Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is at the bottom of a deep political hole, and he has 12 weeks to find a way out.
The Republican incumbent finished second in his re-election bid Tuesday. That earned him a spot in a runoff with state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, but Patrick emerged with momentum that engendered a sense of déjà vu among Texans who watched him lose a U.S. Senate runoff to Ted Cruz in 2012.
Patrick beat Dewhurst soundly in the primary, winning 41.5 percent statewide to the incumbent’s 28.3 percent in unofficial returns. Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples finished third, with 17.8 percent, and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson was fourth, with 12.5 percent.
In the general election, one of them will face state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, along with three minor party candidates.
Neither Patterson nor Staples has endorsed the survivors; they and others are still poring over the results and trying to gauge how competitive the runoff will be.
Several Republican political consultants said Wednesday that the odds against Dewhurst are enormous. Some disillusioned supporters in the hours after the results came in said that Dewhurst ought to concede, telling voters that a continued race would only do violence to the party since he had no real chance to win. That is not without precedent in Texas politics — Democrat Buddy Temple did it after finishing second in a gubernatorial primary in 1982. But it seems unlikely in a race where neither candidate was close to gathering 50 percent of the vote.
"This race is going into overtime, and we're going to win it," Dewhurst told supporters on Tuesday night. "We're in this fight not just for ourselves. We're in this fight for you, your families, your state and for our nation."
Patrick bested Dewhurst in nine of 10 counties with the heaviest Republican voting, winning 50 percent or more of the vote in six of them: Harris, 58 percent; Tarrant, 50 percent; Collin and Denton, 54 percent each; Montgomery, 61 percent; and Fort Bend, 52 percent.
Put another way, nearly 72 percent of this year’s primary voters chose someone other than the incumbent in the race for lieutenant governor. If the numbers stayed the same in a runoff, Dewhurst would have to win more than seven of every 10 votes that went to Staples and Patterson in the first round. Patrick, on the other hand, would need just under three in 10 to complete his quest for the nomination.
Dewhurst was in a similar pickle less than two years ago, coming in first in the primary for U.S. Senate and then losing a July runoff to political upstart Cruz, who grabbed 56.8 percent of the vote and sent Dewhurst back to Austin.
The same voters have put someone in front of the lieutenant governor twice in a row now.
“I think the voters are telling him something, but when they are given some information about the alternative, I think they might change their minds,” said Patterson, who hired a private investigator to dig up damaging information about Patrick during the first round. But he acknowledged that Patrick has the better hand right now.
“I think it’s possible, but it ain’t gonna be easy,” Patterson said.