Joanna Reagan, a Democratic organizer and activist from Tyler, understands the political reality facing statewide candidates she supports. But she sees potential GOP vulnerabilities at the top of the ticket, especially for one of the most influential positions in Texas — lieutenant governor.
The candidate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, a sixth-generation Texan, Latina and 23-year legislative veteran of the House and Senate, stopped in Tyler Friday morning for an early morning visit with more than 50 supporters, including local union and party officials, as part of a nine-day, 16-city, 2,500-mile bus tour to build energy for her campaign.
"We can win this. We can win this. We can win this. With your help, we can win this election," she said. "I need you to get on fire for this campaign and work for it."
Sen. Van de Putte will face the winner of a May 27 run-off between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — whose defeat in the U.S. Senate campaign by Ted Cruz exposed him to Tea Party conservatives and a stacked primary field — and state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston radio host who has tapped into the movement's anti-incumbent, anti-moderate fervor.
Dewhurst's campaign has shown recent signs of trouble in the form of staff departures and talk of campaign indecisiveness.
Patrick finished a dozen percentage points ahead of Dewhurst in the March primary and Dewhurst has shown few signs of gains since.
If Patrick bests Dewhurst the contrasts between Sen. Van de Putte couldn't be clearer, Ms. Reagan said.
"It draws a real distinction for what (the two candidates) believe and what they stand for," she said. "There won't be any confusion about that."
Ms. Reagan said Sen. Van de Putte's record as a pro-business supporter of education, veterans and vulnerable Texans make her a reasonable alternative for independent voters not swayed by conservative rhetoric and wedge issues. She said Sen. Van de Putte is an empathetic, approachable listener and that if Texans take the time to hear her she will be the next lieutenant governor.
Sen. Van de Putte reinforced Ms. Reagan's tenor.
She related to men and women working paycheck-to-paycheck and decried GOP indifference to millions of Texans' plights. She touted her record as a bipartisan bridge builder and problem solver disinterested in partisan pettiness.
"Republicans want to talk about saying ‘No' to (what they consider) schemes like school vouchers instead of the need for quality teachers," she said. "The ability to educate and a strong public education system is the bedrock of democracy."
Sen. Van de Putte said Republicans "brag" about cutting billions of dollars from the state budget, but $5 billion in cuts to public education and another $1 billion to higher education were a detriment to the state's economy. She said GOP leaders have inadequately addressed state infrastructure for decades and that statewide problems with roads and drought are evidence.
Rice University Political Science Department Chairman Mark Jones said Sen. Van de Putte faces the problem every Democrat vying for statewide office has for more than two decades — she's a Democrat in a "red" state. But Patrick's nomination as the GOP general candidate would give her the best chance for victory, he added.
"She's still a Democratic candidate in a midterm election in a state where President (Barack) Obama is not very popular, and Republicans start any statewide election with a 10 (to) 12 point advantage," he said. "But the advantage is she will likely go against a very polarizing candidate in Dan Patrick and pull possible crossover voters because they view him as excessively conservative."
Jones said Anglo women and Hispanic voters could represent fertile ground for gains by Sen. Van de Putte against a candidate such as Patrick who has gone far right to build conservative credentials for a primary election win.
Sen. Van de Putte gave no indication to her preference of November foe but called Patrick a candidate running on "saying ‘no' to everything." She said it was "typical" of Patrick to lobby for amendments as chairman of the Senate Education Committee and then vote "no" on the budget to appeal to conservatives.
Patrick wasn't mentioned but Sen. Van de Putte said legislators who govern according to "report cards from small groups" don't have Texans' needs at heart. Patrick has recorded and touted high marks from several conservative political action groups. He has visited Tyler several times as a speaking guest at Grassroots America — We the People, and to participate in candidate forums and town hall meetings.
"Dan Patrick has led bipartisan efforts to reform education, protect life and pass property tax cuts for veterans," Patrick spokesman Logan Spence said. "Dan's vote on the budget was a vote for the taxpayers, for fiscal discipline, and for protecting the economic engine of Texas."
Days after the tragic shooting at Fort Hood, Sen. Van de Putte, who leads the Veterans Affairs/Military Installations Committee, said she fought for more mental health workers to address "invisible wounds" of war. She said it is the responsibility of Texans to fight for veterans who have fought for them.
Sen. Van de Putte said state leaders should do more for returning veterans and to address core statewide needs rather than adding to the burdens of cities, counties and families.
"We're a conservative state. We have needs. We don't have to be frivolous about it, but at the same time, you can do your part," she said. "Texans understand neighbor helping neighbor. They understand state government should leave local leaders alone and take up its share.