Analysis: For Dewhurst, This is All Too Familiar

State Sen. Dan Patrick (Right), R-Houston, listens to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst during the 83rd legislative session on Jan. 9, 2013.
State Sen. Dan Patrick (Right), R-Houston, listens to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst during the 83rd legislative session on Jan. 9, 2013.

It would be interesting to know whether the film Groundhog Day is on the “recently viewed” list on David Dewhurst’s Netflix account.

The lieutenant governor is right back where he was two years ago, a prominent and wealthy Republican officeholder locked in a primary runoff with a populist conservative.

This might have been U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s fate but he was able to avoid it. Instead of drawing a formidable primary challenger, Cornyn got U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, who could not even hold the support of Cornyn’s detractors on the right.

Once again, Dewhurst embodies the perils of an establishment Republican in a party that has veered to populism.

His challenger is no Steve Stockman. Dan Patrick, a Houston radio host turned state senator, sprinted to first place in a four-way primary for lieutenant governor, a race in which he was the only candidate who had never run a statewide campaign. Politics is funny that way: Voters are often drawn to the job applicant with the least amount of experience.

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson — the third- and fourth-place finishers — have not yet said whom they would support in the runoff.

And there will be a runoff. Some in the lobby and in the party had urged Dewhurst to concede the race. In 2012, these same Republican primary voters chose Ted Cruz over Dewhurst in a runoff for the U.S. Senate. In the primary for Dewhurst’s re-election this month, more than seven in 10 voted for other candidates. The second-place candidate in the Republican primary for comptroller, Harvey Hilderbran, dropped out of the runoff. More than a dozen members of the State House sent an open letter to state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, urging him to concede to state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney in the Republican contest for attorney general. But Branch decided to remain.

Dewhurst also decided to stay in a runoff, letting pass a Wednesday deadline to drop out.

Whether Dewhurst intended it or not, and whether he is the best agent or not, the runoff sets up a showdown between the Republican Party’s biggest factions. Over here, the gentleman from the boardroom. Over there, the guy from the front office.

Other runoffs line up the same way, with the establishment or Chamber of Commerce candidates, like Dewhurst, on one side and the populists, like Patrick, chasing Tea Party voters on the other. Branch and Paxton in the attorney general’s race are the best example and, with the candidates for lieutenant governor, set the top of the ticket for the runoffs on May 27.

The attorney general’s race is different. Both candidates are state legislators running statewide for the first time. Neither has a history with most of these voters, and their face-off is not at the top of the ballot.

In the lieutenant governor’s race, Dewhurst is both well-known and, it would appear, somewhat unpopular with his primary voters. Now that he has decided to press forward, he must mend his image, undermine Patrick’s support and try to disqualify him as an alternative, in the hopes of either turning out some voters who prefer the status quo or winning the affection of voters looking for change.

He also has to convince would-be supporters that he stands a chance. Lobbyists and other political opportunists are highly susceptible to momentum and the appearance of it, and Patrick has their attention at the moment. If Dewhurst has a slow trigger finger, Patrick could soon have their campaign contributions, too.

The lieutenant governor has the advantage of experience. Two years ago, Cruz elbowed into the runoff and enchanted voters, kick-starting his career and spoiling Dewhurst’s run of four statewide victories. One stalwart at Dewhurst’s side during that runoff was Patrick, who gave the challenger a famously hard time in a radio interview during that race. It makes you wonder which one will get Cruz’s vote this time.

Perhaps there was a clue back there, some idea of what might have won Dewhurst that Senate race that translates into what might win this runoff for another term — he has said it would be his last — as lieutenant governor. Or maybe this is just a rerun.