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In Tea Party Wins, a Double-Edged Sword for Democrats

Texas Democrats believe wins by Tea Party candidates in Tuesday's Republican primary runoffs could turn off swing voters in November. But if Democrats can't close the deal, those Republicans will be running Texas.

As the results of Republican primary runoffs began to roll in Tuesday evening, Texas Democrats realized they were getting exactly what they wanted — and exactly what they feared.

The victories of Dan Patrick over incumbent David Dewhurst for lieutenant governor and Ken Paxton over Dan Branch for attorney general were just the most high-profile examples of Republican runoff races in which the candidate widely viewed as farther right prevailed.

The outcome means Democrats will have an easier time contrasting their ticket to the Republican option in November.

“You really can’t have a competitive election that voters pay attention to unless you have a clear contrast between the nominees,” Texas Democratic consultant Harold Cook said. “To the extent you’re going to have a Republican opponent, if that opponent can be just as far to the right as possible, that’s just what any Democratic nominee would want.”

Yet Tuesday’s results also raise the stakes for Democrats, who last won a statewide office in Texas 20 years ago. Most notably, a failure by Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte to win her bid for lieutenant governor will mean, come January, Patrick will be standing at the Senate dais, gavel in hand, ready to kick off a new legislative session. It’s an outcome that many Democrats fear will lead to the passage of even more conservative legislation on immigration, education and access to abortion, some of which their party’s members have managed to block so far.

“Some Democrats have said they want me to be the nominee,” Patrick said during his victory speech. “Well, they’ve got me, and I’m coming.”

Public statements by Democratic candidates and campaign officials on Tuesday and Wednesday made their general election strategy clear: consistently frame the Republican ticket as only appealing to a narrow constituency of Texans.

"After the votes are counted, the message from Republican nominees to Texas Independents and many Republicans will be pretty clear — 'Get lost, we don’t want you and don’t need you,'” Matt Angle, head of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic group that has provided consulting for Davis’ gubernatorial campaign, said Tuesday afternoon.

A few hours later, once the results of most races became clear, the Texas Democratic Party released a statement titled, “The Tea Party is the Texas Republican Party.”

Party spokesman Emmanuel Garcia added, “The days of a pragmatic Texas Republican Party are over.”

Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, an influential conservative group that spent more than $700,000 supporting Patrick and Paxton, dismissed Democrats’ efforts as “whistling in the wind.”

“With Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and with Greg Abbott at the top of the ticket, you’ve got incredibly strong, incredibly vibrant, fresh leadership for the state of Texas,” Sullivan said. “I think voters are going to be very excited about that.”

In the race for governor, Democrat Wendy Davis was quick to link Abbott with Patrick as a unified campaign.

“It looks like we’ll be seeing a lot of @GregAbbott_TX & @DanPatrick together in the coming months” Davis tweeted Tuesday night. She and her campaign suggested that Abbott was hesitant to appear in public with Patrick, fearing that a strong affiliation with the talk radio host who has expressed a desire to halt the “illegal invasion” from Mexico will alienate voters, particularly Hispanics.

A statement released by Abbott’s campaign Tuesday evening pushed back against this notion.

“Texas voters have continued to demonstrate their steadfast commitment to the conservative values and initiatives that have and will continue to keep our state on the pathway toward greater opportunity,” Abbott said. “I look forward to working with all Republican nominees as we seek to take Texas to greater heights, and declare victory in November.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/05/28/tea-party-wins-double-edged-sword-democrats/.

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