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Eyeing Hispanic Voters, Patrick Shifts His Tone

The conciliatory tone that marked Dan Patrick's victory speech was unlike the fiery immigration rhetoric voters were accustomed to. But it's an approach he will have to take in a general election battle against Leticia Van de Putte.

Republican State Sen. Dan Patrick chats with reporters at a polling station in Cypress, Texas Tuesday, May 27, 2014 to stump for votes in his runoff against against incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

State Sen. Dan Patrick’s victory over incumbent David Dewhurst in the Republican runoff for lieutenant governor on Tuesday night came as no surprise.

And while the conciliatory tone that marked his victory speech — in which he pledged to make inroads with Hispanics — sounded nothing like the fiery immigration rhetoric voters are accustomed to, political observers say it's an approach Patrick will have to take in a general election battle against Leticia Van de Putte, a Latina state senator from San Antonio.

“Before you can get someone’s vote, you have to respect them enough to go talk with them and explain who you are,” Patrick said Tuesday after election returns showed he had overwhelmingly defeated Dewhurst. “It won’t be overnight, but it’s going to start tomorrow morning.”

Patrick’s race against Van de Putte, who has criticized the Houston senator for calling the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico an “illegal invasion,” could serve as a test case for both parties to gauge their outreach and appeal to an increasingly crucial voting bloc.

The state's Republican Party — which continues to inch farther right with every primary — is attempting to find its footing among Hispanics, who have so far tended to identify with the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Democrats are turning their attention toward voter turnout. They believe Hispanics, who are expected to make up a plurality of the state population by 2020, hold the key to making Democrats competitive in this dark red state.

During the primary and runoff elections, immigration and border security were staples of Patrick’s stump speeches and debate appearances. But he drew fire from both Democrats and Republicans for his "illegal invasion" comments, and has also been quoted saying that undocumented immigrants bring “third-world diseases” like leprosy and tuberculosis into the U.S.

Van de Putte has called Patrick’s comments inappropriate and accused him of being out of touch with Hispanic voters. Following his runoff win on Tuesday, she said it was time for “politicians like Dan Patrick put their toxic rhetoric to rest.”

While some Hispanic Republicans have said they will cross over to vote for Van de Putte instead of Patrick in the general election, Hector De Leon, chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas, predicted Patrick will recover from criticism about his remarks because the state is so reliably Republican.

But De Leon, who has referred to Patrick's “illegal invasion” remark as “thinly veiled racism,” added that Patrick’s success among Hispanic voters will depend on his ability to turn his “good words” on Tuesday “into good deeds” in the next six months.

He also said Patrick’s outreach efforts could be “too little, too late” if Van de Putte is able to raise enough money to build a narrative about him across the state. Since jumping into the race in November, she has not raised the kind of campaign cash her opponent has — though she didn't have an expensive primary battle like Patrick did. In January, the last time both candidates filed a campaign finance report, Patrick had raised three times as much money as Van de Putte.

Mark Jones, chairman of Rice University’s political science department, said Patrick’s remarks on Tuesday were a “crucial first step” toward redefining himself to the Hispanic electorate in the general election. 

"Patrick has certainly lost some Hispanic voters and some more moderate Anglo voters, but he doesn’t want to lose any more," Jones said.

Patrick gave voters a glimpse of this shift in tone in April during an immigration debate with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. During the debate, which was broadcast on the Spanish-language channel Univision, Patrick avoided engaging in the hard-edged rhetoric he’s been called out on.

The Patrick campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but following the debate in April, Patrick consultant Allen Blakemore said the senator had not changed his tone on immigration.

Democrats largely remain skeptical; Patrick opposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates to attend public universities. Van de Putte has been a vocal supporter of in-state tuition for undocumented students and has talked about the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Emmanuel Garcia, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said that Patrick's "anti-immigrant rhetoric" helped him win the Republican nomination in the runoff, but that he now has to face Latino voters in the general election.

"Patrick can't try to tear down the Latino community and attack our families and then expect to have our support," Garcia said. "Does he think he can just disrespect us and then be welcomed at our home? That's not the way things work."

When it comes to the electoral future of both parties, the lieutenant governor’s race could ultimately prove to be an indicator. And what works in the short term — like Patrick’s rhetoric on immigration during the primary and the runoff — is often futile in a general election.

“I can certainly appreciate and understand that there will be folks who aren’t going to be very forgiving,” De Leon said. “What may be good politics today may not be good politics for the next election cycle.”

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Demographics Immigration Politics State government 2014 elections Dan Patrick Texas Legislature