A year before state Sen. Dan Patrick announced he would challenge Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the 2014 primary, the Houston Republican and radio host was vigorously defending Dewhurst’s record on the airwaves and on his Facebook page.
In the last months of Dewhurst’s unsuccessful 2012 U.S. Senate bid against Ted Cruz, Patrick, the founder of the Texas Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus, repeatedly vouched for the lieutenant governor’s conservative credentials as he desperately tried to buoy support among grassroots Republicans who had flocked to Cruz.
The move, which came despite a strained history between the two men, helped turn Patrick and Dewhurst from sometimes rivals into allies. Before the most recent legislative session, Dewhurst named Patrick as chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, and they worked together to advance a number of school reforms.
Now, Patrick, who began his campaign in late June, has quickly become Dewhurst’s fiercest critic among the field of candidates hoping to unseat him.
But his work in the U.S. Senate race on Dewhurst’s behalf could hurt his appeal to the conservative primary voters he will now have to court in the crowded race that includes two other state elected officials, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
“I think that Sen. Patrick will have some tough questions that he will have to answer in that regard because the people who supported Ted Cruz during the campaign, their support for him has done nothing but grow since he’s been in office,” said JoAnn Fleming, a statewide conservative activist who is the executive director of the political advocacy group Grassroots America - We the People.
Patrick has based his campaign on the need for “authentic conservative leadership” in the state Senate.
“I think it's clear to a lot of people that the lieutenant governor has lost focus this session, and there have been lapses of judgment and leadership that no one can deny,” he said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.
In response to a request to comment for this article, Travis Considine, a spokesman for Dewhurst, said the lieutenant governor was focused on completing the current special session.
“When the Texas Senate finishes the business that Texans sent them to Austin to complete, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst looks forward to meeting with grassroots voters across the state to discuss his vision for making Texas even stronger in terms of freedom, opportunity and economic strength,” he said.
When Patrick officially endorsed Dewhurst, he was joined by the rest of his Republican colleagues in the Senate days before the runoff election, he joined a group of many statewide officeholders that ultimately included Gov. Rick Perry, Patterson and Staples.
Patrick’s decision to back Dewhurst was noteworthy in ways that the others’ endorsements were not. It came after he had accused Dewhurst, on the Senate floor during the 2011 session, of holding up his bill that would have prohibited "invasive searches" by Transportation Security Administration officials.
The situation also prompted a forceful clarification from Fleming, the chairwoman of the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus at the time, who issued a statement saying that while Patrick was the founder and leader of the caucus, he “in no way” spoke on its behalf.
And before his official endorsement, Patrick had already publicly tipped his hat in Dewhurst’s direction. In late May, he posted a message on his Facebook page declaring that over the course of Dewhurst’sthree terms in the Legislature, he had supported Patrick’s conservative agenda “98 percent of the time.”
“Voters will make their own final decision, but the facts are facts,” Patrick wrote. “In this case the facts simply don't support the charge that he is a moderate, no matter how many times they are made.”
He also conducted an interview with Cruz on his radio show, later widely circulated by the Dewhurst campaign, in which Patrick lobbed several criticisms at the candidate, suggesting that Cruz was overly combative and ignorant of the Legislature’s inner workings.
After Cruz during a tense exchange with Patrick accused Dewhurst of obstructing a 2011 bill supported by many conservatives that would have banned so-called sanctuary cities, the state senator responded with a fiery defense of Dewhurst’s actions.
Cruz asked whether the ban would have passed into law if Patrick had been lieutenant governor.
“If I had been lieutenant governor, I would have done the exact same thing that happened,” Patrick said.
More recently, Patrick told the Tribune he thought Cruz had done “a fantastic job” since he went to Washington, but declined to say whether he would make the same choice again.
“That was then, this is a difference race, and a lot of things have changed since then,” Patrick said of his onetime support for Dewhurst.
He pointed to what he called Dewhurst’s “terrible mishandling” of a Republican attempt in the first special session to pass an omnibus bill restricting abortions in the state. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered for about 11 hours, and an ensuing debate and boisterous gallery prevented senators from approving the legislation before a midnight deadline.
Speaking to reporters that night, Dewhurst blamed the failure on an “unruly mob” in the Senate gallery. The events led Perry to call lawmakers back the next day to get the job done in a second special session — and Patrick promptly issued a statement saying he would immediately use a procedural tactic to force a vote on the measure if Democrats attempted to delay once again.
What direction the race will take as Patterson and Staples begin engaging, and as candidates file their initial fund-raising reports, is largely uncertain.
But there are signs that Patrick could soothe any lingering ill will among some primary voters. Though all four of Republican candidates currently hold elected office, 61 percent of Texas Republican primary voters surveyed have yet to form an opinion of them, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll conducted in June.
And Fleming said that what she viewed as Patrick’s otherwise strong record on conservative issues could overcome what she called a single error in judgment if he proved responsive to voters’ concerns.
“Sen. Patrick believed he did what he needed to do at that time. But I will tell you that I absolutely believe in forgiving people and moving forward,” she said. “When people have their feelings bruised, they've got to have their woodshed moment with that candidate to move on.”