Van de Putte's Statewide Bus Tour Ventures off Democrats' Beaten Path

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, is reaching out to voters in conservative hotbeds in North and East Texas — a nod to Democrats’ dependence on increasing voter turnout in statewide races.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte waves to the delegates at the 2014 Texas Democratic Convention held at the Dallas Convention Center on June 27, 2014.

LUFKIN — When state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s campaign bus drove up to the Goodwill Baptist Church here on Wednesday, she was greeted by an unusual sight in this Republican region: a lively group of Democrats.

“As Democrats here, we just try to keep the lights on and the flag up and say, ‘Yeah, we’re still here,’” said Glenn Donnahoe, a retired veteran active in Lufkin’s small Democratic community. But he added that the group gets energized when candidates like Van de Putte campaign here.

Van de Putte’s Lufkin appearance, attended by more than 50 people, was one of four East Texas campaign stops Wednesday for the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate’s statewide bus tour.

It could seem unusual for Van de Putte, a decided underdog against Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick, to be here the week before Election Day. But she said splitting the homestretch of her campaign between Democratic strongholds like the Rio Grande Valley and conservative hotbeds in North and East Texas is key to increasing voter turnout to give her a chance to propel Texas Democrats to their first statewide win in 20 years.

“We’re different in regions, but we’re no different in the way we dream big,” Van de Putte told the Lufkin crowd, as she attempted to forge a last-minute connection with voters many miles from her Senate district in San Antonio.

Facing a wide deficit in recent polling, Van de Putte has worked to raise her name identification statewide and illustrate the stark differences between her and Patrick, a Tea Party darling. In recent weeks, Van de Putte has focused on mobilizing voters, including those outside of the Democratic base. Democrats have conceded that their success at the polls lies in increased turnout among Hispanics and infrequent voters.

Patrick, who defeated Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a heated Republican primary runoff, has kept a mostly low profile during the general election campaign, holding multiple events that are not publicly announced. His campaign says that Van de Putte’s policies will impede her efforts to increase Democratic turnout in Republican-controlled areas.

“Van de Putte’s liberal agenda has no place in East, North, West or South Texas,” Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said in a written statement. “She continues to try and distract voters from her failed liberal policies against Texas’ successes.”

As Republicans employ a similar strategy in reliably Democratic areas of the state, Van de Putte said she wanted to include a “strong” East Texas stop in her bus tour because she’s committed to leaving no stone unturned. She pointed to organizing efforts by Democratic groups and the state’s increasing Hispanic population, which tends to vote Democratic, as signs that this election is different.

In traveling to areas like East Texas — where the Hispanic voters Democrats are counting on are fewer and farther between — Van de Putte made subtle changes to her stump speeches to appeal to a wider audience.

In the four counties that Van de Putte visited Wednesday, the Hispanic community is about 17.5 percent to 24.5 percent of the population. Statewide, Hispanics make up almost 40 percent of the population.  

Mostly missing from Van de Putte's speeches were the biographical anecdotes and Spanish phrases she is known to emphasize. Instead, she doubled down on key Democratic issues, namely increased education funding, while attacking Patrick’s record.

Other modifications to her strategy while she was in East Texas were more overt.

“How do you like my East Texas hair?” Van de Putte jokingly asked her staff as she boarded her campaign bus Wednesday morning in Tyler with perfectly coiffed hair. She explained that three of her children accompanying her on this leg of the bus tour advised her to channel the state’s last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, in hopes of connecting with voters here.

Unfazed by the long odds, Van de Putte suggested that she’s channeling Richards in other ways.

“In 20 years, no one has ever come to ask for their vote,” Van de Putte said of East Texas voters during an interview aboard the campaign bus. “Twenty years ago when Ann Richards was running a very strong campaign, the minority population in East Texas went for Ann Richards. ... We know that diversity is our strength.”

It's unlikely that East Texas voters will support Van de Putte in large numbers, but she could benefit from Democratic support among the area’s black residents, said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. African-Americans, who have traditionally voted in larger numbers for Democrats, make up 16 percent to 20 percent of the population here — higher than the state’s 12 percent figure.

But Jones added that Van de Putte’s efforts in Republican-dominated areas could have been bolstered by increased fundraising.

While gubernatorial races tend to financially outpace down-ballot races, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ campaign has had far more money to work with than Van de Putte’s campaign. 

Davis has raised about $40.7 million with help from allied groups. By comparison, Van de Putte has raised nearly $7.5 million. Patrick has raked in about $14 million during the election cycle, including fundraising efforts during a four-way primary election. (Van de Putte ran unopposed in the primary election.)

“When you’re doing the post-mortem of the failed Democratic efforts … some Democratic donors may find themselves second-guessing their decision to give so much to Wendy Davis and so little to Leticia Van de Putte,” Jones said.

Funding issues aside, local Democrats in East Texas argue that the tides are changing for candidates like Van de Putte despite the fact that no Democrats represent the congressional or legislative districts that encompass this area.

Following statewide trends, the Hispanic and black populations have steadily grown here in the last 10 years, with Hispanics seeing the biggest jump in their share of the population. In Longview, another stop on Van de Putte's bus tour, Hispanics make up about 18 percent of the population — up from 10 percent a decade before. 

During Van de Putte's campaign stop in Tyler, where minorities make up about 40 percent of the population, Beverly Jackson argued that Republicans have kept control of East Texas because too many residents “have been conditioned to think Texas is red.” 

Jackson pointed to members of the modest crowd listening to Van de Putte as representative of the city's changing demographics. “Texas is what you see right there,” she said. “I see elderly, I see Hispanic, I see black, all ages — that’s Texas right there. That’s the way it’s supposed to look.”

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