Texas candidate shows tea party’s strength in the state

Republican Dan Patrick promises to undercut Democrats as lieutenant governor. Rival Leticia Van de Putte has little chance of a win.
Republican Dan Patrick promises to undercut Democrats as lieutenant governor. Rival Leticia Van de Putte has little chance of a win.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Dan Patrick is a political dirt-digger’s dream, a candidate with a history of incendiary comments, a bankruptcy and two hospitalizations for mental health issues, one after an attempted suicide.

He is also poised to become lieutenant governor of Texas and thus one of the most powerful and important politicians in the country’s second most-populous state.

The tea party movement may be flagging elsewhere in the country. But here in Texas it’s going strong, shoving establishment Republicans out the door and promising to push this already deeply conservative state even further right.


Texas is no longer the bastion of country-club Republicanism that twice elected George W. Bush governor in the 1990s. Even the departing governor, Rick Perry, might have a hard time surviving a GOP primary these days; Patrick has gained considerable traction with a pledge to end in-state tuition for college students in the country illegally, a policy that Perry defended at great political cost when he ran for president in 2012.

While Patrick’s story, with its harrowing valleys, may be a testament to perseverance and personal redemption, his expected election Nov. 4 also speaks to the impotence of Texas Democrats, whom Patrick promises to further undercut with the formidable powers the lieutenant governor wields as the state Senate’s presiding officer.

He has promised to appoint fewer Democratic committee chairs and to scrap the long-standing convention that requires two-thirds support to bring a bill to a vote on the floor; the latter has been one of the few levers of power held by outnumbered Democrats in Austin, the state capital.

But it’s not just Democrats who fret about Patrick’s ascension. Many fellow Republicans wince at his heat-seeking rhetoric, especially on illegal immigration, and fear his short-term success will hurt the party in the long run, given Texas’ shifting demographics and rapidly growing Latino and Asian populations.

“It’s going to bite us in the butt,” Jerry Patterson, who lost to Patrick in a nasty four-way GOP primary, said in an interview. Patterson, the state land commissioner, plans to vote for the Libertarian candidate for lieutenant governor rather than support his party’s nominee.

Patrick was not reachable for comment, part of a lay-low strategy that includes avoiding news coverage by withholding the time and place of his public appearances. (He does keep followers apprised on Facebook: “It’s been a SELFIE kind of day. On my SW flight today the pilot took a SELFIE of all of the passengers ...then Miss BeBe from Fort Worth took one, I met her on the plane, & I took a SELFIE tonight speaking to a huge gathering in Dallas.”)

Patrick, 64, a two-term state senator from Houston, came to the Legislature via talk radio and, before that, sports broadcasting, where he acquired a reputation for stunts such as painting himself blue to support Houston’s former NFL team, the Oilers. (He shares a name with a better-known sportscaster who works for NBC.)

Along the way there was his bankruptcy, owing to a failed chain of sports bars, and two hospitalizations in the mid-1980s, for anxiety and depression.

Patrick has suggested that the hard times taught him thrift and also left him more empathetic to the down-and-out. (A contradiction, in the eyes of critics, who say Patrick wants to gut Texas’ already-stingy budget.)

“I was at the bottom of the bottom,” Patrick told the Houston Chronicle this year. “That taught me there’s a thin line between the people living under the bridge and the people who are driving over it.”

A series of shrewd investments — including purchase of a struggling Houston radio station and the addition of an up-and-coming Rush Limbaugh to its lineup — helped turn about Patrick’s fortunes, to a point where he was able to put about $1.5 million of his money into the primary campaign.

Patrick, who hosted his own talk show, brought some of that on-air bombast to the Legislature, where his attention-grabbing ways — boycotting an opening prayer by a Muslim cleric, fighting fellow Republicans over the state budget and other issues — earned him the unaffectionate nickname “Microphone Mouth.” But it also built a following among the state’s growing tea party movement, helping Patrick surge past the three-term incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, in the March primary.

Central to his appeal was a hard line on illegal immigration, underscored with talk of an “invasion” and “Third World diseases” crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a striking change in tone for Texas, where Republican leaders have worked hard to avoid alienating Latino voters.

Patrick’s November opponent is Leticia Van de Putte, a highly respected Latina state senator from San Antonio who has garnered a number of newspaper endorsements and is given virtually no chance of winning, given the state’s strong GOP tilt and the anticipated Republican turnout advantage.

Already speculation has turned to whether Patrick will moderate his tone, or at least his actions, once he takes office.

Some who know or have worked with him in the Legislature say Patrick, for all his campaign bluster, is practical — and ambitious — enough to avoid alienating the business and trade interests that remain the financial, if not ideological, wellspring of the Texas GOP. A promised tax cut — how to pay for it remains vague — worries some who fear shortchanging the state’s already overburdened roads and other infrastructure.

On the other hand, since winning the Republican primary, “we’ve seen no signs that Patrick plans to embark on a more pragmatic path once the election is over,” said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin.

Already there is talk of Patrick’s possibly running against fellow Republican Greg Abbott, the odds-on favorite to be the next governor, in a right-flanking primary challenge in 2018.

Twitter: @markzbarabak