Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro traded verbal punches during a televised debate on immigration Tuesday night, but even those tough blows appeared to be a softer version of Patrick's previous immigration comments.
The lieutenant governor candidate didn’t engage in the hard-edged rhetoric that drew fire earlier in his campaign when he described the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico to Texas as an “illegal invasion.” When Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, who moderated the debate, asked Patrick whether his previous remarks were productive for Republicans in the state or if they helped him in his race, Patrick did not answer, saying he preferred to talk about policy rather than politics.
Patrick, who opposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates to attend public universities in Texas, said repeatedly on Tuesday that he sympathized with their plight. In particular, he referred to young immigrants who might have been brought into the country illegally as children. He also said more ought to be done to prevent immigrants from risking their lives to enter the country.
Republicans say the apparent change in Patrick’s tone could help the senator's campaign and the party's efforts to reach the state's growing Hispanic population. But Democrats counter that Patrick's position on immigration, which hasn't changed, will alienate voters.
“He clearly thought through some of the attacks that have come against him and was able to respond to those attacks in a much more thoughtful way than he has in the past,” said state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas.
Villalba met with Patrick after publishing an open letter earlier this year in which he expressed concern over the senator saying repeatedly during a debate that Texas was dealing with an “illegal invasion” across the southern border. Patrick made similar remarks on his Twitter account and on the campaign trail.
Patrick consultant Allen Blakemore said voters were able to learn more about Patrick’s views on immigration during Tuesday's debate, but he said the senator had not changed his language or his stance on the issue.
“I don’t think there’s been as big of a change as people might be looking for,” Blakemore said. “What you see is what you get. He’s still the same old Dan Patrick.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized Patrick for his "illegal invasion" remarks. Among the critics was Hector De Leon, a chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas, who has previously said that Republicans need to avoid “engaging in rhetoric that sounds like thinly veiled racism.”
During Tuesday's immigration debate, which appeared on the Spanish-language news channel Univision, Castro took several jabs at Patrick for the “illegal invasion” comments and criticized him for seeming to change his tone.
“You’ve been huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf and now you are dancing around, tiptoeing like Little Red Riding Hood on this issue,” said Castro, a Democrat.
But Villalba said the difference in the way Patrick described his stance on immigration issues was a result of the senator’s improved understanding of why his previous remarks were offensive to Hispanics following their discussion about his comments.
After the debate, De Leon said a more “subdued Dan Patrick” on immigration could lead to a more “accurate presentation of his views” that better serves the long-term interests of the Republican Party and its standing with Hispanic voters.
“It’s difficult to go about the business of uninviting people to the party and then expecting them to vote for you,” said De Leon, who had not yet watched the debate.
Patrick’s apparent change in tone comes after reports that a campaign adviser to GOP gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the campaigns of other Republicans to moderate their immigration rhetoric.
Throughout his campaign, Abbott has taken a less controversial approach to immigration than Patrick, attempting to court the Hispanic vote by highlighting his ties to the community.
Patrick’s performance during the debate could also be an early glimpse at the approach he might take during the general election if he defeats incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the May 27 primary runoff. That would pit Patrick against state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, a Latina, who has criticized Patrick for using the “politics of fear" and said that his language flies in the face of efforts to attract Hispanics voters.
Despite the perceived shift in his rhetoric, Democrats remain skeptical of Patrick’s position on immigration. Emmanuel Garcia, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said any shift in the senator’s rhetoric would be futile because his position on the issue is unattractive to Hispanic voters.
“The line that came to mind after the debate is that a tiger can’t change its stripes,” Garcia said. “Dan Patrick can’t change his record."