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Analysis: A Betrayal Roils a Top Political Race

Politics is full of turnarounds, double-crosses and strategic misunderstandings. But a big business group's decision to switch sides in the race for lieutenant governor was a rare exhibition of political hardball.

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The standard for good old-fashioned treachery in politics is pretty low — in fact, many people think politics is a synonym for treachery. Even with that, the latest move by one of the state’s biggest business groups against the sitting lieutenant governor was breathtaking.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform bailed on its longtime political friend David Dewhurst after supporting him through the primary election. Dewhurst came in second in March to state Sen. Dan Patrick, finishing far enough behind to surprise nearly everyone and to inspire widespread speculation that he would drop out of the race without a runoff.

He did not do that, but he may be wishing he had. TLR announced last week that it was changing sides, endorsing Patrick in the May runoff and dropping its support of Dewhurst.

In a letter announcing the decision to donors, the leaders of the group and of its political action committee, Dick Weekley and Dick Trabulsi, said all four of the first-round candidates for lieutenant governor were friendly to their issues but that they had endorsed Dewhurst because “he played pivotal roles at crucial times over the past decade in the passage of comprehensive tort reforms.”

That history worked only for a while, apparently. “In the runoff for lieutenant governor in the Republican primary, TLRPAC believes that Senator Patrick has earned the support of Republicans who want to retain the lieutenant governorship in conservative hands,” they wrote.

That was worthy of Game of Thrones. It is not unusual to drop a candidate who performs badly. It is not unusual to join the opposition once a race is over, making a political contribution on the late train along with everybody else who bet wrong.

But this was jarring. This group has stood beside Dewhurst through one successful race for land commissioner and three for lieutenant governor. After he lost to Ted Cruz in the 2012 race for the United States Senate, many supporters urged him not to seek another term in his current post. He tuned that out, and TLR stuck with him through a March contest that included, along with Patrick, the state’s sitting land and agriculture commissioners. The other candidates saw a vulnerable incumbent, but the lawsuit reform group hung on.

From October to January, its political action committee contributed about $40,000 to Dewhurst’s campaign. That was not its biggest investment, by any means. The group spent about $410,000 on a failed attempt to get state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, elected to the state Senate early last year. She lost, but the organization did not give up on her. In this year’s primaries, it helped defend two incumbents, contributing $175,000 to state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and $180,000 to state Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso. Campbell had two challengers and won without a runoff. Marquez won 66.4 percent of the vote.

“There is not a lot of loyalty in this game,” Patrick’s consultant, Allen Blakemore, said. “TLR as an entity is known for being extremely loyal. Once they’re with you, they’re always with you, no matter what.”

The change, Blakemore said, was “a signal that at some point in time, they can pull up stakes and switch horses.”

“But I don’t think you can call them fickle,” he added.

In March, Dewhurst got 28.3 percent of the vote to Patrick’s 41.5 percent. TLR stopped giving Dewhurst money in January.

To be fair, Dewhurst has an advantage the others do not have — and a disadvantage for a candidate hoping to raise money: He is rich, and has been willing in past elections to spend freely from his personal accounts. His latest campaign reports show loans equivalent to a little more than a third of his $6.6 million in spending.

The leaders of TLR kept their heads down during the public soul-searching that followed the primary, when some urged the lieutenant governor to concede to Patrick instead of pursuing what appeared to be a long-shot runoff victory.

But with a month and a half to go before the runoff — a race they are certain Dewhurst will lose — they decided they could not wait for the voters to finish things. They jumped, signaling to others in politics that one of the biggest sources of money in politics is now with the challenger. Without another word, that will chill Dewhurst’s potential donors and probably accelerate Patrick’s fundraising.

And it will make some candidates look over their shoulders to make sure their friends are still with them.

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Politics 2014 elections Dan Patrick David Dewhurst