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Analysis: Watch the Democrats' Co-pilot

Democrats in Texas are busy talking up their ticket, and most of that conversation has been about Wendy Davis, their nominee for governor. But Leticia Van de Putte, running for lieutenant governor, looks like the crowd favorite.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte D-San Antonio, the 2014 Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, hugs one of her grandsons during a campaign event on June 4, 2014, in Austin.

It is easy to find people inside and outside the Texas Democratic Party who think state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, will outperform Wendy Davis, who’s running for governor, in November.

The conversation has a lot to do with her Republican opponent, state Sen. Dan Patrick, and a persistent question about whether he is too extreme for independents and moderates who may be numerous enough to help a Democrat. But there is another aspect to this, evident at the recent convention of the Texas Democratic Party: The brightest star on the statewide ticket, the candidate receiving the most buzz, was Van de Putte.

Texas Democrats have not given up on Davis, the state senator from Fort Worth, although the odds are long and the Davis campaign has moved forward in spits and spurts.

With the convention behind her and a new campaign manager leading the way, Davis has spent the last few days happily criticizing the position of her rival, Attorney General Greg Abbott, on hazardous chemicals in what she calls a “Texans deserve to know tour.” As attorney general, Abbott recently ruled that the state does not have to release information about hazardous chemicals kept on site at private facilities. The records had been public for years, but his office cited a homeland security law dating from 2003 in saying the state did not have to share that information.

That bit of news was a blast of fresh fuel for Democrats on their way to a November election they hope will vault at least one of their nominees into statewide office.

That may be Van de Putte.

The differences between her and Patrick, a state senator from Houston, are more conspicuous than those between Davis and Abbott.

In both races, there is gender, of course — not a small thing in a year when the Democrats are campaigning on issues of health care and pay equity. Also, in a state where both parties are paying close attention to rapidly changing demographics, Van de Putte is a Latina and Patrick is an Anglo.

Van de Putte is gregarious, a contrast with the party’s more reserved candidate for governor. She is a mother and a grandmother in a big family, a pharmacist, a cheerful and charismatic political operator. Crowds like the one at the Dallas convention like her. Davis mentioned her speech the next day, drawing a burst of cheers and profiting from the association.

Synergy can help, but in Texas, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run on their own — not as a ticket. Since Republicans started winning statewide elections in 1978, voters have split their tickets three times, putting a Republican in the top seat and a Democrat in the second.

It is not unusual for a candidate for the second chair to do better on Election Day than the party’s candidate for governor. It has been 20 years, though, since the person at the top of the ticket lost while the secondary candidate won.

When the Republican George W. Bush beat the Democrat Ann Richards in 1994, the Democrat Bob Bullock breezed to re-election as lieutenant governor. Bullock received more votes than either candidate for governor.

Republicans have won all of the elections since, with governors finishing ahead of their No. 2s in 1998 and 2002, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst finishing ahead of Gov. Rick Perry in 2006 and 2010, outrunning Perry in the latter race by a half-dozen percentage points while overwhelming another Hispanic Democrat, Linda Chavez-Thompson, a labor leader.

The Democrats think this year’s candidate will do better than Chavez-Thompson did.

If Van de Putte can put together enough money to run a credible statewide campaign — one that makes her name and ideas as well known as Patrick’s — and if the Davis campaign can remain competitive, even if it falls short, and if the voters do not blame Texas Democrats for their dissatisfaction with the federal government, then the candidate for lieutenant governor might have a chance.

Whew — that’s a lot of ifs.

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Politics 2014 elections Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Rick Perry Wendy Davis