Early on the evening of August 24, a tall, rangy man wearing a black suit swaggered into a conference room on the campus of the University of Texas at Tyler. He was there to debate the merits, or lack thereof, of a curriculum system for Texas public schools known as CSCOPE. You might think that this event would have trouble drawing a crowd, especially on a night when the Cowboys were playing a preseason football game on national television. But CSCOPE is a hot topic, especially among parents whose taste in politics leans toward tea. Demonized as a leftist plot to infiltrate our schools and brainwash youngsters with cultural relativism and creeping socialism, it has become one of the red-meat issues of the inaugural days of the 2014 campaign cycle. And nobody has played the controversy to better advantage, so far, than the man in the black suit, state senator Dan Patrick. You might even say he created it.
Patrick is the chair of the Senate Education Committee, a position conferred on him in advance of the last legislative session by the Senate’s presiding officer, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Bestowing such a prize was Dewhurst’s clumsy way of trying to hold an enemy close, but it backfired spectacularly. Patrick used his chairmanship to win over suburban parents with sweeping reforms that will limit the number of standardized tests and to whip up hard-core conservatives with a series of hearings on CSCOPE; conveniently, this raised his profile among the two key sectors of the primary electorate that he would need in order to challenge the lieutenant governor. At Dewhurst’s lowest moment this summer, just after Wendy Davis’s dramatic filibuster had turned his chamber into a launchpad for her political career, Patrick announced he was running to replace his onetime benefactor.
His opponent at the Tyler debate, however, was not Dewhurst. It was Thomas Ratliff, the vice chairman of the State Board of Education and one of the state’s few remaining openly moderate Republicans. Newspaper reports estimated the crowd for the verbal fisticuffs at around six hundred, evenly divided between both sides. But for Ratliff, who lives in Mount Pleasant, this was home turf. Patrick had shown the ability to assemble a constituency out of thin air, many miles from his home base. And his supporters were agitated. Whenever Patrick made a point, it seemed, someone behind me punctuated it with an “Amen!”—or, when he had just finished summarizing a pernicious CSCOPE lesson plan, “That’s anti-American!”
Patrick is trying very hard to position himself as the captain of these passionate ranks. He is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus, he has a nose for issues that will rally the troops, and like Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, he thrives in political fights that reward the brazen rightward thrust. For Dewhurst, he is a nightmare opponent, a grotesque rehash of Cruz, the man who spoiled the lieutenant governor’s well-laid plan to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2012. In that race Dewhurst began as a heavy favorite against a political unknown. He was undone partly by his own consultants, who spent oodles and oodles of dollars on negative television ads that raised Cruz’s name identification; partly by the misfortune of a redistricting fight that delayed the party primary into the summer, when insurgent candidates like Cruz tend to get more traction; and partly by his own difficulty fitting in to the political moment. Dewhurst’s trouble is that he is a mainstream conservative in a state whose Republican party is leaning more and more to the right, a situation that leaves him continually reaching for an ideological mooring. Getting issues like abortion taken up in the summer’s special sessions was supposed to help him (in a letter to Perry, he practically begged the governor to add such legislation to the call), but just ask Wendy Davis how that worked out.
In this sense, Dewhurst is a tragic figure—a smart, decent, reasonable fellow with a genuine feel for policy, but one whose many virtues are not those that his party’s primary electorate is lately in the habit of rewarding. Patrick is not the only one who smells blood in the water. Commissioner of agriculture Todd Staples and land commissioner Jerry Patterson have also entered the race, the former with an impressive campaign fund and coif, the latter with an appealing frankness on the campaign trail. Perhaps most notable is the fact that in the modern era, no incumbent has been challenged by three current officeholders from within his own party, a scenario that speaks volumes about Dewhurst’s perceived weaknesses.
Nonetheless, the lieutenant governor enters the race with ample money and the core of a constituency—call it the business community. Despite Dewhurst’s efforts to remake himself as something more extreme, he’s an establishment guy, and the voters he can count on are his party’s more moderate, pragmatic members. The question that has to be asked, however, is whether the Texas GOP has come to the point where such voters no longer wield any clout. Perry’s destruction of Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010 was a pretty strong indication that power within the party had shifted further to the right. Legislative races that year and in 2012 offered more evidence of this, as did Dewhurst’s loss to Cruz. Should Patrick manage to vanquish the incumbent, the question will be definitively answered.
And the answer will have tremendous consequences—not just for the direction of the party but also, possibly, for the future of the Texas Senate. Dewhurst, Staples, and Patterson represent the old guard (both Staples and Patterson previously served in the Senate); if any of the three were to win, the Senate would likely carry on in its present incarnation—that is, faithful to the long-established traditions and procedures of the Legislature’s upper chamber. If Patrick wins, all bets are off.
NOT SO LONG AGO, the office of lieutenant governor was regarded as the most powerful