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Dewhurst's Run to the Right Falls Short

David Dewhurst, the state's lieutenant governor for the past decade, started this legislative session looking for some momentous conservative victories. He's still looking.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst listens to Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, during the Senate session on April 2, 2013.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst started the session with a list of must-do items he hoped to get out of the 83rd legislative session.

He was hot off a loss in the Republican primaries for U.S. Senate that broke a streak of four statewide victories starting in 1998. And it was evident that fellow Republican Ted Cruz’s success in painting the lieutenant governor as something less than a conservative had left an impression Dewhurst wanted to erase.

He touted proposals for school choice and stricter abortion legislation, among other things, but the 83rd Legislature has left many of his wishes unfulfilled even as potential Republican opponents muster their arguments that they will be the conservative choices in 2014’s primaries.

Early this week, Dewhurst's campaign sent an email to supporters, urging them to urge legislators to pass several pieces of anti-abortion legislation that, as the week comes to an end, appears to have failed. And his push for school choice was swallowed into a diluted but still-pending bill that allows only a limited increase in publicly financed, privately run charter schools. 

Dewhurst supported a redistricting plan that would ensure a near supermajority of Republicans in the Legislature for a decade — pushed by Attorney General Greg Abbott. But that stalled in a House where Republican leaders rely on a shifting political coalition that often requires Democratic support. Abbott proposed ratifying political maps drawn by the courts for last year’s elections, an action that would remove the need to defend the maps drawn by the Legislature and currently contested on two separate fronts. It would remove uncertainty over the issue for both Republicans and Democrats, but House Democrats think they can add a handful of competitive seats if they stick with the court fight. They balked, and the House leadership balked with them.

With a few days left in the session, it appears the Senate helped assemble a budget that addresses several of the major issues promoted by Dewhurst and other top leaders. It’s got $2 billion for water, more than $1 billion in tax cuts, and it restores much of the money cut from public education in 2011 — all without busting the constitutional limit on growth in state spending.

But it hit the Rainy Day Fund for almost $4 billion over the objections of some of the outside conservative groups Dewhurst hoped to win over (the Senate’s original plan would have gone deeper, pulling $5.7 billion from the fund). And it got around the spending limits on a technicality — increasing what the state actually spends without using dollars from the accounts covered by the constitution. Spending will rise — if voters approve in November — but the spending cap will remain intact.

Senators across the spectrum supported the budget, arguing for investments in infrastructure and education as requirements of a strong continuing economy. But conservatives — the people Dewhurst hoped and hopes to appease — were arguing for more restraint, and for taking the infrastructure money away from other state programs instead of from its savings account.

As the session hourglass empties, Dewhurst’s camp has been quietly pushing for a special session — where the clout of Democratic opposition would be blunted. And he himself told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Thursday that he has asked the governor to call a special session on the abortion bills, drug testing of welfare recipients, and on legislation allowing concealed handguns on college campuses in Texas.

Barring some special session action, he's got little from the session to shore up his reputation with the same Republican voters who spurned him in last July’s Senate runoff and whom he would face again next year if he seeks re-election — that's his stated intention — or another office.

The potential opponents are conservative enough to foreshadow a genuine race to the political right in any Republican primary contest Dewhurst might choose.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — the former the author of the state’s concealed handgun law, and the latter the author of a current book promoting border security and a stricter immigration policy — both say they’ll run for lieutenant governor next year, whether or not the incumbent is in the race.

Staples is ducking public comparisons of himself and the incumbent right now — after all, they might end up in different contests. But he’s got the outline of his pitch ready. “The record reflects that I am the most conservative person mentioned in this race,” Staples said at a recent TribLive forum. Both he and Patterson have suggested that Dewhurst, who has been in statewide office since 1999, has been there long enough. “You lose the ability to lead, to motivate, to inspire and to sell,” Patterson said in February.

It would be difficult to get to the right of either one of them. And it’s important because of the outsized role conservative activists play in Republican primaries in Texas. Candidates like Dewhurst and former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who lost a 2010 gubernatorial primary to Perry, have discovered the perils of a party election that draws fewer than 10 percent of the eligible voters to the polls.

Should Dewhurst choose to run for the governor’s office — assuming, for a moment, that Perry doesn’t seek re-election — he would likely face Abbott, the attorney general, a Cruz mentor, an ardent basher of the Obama administration and a darling of the right. Perry himself is firmly established — he was the first prominent Texas Republican to sense the rise of the Tea Party and to harness it in his own politics. And it’s been tried: Hutchison demonstrated the hazards of appearing less conservative than the governor in a primary.

There is always the top race. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has to defend his seat in 2014, should Dewhurst still harbor some deep desire to go to Washington. But the state’s senior senator was the second-most conservative member of that body in 2012, according to a ranking by National Journal. And like Abbott, who had an end-of-year war chest of $18 million, Cornyn would be well financed.

Dewhurst has vast personal wealth, but it would a negligible advantage against a well-financed opponent. By comparison, Staples and Patterson would have a lot of catching up to do before the end of the year, when the primaries begin in earnest.

The lieutenant governor, if he's willing to self-finance, could start a re-election race in 2014 with the most money — unless Perry decided to stay put and Abbott moved his focus to the second prize. But he’d rather start with a financial advantage, and some wins to show off to the conservatives in the Republican Party.

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Politics State government 2014 elections 83rd Legislative Session David Dewhurst Greg Abbott John Cornyn Rick Perry Texas Legislature Texas Senate