With five months until the March primary, there's one outcome that's certain in the 2014 Texas race for lieutenant governor: It will go down as the latest proof for the political theorem that the level of acrimony among candidates is inversely proportional to their actual differences over policy.
Despite their attempts to tear one another apart based on nuances in past statements on red-meat issues like immigration and guns, the four-way race in which two statewide elected officials and a sitting state senator are vying to knock out decade-long incumbent David Dewhurst has so far had more to do with style than with substance.
That’s partly because, to dispatch with the fact that all three of them endorsed Dewhurst in his 2012 bid for U.S. Senate, each challenger has framed his opposition as a result of the lieutenant governor’s weak leadership since then on conservative agenda items like the summer’s anti-abortion legislation. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who has long made it clear he would be chasing the second spot on the ballot in 2014 whether Dewhurst went to Washington or not, is a possible exception.
But there’s another dynamic at play. With a four-way race, each candidate must plan for the possibility that two of them will end up in a runoff election where presumably only the most motivated — and conservative — voters will show up. They're all forced into the same strategy: staking out an identity as the Republican right wing’s only authentic choice.
That gets tough when none can claim the anti-incumbent mantle. The candidate who has been in office the least amount of time, Dan Patrick, is still a three-term officeholder elected to his Harris County Senate seat in 2006. And it gets even tougher to point to a clear-cut difference in their positions, from supporting a ballot proposition to fund the state’s water plan to limiting women’s access to abortions before 20 weeks to opposing in-state university tuition for undocumented immigrants.
So who wins in that scenario?
Based on where they're targeting their attacks, Staples and Dewhurst appear to feel the biggest threat from Patrick, who has focused his own sights on Dewhurst. Patterson has mainly stayed out of the fight, picking opportunities to emphasize his record on gun rights and veterans' issues.
Patrick opened the TV air wars with an aggressive spot claiming to be the only candidate in the race opposed to in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants, a policy put into law by the Legislature in 2001 and signed by Gov. Rick Perry. The claim was nearly instantly met with derision from all three of his opponents, who said they supported repealing that law.
The senator’s volley did manage to highlight potential mar on Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples’ otherwise clean record of support for the conservative immigration agenda. While in the Senate in 2001, Staples voted in favor of the in-state tuition bill as well as for a measure that would have allowed the Department of Public Safety to accept foreign birth certificates or passports as identification to obtain a driver’s license. Both are policies he now opposes.
As the author of the state’s 1995 concealed handgun law who has continued as a gun rights booster since then, Patterson appears poised to assert himself as the race’s most legitimate defender of the Second Amendment. In a recent interview, he described himself as the only advocate of an open-carry law in the race. But when the three other candidates were contacted about their positions, they each said they would also support some form of such a law.
Dewhurst won an early game of conservative leap-frog. At a candidate forum hosted by a Tarrant County Tea Party group earlier this month, he said President Obama should be impeached over his handling of the U.S. consulate bombing in Benghazi, Libya, and for other instances of federal overreach. When asked whether they would join Dewhurst in his call, none of the other candidates in the race answered affirmatively.
Patterson said he didn’t doubt the president had committed “impeachable offenses,” but he stopped short of pushing for it himself, saying it was a distraction in a state-level race. In a statement, Patrick said he, like every Republican in the country, was ready for Obama to leave office, but also did not go as far as calling for his removal from office. A spokesman for Staples declined to comment on the matter.
An indication of whether any of this has managed to get traction with voters will come when the state’s Republican mega-donors start casting their lots. For now, many of them seem to be sitting on the sidelines.