthening human trafficking laws. In her campaign for Lite Guv, Van de Putte has released a series of policy plans, dubbed “Texas First,” which includes public education, higher education, health care and immigration proposals.

Her work as a pharmacist not only taught her the importance of listening first, she said, but also how to make evidence-based decisions that improve long-term outcomes.

“I know that there are things you do now to improve your outcomes later,” she said. “I view our infrastructure, our priorities the same way. That’s why I’m such a fighter for public education because the quality of public education will determine so many other factors in the budget down the line.”

Dan: God-fearing, Tea Party Radio Host

Woven into Patrick’s floor speeches and public addresses is his unwavering faith. On the night he won the runoff against Republican incumbent David Dewhurst, Patrick opened his acceptance speech with a Bible quote.

“The horse is made ready for battle, but the victory is the Lord’s,” he told a room of avid supporters. “We were prepared, we worked hard, and we’ve been tested, but we always knew in the end that victory is His.”

Representing the suburbs of north and west Houston, Patrick joined the Texas Legislature in 2007 after years as a conservative radio talk-show host and unapologetic ideologue. Patrick still owns two radio stations: one in Houston and another in Dallas.

Patrick has made his legislative priorities a little more personal. He wrote and carried the state’s strict sonogram bill in 2011 that mandates women seeking an abortion get a sonogram 24 hours before the procedure, and he sponsored a slew of sanctuary city bills. He has also opposed the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition rates. His claim to fame in 2013 was “school choice” and expanding access to charter schools and vouchers, which most Democrats argue hurts the public-school system by diverting state dollars to private entities.

Republicans “have the high ground on protecting life, and the Democrats live in the valley of death of the unborn,” he said in a speech at the Texas Republican Convention in June. “We have the high ground on school choice, and they live in a valley where their schools for their constituents are failing them. We have the high ground of the Second Amendment, and they live in a valley where no guns are allowed.”

Ideological Opposites

A recent analysis of each senator’s votes from 2007 to 2013 by Mark P. Jones, chair of Rice University’s political science department, concluded that Patrick is in fact the most conservative senator in the Texas Legislature, while Van de Putte sits right in the middle of her Democratic colleagues.

“Van de Putte has a reputation for being a centrist Democratic and someone with whom most in the Senate get along quite well with,” Jones said. “It’s difficult to paint her as being ideologically out of touch with Texas.”

At the end of every session, veteran political reporter Paul Burka at Texas Monthly releases his famed list of best and worst legislators, an unofficial review of the session that lawmakers salivate over every other year. Last year, our candidates each made a list. Burka named Van de Putte one of the best, writing that she “has tended to dedicate her energy to narrowly focused, conscientious actions…” He particularly praised her for the bills passed on behalf of military families, calling them “meaningful achievements for Texas’ military families” and “classic Van de Putte: simple and successful, if not high-profile.”

Patrick, on the other hand, was named one of the session’s worst. Burka notes that in 2013, with Patrick as a chairman of the Senate Education Committee, the conservative Republican “ran his committee like he runs his talk show, where the only opinion that really matters is his own.” Patrick got called out for his “habit of lecturing his fellow legislators, interrupting witnesses and accusing those who disagreed with him of simply not understanding his bills.” That session, he got in a very public family feud with fellow Republican and lead budget writer Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) over education funding, which ultimately ended in Patrick voting against a budget that included restored funding overall but didn’t, as he claimed, include other programs he wanted to see paid for. Williams, however, called the vote a “betrayal” in a guest column for The Texas Tribune.

“I can only conclude he was looking for an excuse to distance himself from our good work to advance his own political interests,” Williams wrote.

Patrick’s 2013 vote has been called out a few times. After an August court decision ruling that Texas’ school finance system is unconstitutional, Patrick said in a press release that he “led the charge” to restore funding to schools after 2011 cuts, but Van de Putte called his bluff, citing Williams’ column. The Austin American-Statesman’s Politifact section checked Patrick’s claim and rated it a “Pants on Fire,” writing that “It’s not clear to us how someone can lead in putting money back by voting against it.”

Van de Putte and Patrick are both working to woo the business community, primarily by selling their education plans and emphasizing transportation and water security investments.

Patrick has been endorsed by the Texas Association of Business, Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants, Texas Cattle Feeders Association and the Texas Association of Builders, to name a few. At the real estate conference, he made his case for reducing Texas’ high-school dropout rate by expanding charter schools and vouchers, and touted his support for things like tax cuts and transportation improvements.

“We need serious conservatives who have a vision for the future,” he said. “My opponent is very smart, I like her personally … we just have a disagreement on every issue.”

Van de Putte, appealing to the same group of real estate agents earlier in the day, touted her education plan, which includes full-day pre-kindergarten and scholarships for community college students, as ultimately being about the future workforce of the state, and also highlighted transportation and water.

“You can’t have a 21st-century economy with 19th-century roads,” she said. “…You’re not going to have the jobs unless you have a secure water system.”

Over the last few weeks, Van de Putte has worked to attack Patrick on his last two budget votes, one for a state budget that included more than $5 billion in public education cuts, and one against a state budget two years later that restored some of that funding.

“I chose to support schools and our future. Dan Patrick was gleeful about the cuts,” she said. “If elected, I think my opponent would be the first in a generation that would leave our students and state with less. That’s why I’m on fire about this race,” she said.

One public endorsement of note is that of South Texas Republican supporter Mayor Norberto Salinas of Mission. Salinas first supported Dewhurst in the Republican primary for the nomination.

“I like what Sen. Van de Putte has done in the Senate,” Salinas told the Rio Grande Guardian in August. “She is very experienced. She is pro-business, she is a big supporter of international trade with Mexico and is pro-veteran. I think she would make a very good lieutenant governor.”

Challenges Ahead

The night he won the nomination, Patrick promised that he would go into Hispanic communities and African American communities all across this state during the race. “Because No. 1, before you can get someone’s vote you have to respect them enough to go talk to them and tell them who you are. It won’t be overnight, but it’s going to start tomorrow morning.”

Patrick wrote that his campaign has made several trips this summer to the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, meeting with voters and block walking. Social media indicates he’s on the road a lot. “Recently my campaign added a field representative and a campaign advisor in the Rio Grande Valley. My communications director is from Laredo,” he wrote. “These three additions to our team give us the advantage of identifying and engaging grassroots efforts throughout South Texas.”

Democratic voter outreach groups are also working to reach minority communities, which tend to be low-propensity voters. For Texas Democrats, catalyzed by Wendy Davis’ 11-hour filibuster last session against a restrictive abortion bill, increased voter turnout is essential if their candidates are going to be competitive in statewide races. Texas’ voter turnout record is piss-poor, with a mere 27 percent of then-eligible 18.7 million voters going to the polls in 2010, the last time Texas was electing its state leadership. In 2012, a presidential year, 43 percent of eligible voters turned out and in a state that has been steadfastly Republican for more than a decade, elections are often decided during primary season. Groups like Battleground Texas, Texas Organizing Project and Planned Parenthood Votes have blanketed the state with volunteers who are working to get Hispanic and minority voters to the polls.

“We need to expand the electorate of low-propensity voters, and we’re doing that by talking about issues first,” said Joaquin Guerra, political director of the Texas Organizing Project, adding that the organization is running the largest independent voter outreach operation in the state, targeting 300,000* people. “Low-propensity voters need to know that they can make these choices too.”

Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, says the Texas GOP’s voter-outreach efforts are well underway as well, although he wouldn’t disclose how many people they’re targeting statewide. The party received funding from the Republican National Committee to beef up its minority voter outreach efforts. Munisteri says volunteers are currently talking to older voters and those who have just moved to Texas.

While Republican primary rhetoric was riddled with outlandish claims on guns, illegal immigration and calls for public schools to teach creationism, primary voters bought what Patrick was selling. The question moving into the general election, pollsters and political analysts ask, is: Can he dial it down enough to appeal to more moderate Republicans or maybe even Hispanic voters, particularly when it comes to immigration?

“He is going to adopt a much softer position,” Jones predicted. “He’s not going to backtrack on immigration, but he is going to avoid any of the heated rhetoric used in the primary that can be interpreted as being anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic.”

Munisteri said he believes Patrick’s positions have actually worked in his favor, keeping him well ahead of Van de Putte so far. Patrick “is ahead by a wider margin than any other of our statewide candidates,” Munisteri said. “We don’t take anything for granted and we know things can change, but you have to ask yourself: What could happen in the very near future that would change that dynamic? What could be the game-changer?”

The game-changer for a Van de Putte lead would be money for television ads. The campaign released two ads in early September, one in English and one in Spanish, to air in a handful of media markets, but wouldn’t say how much each one cost or for how long they would run. Jones estimates that to run a competitive statewide race from now until Election Day, and effectively portray her opponent in a negative light through TV ads, the Democratic underdog would need at least $10 million. According to campaign finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission and the campaign, Van de Putte had raised more than $2 million since the beginning of her campaign last November and ended June with $1.1 million in the bank. Patrick has raised nearly quadruple that since mid-2013, with most going toward his primary run. At the end of June, Patrick had about $950,000 in his coffers.

Campaign finance reports aren’t due again until October.

As the Current experienced, Van de Putte has been the more visible of the two, working to get her name and face in front of as many people as possible. Patrick has remained largely under the radar, avoiding the opportunity for public slip-ups, which analysts say is typical of a Republican frontrunner.

His campaign denied Van de Putte’s request for five debates to take place throughout the state. Most recently, Van de Putte appeared solo at a townhall-style event in San Antonio after Patrick declined to participate. Instead, we’ll get one chance to see them onstage together at the end of September.

One of the measure of Van de Putte’s fundraising successes and outreach efforts will be the next round of polling numbers, which will likely start rolling out soon. Jim Henson, with the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project, who conducted the UT/TT poll in June, says the double-digit gap between the two reflects sentiments of primary season, “largely a function of the contrasting competitiveness in each primary.

“Whatever one thinks about their relative strengths, in a state where you have a lot of media markets and where party identification drives a lot of the results, I think that the baseline is still having a powerful effect on this race,” he said. “That’s the big challenge for [Van de Putte] right now, to take that popularity among a relatively narrow segment of the population and translate it into something larger, and I don’t know that we’ve seen evidence that that’s happening.”


Roles of Texas Lieutenant Governor

• Serve as the governor should the current governor die or leave the state
• Appoint chairs and vice chairs to Texas Senate committees
• Call a vote on legislation brought to the Senate floor for debate
• Assign filed bills to committees

Fundraising Totals

Leticia Van de Putte reported raising $2 million the first half of this year, $1.2 million of which was raised between May 28 and June 30. The campaign ended June with $1.1 million in its coffers.

Dan Patrick reported raising $4.3 million from February through mid-May of this year, and $1.3 million from mid-May through the end of June, most of which went toward the primary and runoff. Between May 28 and June 30, after defeating David Dewhurst, the campaign raised about $1 million. Patrick’s campaign ended June with nearly $950,000 in the bank.

* This number has been corrected to reflect the accurate voter outreach target.

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