State Sen. Dan Patrick builds his recently-released campaign ad on a rhetorical call for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to more aggressively pursue a conservative agenda in the latest special session. In a clear effort to position himself on the right end of the political spectrum in the four-way 2014 GOP primary race for lieutenant governor, Patrick declares that “the time for waiting for conservatives is over,” touting his efforts on “illegal immigration,” campus carry legislation, the CSCOPE curriculum materials and “school choice” (don’t you dare use the term “vouchers”).
It’s hard to imagine that Patrick could find a set of policies more likely to highlight perceptions among the GOP primary base that Dewhurst fails to deliver on conservative policy. (The one exception is anti-abortion legislation, which Dewhurst aggressively pushed this summer in a move widely viewed as an effort to raise his standing among conservatives.)
Even allowing that Dewhurst has mollified some skeptical social conservatives with his efforts on abortion policy, data from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggests that the issues Patrick invokes in the ad serve up very inviting bait for conservative voters, the big fish in GOP primary elections. By focusing on immigration, campus carry and school choice, Patrick resembles Chief Brody in Jaws shoveling raw fish off the back of the good ship Orca: he’s got a bucketful of what the sharks he’s hunting most want.
Patrick’s appeal to immigration reform appeals to GOP voters by raising an issue that was central to the 2010 gubernatorial campaign and the 2011 session, but hasn’t been much discussed since then: sanctuary cities. Immigration is a habitual focus of Texas Republicans and a perennial front-runner in the “most important problem” question in the UT/TT poll. Republicans rallied around sanctuary cities legislation when Gov. Rick Perry used it in 2010-2011, with 88 percent of them expressing disapproval of their existence by February 2011. More broadly, 46 percent of Republicans chose immigration or border security as the state’s top problem in June 2013.
Similarly, campus carry emerged as a conservative crusade in the last two sessions with substantial support from the Republican base. If you follow the #txlege tag on Twitter, you know of the bitter disappointment of conservatives at the failure of Republicans to deliver campus carry. Conservative enthusiasm for campus carry is also evident in the more systematic sample of Republicans in the UT/TT poll. In February of this year, 77 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Tea Party Republicans expressed support for campus carry, with the majority of each group expressing “strong support.”
Last but not least, “school choice” — the issue on which Patrick and Dewhurst staged what has certainly turned out to be a marriage of convenience at the outset of the current legislative session — is also an issue to which large schools of conservatives flock. In February 2013, 78 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of conservatives preferred the school choice/voucher position in a two-sided question expressing equally weighted arguments for and against such measures.
The UT/TT poll has never included questions on CSCOPE, but it’s safe to stipulate that given conservative accusations that elements of the curriculum package are “Marxist,” “pro-Islam” and (ipso facto?) “anti-American,” the issue is sure to act as blood in the water for what are sometimes called “movement conservatives” — though it does so amidst no small amount of skepticism, even in relatively conservative areas of the state.
No one who has followed either Republican primary politics or Patrick’s career will be surprised to find the Houston senator and talk radio host shoveling conservative chum into the GOP primary waters. But once this Texas GOP version of Jaws gets out of summer rehearsals, expect some recasting and maybe even a little rewriting. It’s hard not to think that Dewhurst is a much better fit to play Brody, the starchy police chief ill-suited for the ocean and the big hunt yet compelled by some inarticulate internal drive to join a crew of scenery-chewing big personalities.
Of course, there were only three guys on the Orca in the Spielberg smash — Brody, Captain Quint and the wise-cracking Hooper. There are four characters in the Texas remake: Dewhurst, Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. Someone will have to play the shark, with an eye toward rewriting the Hollywood ending in the fish’s favor.