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Analysis: Who Will Be Texas Tea Party Leader, Version 3.0?

Gov. Rick Perry was the first prominent Texas politician to grab the Tea Party wave. Ted Cruz was next, winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2013. Is state Sen. Dan Patrick next in line?

Texas state Sen. Dan Patrick, shown talking to voters during the Tarrant County Conservative Candidate Fair held in Hurst.

By title and longevity, Gov. Rick Perry is the top dog among Texas Republicans. He might even be a national candidate again. But for now, he is a lame duck.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz leapfrogged the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, and is by most accounts — and by the clamor for his endorsement — the most popular Republican in the state. But he is not on the ballot.

The prominent Texas name at the moment is Dan Patrick, a Houston state senator relatively unknown outside his home base until the current primary elections. Now he has more momentum than anyone, and he could be the Republicans’ next big thing.

Perry caught on to the Tea Party movement early and rode the wave to re-election in 2010 and into what turned out to be a notoriously unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Cruz was next, harnessing that same energetic band of Texas Republicans in his successful bid for the Senate in 2012 and, once he was in Washington, attempting to turn his regional success into something bigger.

Now, with the Republican race for lieutenant governor headed for a runoff, Patrick is trying to hitch himself to the same movement — version 3.0 in the succession of elected statewide Tea Party leaders in Texas.

In the short term, Patrick is a threat to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, whose job he is trying to take. Patrick finished ahead of the incumbent in the primaries. Dewhurst, who lost to Cruz in the 2012 runoff for the Republican Senate nomination, is trying to win the hearts of voters who have said twice that they would prefer someone else.

Somewhere in all of this is the Republican candidate for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott. He has never been through the kind of Republican primary fight that honed the politics of Perry, Cruz and Patrick. The attorney general had never been through a Republican primary challenge at all until this year, and he easily defeated three minor candidates, winning 91.5 percent of the vote without ever having to engage in a debate or forum.

After Abbott’s first campaign for attorney general, in 2002, the going has been relatively light even in general elections. He has more experience as an officeholder than most, but for all of the times he has been on the ballot, he has avoided any real political brawls.

As a result, he has never had to appeal to one group at the expense of another in a Republican primary or to take sides in the factional fights that have been a regular feature of the party’s elections since 2010.

Perry is moving out of state politics of his own volition, creating a void in party leadership that will be filled soon by one of the others.

The dynamics are interesting and could shape competition for some time. Cruz has traveled to Iowa regularly enough to explore a presidential bid or become an ethanol tycoon. At the same time, his was the most sought-after endorsement of the primary season — credited widely, for instance, with the quick rise of state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, in the primary for attorney general. Cruz is a contender for top Republican in Texas after the governor leaves office.

Patrick, if he wins the lieutenant governor’s post in this year’s primary and general elections, would have the advantage of living in Texas instead of Washington, of having a focus on Austin instead of, say, Iowa. And every lieutenant governor dreams, at some point, of moving into the governor’s mansion.

That leaves Abbott who, without waging much of a public campaign, eased into the nomination for governor. Cruz used to work for him. Patrick will not be in his way until and unless both are elected and find themselves at odds over some issue.

The campaign ahead against the Democrat Wendy Davis might put the others out of voters’ minds and make Abbott, if he wins, the king of the Republican hill.

As long as the Tea Party remains a strong force in the state’s Republican politics, being its champion is going to be worth something. When Perry leaves the stage, who will that be?

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Politics 2014 elections Dan Patrick Rick Perry Ted Cruz