Todd Staples is giving up his Texas Commissioner of Agriculture job to take on Mr. Dewhurst, as is Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. But the most formidable challenger, in my opinion, is State Senator Dan Patrick of Houston. Why would I draw that conclusion given that Dewhurst, Patterson, and Staples have all run and won statewide Republican Primaries and General Elections while Patrick's sole electoral success has been in the 7th Texas Senate District, which includes only about three percent of the state's population? Here are some of the reasons.
First, Mr. Patrick's district is one of the most Republican of the thirty one Senate seats, so he has a decent home electoral base. More importantly, Mr. Patrick's long tenure as an owner of, and a commentator on, a popular talk radio station in Houston has given him both high name identification and popularity among the older white voters in the Houston media market who dominate Republican Primaries. We saw this demonstrated in the first GOP Primary Dan Patrick ran in back in March 2006. The talk show host got in a open race for the seat vacated by retiring State Senator Jon Lindsay. Three veteran office holders were also in the race: State Representatives Peggy Hamrick and Joe Nixon, as well as Houston City Council Member Mark Ellis. My expectation was that Dan Patrick might lead the field into a runoff, but as the results below show, he simply blew his opponents away with almost seventy percent of the vote.
- Patrick .... 28,874 (68.8%)
Hamrick .... 6,905 (16.5%)
Nixon .... 3,632 ( 8.7%)
Ellis .... 2,548 ( 6.1%)
And, Dan Patrick won big despite the fact that most of the Austin lobby poured money into the two state representatives' campaigns. Obviously, to no avail.
The Tea Party was not around in 2006, but Dan Patrick excited many of the same passionate conservatives that now form the base of that movement within the Republican Party of 2013. The power of that movement in Texas was validated on July 31, 2012 when Ted Cruz, a lawyer with no electoral experience, soundly defeated David Dewhurst 57% to 43% in the runoff to replace U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Dan Patrick has a reasonable shot to replicate Cruz's two-step path to victory. First, he must run at least a strong second on March 4th, keeping David Dewhurst under the 50% required for victory in Texas primaries. That done, Patrick must inspire the Tea Party base to come back to the polls in the low voting runoff several weeks later.
Dewhurst's critical weakness with these conservative activists in that 2012 runoff was evident in the fact that he got fewer voters in the July runoff than he received in the May Primary. (The 2012 Primary and Runoff were later than usual that year because redistricting issues prevented the regular election calendar from being followed).
Dan Patrick's chances depend on several factors. He must roll up a big margin in the Houston media market to offset the expected broader appeal of his opponents who have run and won statewide elections. However, while the Houston metropolitan area is important in statewide Republican primaries, it is not decisive. In 2012, for example, the eight local counties that make up most of the Houston media market cast 21.25% of the GOP Primary vote. So even if Senator Patrick were to take 60% of this local vote, he would still be far short of what is needed to get into a statewide runoff.
The second requirement is that Mr. Patrick not get hammered in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. That region usually accounts for about the same percentage of the state Republican primary vote (20.0% in 2012) as does Houston. Patrick must avoid the race in the Metroplex becoming a Dallas v. Houston contest if he hopes to get a decent share of the vote in metropolitan North Texas.
Most importantly, Dan Patrick has to perform reasonably well in the rest of Texas, which now accounts for almost 60 percent of GOP primary voters. Rural, small town, and smaller city voters are much more numerous in 21st century Republican primaries than was the case just a few years ago. Outside of South Texas, most county officials in Texas are now effectively elected in Republican primaries and this has driven up March voting at the same time that the increasingly minority big urban counties like Dallas and Harris cast fewer Republican primary votes.
With just 64 days to go, the question is can Dan Patrick expand his base outside of Houston sufficiently to run first or second statewide? He cannot expect to match the deep pocket spending David Dewhurst can afford, so the State Senator will need some of that Tea Party passion of 2010 and 2012 to get there. But if he can catch a wave like Ted Cruz did two years ago, Dan Patrick can end the political career of one of Texas' most powerful and wealthiest political figures.
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