In late July, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made a trip to Washington, D.C., to beg White House officials to send President Trump to Texas to shore up support for Ted Cruz’s embattled re-election campaign, which has quickly become one of the most-watched races in the country.
Meanwhile, Patrick has gone to great lengths to ensure that his own campaign flies under the radar. While Cruz has tried to go toe-to-toe on the trail with Beto O’Rourke, the normally bombastic lieutenant governor has largely steered clear of running a traditional campaign of his own. He’s been more than happy to go to the mat for his conservative allies in the Texas Senate — a brief flex of his political muscle in the special election to replace state Senator Carlos Uresti resulted in a massive GOP upset, and burnished Patrick’s conservative majority in the upper chamber.
But his own re-election effort is just a rote red-meat operation that hinges more on stoking fear about immigrants on Fox News and boycotting Nike than, say, talking to Texas voters in public.
With nearly a month until early voting begins and a 9-point lead in one recent poll, Patrick remains cloistered in the safe confines of his reactionary conservative base — unwilling to have a real conversation about the dismal state of public school finance, ballooning property taxes and gun violence, among a long list of other pressing policy matters.
He’s outright refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Mike Collier, because the Houston accountant “shows no sign of grasping even the most basic rudiments of state government,” according to Patrick’s top political aide, Allen Blakemore. For the last several weeks, Collier has sent snarky press releases titled “Lt. Gov. Patrick’s Public Campaign Appearance Schedule This Week.” (There are none.) A few weeks ago, Collier’s campaign deployed a person in a chicken suit to the Capitol in an effort to smoke Patrick out of his hole.
“While my opponent continues to dodge voters and hide in his bunker, I am out talking to Texans about all the issues facing our state,” Collier said in a statement.
The closest Patrick has come to actual campaigning was when he spent two days earlier this month flying a private jet around the state, stopping at airports in several cities to make speeches to TV cameras in front of a stock background. Apart from local media, it doesn’t appear as though any other people were in attendance at some of the stops. An editorial in the Abilene Reporter-News lambasted him for not even leaving the airport during his stop in town.
All the while, Patrick is doubling down on culture war issues. While completely ignoring his opponent’s debate challenges, Patrick successfully goaded Geraldo Rivera into a debate on Fox News after the cable news commentator said conservatives were using the murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts as a political prop.
“The CNNs, the MSNBCs, most of the print media in this country and the Democrats — they are all accomplices in the death of this young girl and the death of everyone else,” Patrick said on Fox News in late August. “And even Geraldo Rivera — I never met the guy, I seem to like him. I saw him on Fox saying, ‘I feel badly about this, but —.’ There is no ‘but,’ and I’ll be happy to debate Geraldo Rivera anytime, anyplace, anywhere on this issue.”
When Nike unveiled civil rights activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of its new ad campaign, Patrick latched on to the backlash by launching a petition to boycott the company with the creative slogan “Just Don’t Do It.” Showing some restraint, he pledged to donate — rather than immolate — the few Nike T-shirts he owns.
The lieutenant governor has also continued his obsession with bathroom politics. Despite his anti-trans bathroom bill’s high-profile failure in the Legislature in 2017, Patrick still claims it as a moral victory for movement conservatives. “Speaker [Joe Straus] may have killed the bill, but he killed his career with it,” Patrick boasted to a crowd at the Christian Values Summit in The Woodlands last week. This comes amid rumblings that Patrick and his far-right Senate majority will renew their push for anti-LGBTQ laws in the 2019 legislative session.
Further, Texans are faced with a worsening property tax crisis. As the state government has reduced funding to the public school system, localities are paying more and more to compensate.That means the burden to fund schools is increasingly falling on the shoulders of local property owners, as state leaders like Patrick point the finger back at local governments.
In Waco, the local school district’s budget this year draws more from local taxpayers than from state dollars for the first time ever. “It’s disingenuous for legislators to say they are not raising taxes when they continue to shift the funding of public education to local property taxpayers,” Waco ISD Board President Pat Atkins told the Waco Tribune-Herald last week.
Patrick has paid lip service to property tax reform — he says he wants to make it harder for local governments to raise rates beyond 4 percent while glossing over his own culpability in the crisis. Patrick’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The lieutenant governor is betting that he can skate to re-election by placating his base while ignoring his lesser-known opponent and the public at large. The political realities of Texas, in which statewide Republicans have won with large margins over the past two decades, mean that’s not a bad bet — even in what some say could be a banner year for Texas Democrats.
Yes, Patrick might be testing the limits of how far the reactionary politics of Nike boycotts, bathroom bills and immigration fear-mongering can take him while ignoring the problems that his radical brand of fiscal austerity have inflicted upon Texans. But the dominance of Texas Republicans — who have long papered over negligence with reactionary cultural fodder — suggests that that strategy may take him quite far.