A conservative talk radio host with a history of bankruptcy, litigation and attention-grabbing on-air moments, Dan Patrick is a candidate out of an opposition researcher’s fantasy.
Investigations into Patrick’s past have led to several hard-hitting attacks against the Republican state senator from Houston who is trying to unseat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in Tuesday’s runoff, including forays into mental health records three decades old. But attempts to dull support for Patrick have so far failed to change his front-runner status in the race; he is the favorite of conservative voters.
Candidates who have aligned themselves to the right of their opponents in two other statewide runoffs are also expected to win despite blows to their credibility. Critics say the attacks are an indication that candidates have failed to find ways to fault their opponents on matters of substance. Luke Macias, a Republican political consultant who has clients in state legislative races, said voters were savvy enough to understand that such attacks occurred when opponents “cannot show themselves to be more conservative, so their only option is to go all-out negative on personal stuff.”
“You listen to it, it’s like ‘Catch Me If You Can’ type stuff. I just think it’s a little overboard,” Macias added. “They can’t point to the things that really engage the voters on the issues they care about.”
Competing Republican factions threaten to exacerbate a battle for the future of the party in Texas — one that could extend beyond Tuesday’s runoff.
“Part of the problem is that people are so frustrated, so disillusioned that there isn’t a unifying leader. There is no team of people working together,” said Tom Pauken, a former state Republican Party chairman who dropped out of the governor’s race in December when it became clear that he could not win. “I’m just over all concerned that the Republicans are not standing for sound policies. Everyone is just calling themselves conservatives and getting away from really addressing the issues.”
An outspoken opponent of Patrick has been Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who finished fourth in the March primary.
Before the primary, Patterson hired a private investigator who found evidence that Patrick had hired an undocumented immigrant to work at a chain of sports bars he owned in the 1980s. After the primary, Patterson, who eventually endorsed Dewhurst, questioned how Patrick had avoided military service in Vietnam, accusing him of dodging the draft. Patrick explained that he had received a medical deferment.
Earlier this month, Patterson distributed 30-year-old medical records to the media showing that Patrick had attempted suicide and had been treated in a psychiatric facility. The records were part of a libel lawsuit Patrick had filed in the 1980s against a Houston Post reporter.
The move caused an uproar even among some of Patrick’s staunchest opponents and forced Dewhurst to deny any involvement, though he stopped short of condemning their release, saying that voters should consider Patrick’s medical history if they believed it spoke to his capacity to lead.
Patterson defended his actions, saying in an email after the release, “There is a reason Democrat San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and other Democrats have said that Dan Patrick is the Democrats’ ‘meal ticket’ back to a statewide win.”
Patrick and his supporters blamed the attacks on his opponents’ desperation. Bob Wickers, a strategist for Patrick, said in an email on Friday that conservative voters would recognize the “very personal attacks” for what they were — “shameful and irrelevant.”
“Runoff voters want the real deal — conservatives who’ll fight Obama in Washington and fight for issues they care deeply about here in Austin,” he said. “That’s Dan Patrick, not David Dewhurst.”
A similar dynamic has played out on a smaller scale in the Republican runoffs for agriculture commissioner — one candidate, Sid Miller, has been accused of mismanaging campaign funds — and for attorney general, in which the Tea Party-backed candidate, Ken Paxton, admitted to violating state securities law.
Miller, a former state representative, has maintained momentum in the Republican race for agriculture commissioner despite criticism of how he has managed campaign funds, including investing in the stock market and repaying himself for a personal loan with 10 percent interest. He is one of the few candidates who has earned the endorsement of Gov. Rick Perry, who called him “a proven and trusted conservative leader.”
In late April, Paxton, a state senator from McKinney, amended nine of his personal financial statements to correct omissions in his disclosures in the wake of a Texas Tribune investigation into business and professional relationships that he had not reported. As a result of that investigation, he received a reprimand from the Texas State Securities Board, which found he had violated the law by previously soliciting investment clients without being registered.
Paxton said that the filing lapses were administrative oversights and that he took immediate action to solve the problems when they were brought to his attention.
But State Rep. Dan Branch, Paxton’s Republican opponent, said the violation was enough to disqualify Paxton from the office of attorney general.
"These transgressions, which began in 2004, represent repeated illegal behavior by Ken Paxton in violation of laws that are in place to protect Texans from being victimized by swindlers," Branch said in a statement. "The Republican Party of Texas cannot promote a lawbreaker as our standard-bearer to replace Greg Abbott as our attorney general.”
The development led two police associations in North Texas to withdraw their endorsements of Paxton. But the conservative groups backing him over Branch have only reaffirmed their support.
“Senator Paxton took care of business immediately,” said Michelle Smith, the Texas director of the Concerned Women for America, adding that the lapse had “absolutely not” caused her to question a vote for Paxton.
Patterson said that Patrick’s sustained lead in the face of what he said were substantial questions about his character and ability to lead showed the hefty influence of the Tea Party in Texas. While he said he agrees with the principles advanced by the conservative movement, he expressed dismay at what he saw as a reluctance among Republicans to criticize candidates who have captured its support.
“We are going to have to stop saying, ‘Well, we can’t hurt the ticket,’” Patterson said. “We are going to have to vet our candidates and not act like, ‘O.K., we are all Republicans, we have to stay together.’”