You might have heard someone say Leticia Van de Putte is the Democrat most likely to win a statewide election in November. She’s the state senator from San Antonio facing Republican Dan Patrick, a state senator from Houston, in the race to replace Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has held the office since 2003.
The hopeful line about Van de Putte has found some traction, in Texas and beyond, among political observers and partisans who wonder how conservative a candidate can get before moderates who customarily vote for Republicans will peel off, hold their noses and vote for a statewide Democrat.
That's a lot to hope for. Patrick beat Dewhurst in a GOP runoff a couple of weeks ago, and with Texas not having elected anyone but Republicans to statewide office in 20 years, Patrick is the favorite to win in November.
They said some of the same things about Ted Cruz when he ran as the most conservative candidate in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate two years ago and went on to an easy win in the 2012 general election.
Now Patrick is the man of the hour. His runoff win last month mirrored Cruz’s victory over Dewhurst in 2012. Like Cruz, he claimed the most conservative ground in the primary. He has called the influx of undocumented immigrants an “illegal invasion,” promised to curtail Democratic power in the state Senate (with rule changes and by putting fewer of them in charge of committees), and said during a televised debate that he would block consideration of legislation he opposes — such as a bill that would allow women to sue employers who pay them less than equally qualified men. (That legislation passed the Senate and House last year before dying on Gov. Rick Perry’s veto.)
It was a winning combination in the GOP primary: Patrick surged ahead of three statewide officeholders in the March election, getting 41.4 percent of the vote; in the runoff, he got 65 percent, defeating a Republican who had won four statewide elections since 1998.
Democrats are hoping the Republicans will eventually make some of the mistakes Democrats themselves made back when they were on top and the GOP was trying to break down the doors of power. They ran candidates — particularly at the national level — who were too liberal for conservative Texas Democrats to stomach. They developed a split between conservatives and liberals that made it possible for Republicans to peel away the conservatives and form the beginnings of what is now a solid Republican majority.
The notion behind the current Van de Putte proposition is that — to Democrats — Patrick is so extreme that even some Republicans will rebel and vote for the Democrat. In a debate with Patrick this year, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro said the Houston Republican would be the Democrats’ “meal ticket” in November.
The differences between the two top candidates (there are also a Libertarian, a Green and an independent in the race) are stark: gender, ethnicity, party, ideology, roots. She is likely to attack his positions on immigration, health care, abortion, equal pay and education. He is likely to attack her positions on some of those same things, characterizing her as a liberal who wants to expand government and poisoning his darts with the unpopularity of the Democratic president.
To be the only Democratic statewide winner in November, Van de Putte would need to make sure Patrick doesn’t perform as well as Greg Abbott. And that requires one to imagine the voter who will vote for Abbott and then turn and vote for Van de Putte — who will vote against Wendy Davis for governor and against Patrick for lieutenant governor. Republicans are betting there won’t be many of those. Democrats are hoping that women and minorities will have an allergic reaction to his rhetoric and positions, creating an opportunity for their candidate.
It happened before, but this was a different state when voters elected George W. Bush, a Republican, and Bob Bullock, a Democrat, to the top two positions on the ballot. It nearly happened again four years later, when Bush won re-election against Garry Mauro by 37 percentage points and Republican Rick Perry beat Democrat John Sharp by less than 2 points in the race for lieutenant governor.
Hispanic voters received most of the credit for that one. Bush courted them heavily and won more votes than other Republicans, but those voters snapped back for the next Democrat on the ballot.
It is possible to overestimate the public’s willingness to go along with whatever the ruling party is willing to throw at them. Democrats took their voters for granted and lost the state.
Now they’re trying to create new voters in a low-vote state and to convert moderates and independents into ticket-splitters who might not automatically fall in behind the Republicans’ red flag.
That’s all they can do.