If you’ve seen one of the approximately 300 debates in the state’s Republican primary for lieutenant governor so far, you’d be familiar with the major points of this morning’s debate between incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his hungry challenger, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) on Dallas’ WFAA-TV. (Full video here.) There’s not all that much dividing them in terms of policy. The major lines of attack haven’t changed.
What has changed—and the reason you should watch the debate, if you enjoy political schadenfreude, or if you’re a Democrat eager to run against Dan Patrick—is the increasing willingness of the two men to publicly display the deep loathing and contempt they obviously feel for each other. As the San Antonio Express-News’ David Saleh Rauf suggested, you probably won’t find a better video of two grown men kicking each other in the shins for the rest of the 2014 election cycle. And it was Patrick, the streetfighter, who came out on top.
Patrick’s been kicking shins since he got in the race—with a colorful, surreal series of attack ads and websites, many hinging on misrepresentations of his opponents’ past statements. But it takes two to tango, and ever since Dewhurst joined the melee in mid-April, the race has been getting weirder. The debate was no exception. Dewhurst often seems uncomfortable doing the same kind of dirty work that’s been at the core of Patrick’s campaign strategy. Venom flows from Patrick like a fountain, but Dewhurst often comes with rehearsed attack lines. The early highlight: Dewhurst asking Patrick, after a series of question about trust, if he had “snake oil for the hair loss,” a sentence which didn’t make much more sense in context than it does here.
They called each other liars, they called each other soft. They blamed each other for legislative defeats large and small. So corrosive was the level of rhetoric and vitriol that moderator Ross Ramsey wrote afterwards that it was like “dragging a roast beef through a kennel.” But the oddest segment of the debate—and the one that played the worst for Dewhurst—was when Patrick turned his jackhammer-like focus to Dewhurst’s fabled dinner at Austin Land & Cattle on one of the nights, last summer, when the Senate was considering the abortion legislation that Wendy Davis ultimately filibustered. If Dewhurst loses later this month, that night will surely go down as Dew’s Last Supper.
Patrick had made that dinner a major focus of his attacks on Dewhurst earlier in the primary. It was evidence, he said, that Dewhurst was distracted. He hadn’t given the anti-abortion bills his full time and attention, and his lack of leadership led to Davis’ filibuster, and her rise to national stardom. He brought back that attack in a big way today. He hammered the Dew—to which his opponent could only reply, with mock concern, “Dan—are you OK? Are you OK?”
“You checked in, and then you turned the gavel over to [state Sen. Kevin] Eltife and left about a third of the time” during the session, Patrick said.
“Well you see,” Dewhurst sneered, “some of us had work to do. I had to try to get bills ready to pass.” The lieutenant governor’s responsibilities, Dewhurst said, often lie off the floor. Did that explain, Patrick wondered, why Dewhurst went to Austin Land & Cattle in the middle of the abortion debates?
“I left the floor for about a half an hour, I had some chicken, I went right back,” said Dewhurst.
Patrick, rapid-fire: “You told the media you didn’t eat anything. That’s what you told the media.” Besides, Patrick had checked the journals. Dewhurst had been gone for two hours.
When Dew was reduced to repeatedly offering that he had had chicken—(He had previously told reporters he hadn’t had steak, implying that he hadn’t eaten at all. Weird enough, but not as weird as ordering chicken at a steakhouse)—Patrick quickly pivoted to the filibuster. Wasn’t Dewhurst to blame for the fact that the Senate devolved into “total anarchy” that night?
Dewhurst could only offer that there weren’t enough state troopers in the room at the time. “So you’re blaming DPS?” pounced Patrick.
“No, it’s my fault,” Dewhurst replied, “that we didn’t have more DPS in the gallery.”
And that’s the way the debate ended, more or less—with Dewhurst voluntarily taking the blame for something he couldn’t have been expected to predict. Not great for Team Dew.
Did Dewhurst’s attacks scratch Patrick? Maybe, but probably not as much as he might have liked. Patrick, after years of talk radio, is fast as a whip on the debate stage. His defense and his offense are much the same. For some time, Patrick has consciously adopted the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. After his primary night victory, he quoted Reagan’s first inaugural at length (perhaps not realizing it was from Reagan’s paean to America’s tolerance for immigrants.) Now that he’s being attacked, he’s taken to quoting Reagan’s famous snipe at Carter from the 1980 presidential debates: “There you go again.”
Except when Reagan did, he did it with grandfatherly charm that masked his rhetorical condescension. Reagan used his Hollywood-hewn charisma to make even his most pointed attacks feel warm and down-home. When Patrick uses the line, he does it with the fast jabs of a bantamweight boxer, tense and strained. “There you go again. There you go again. There you go again,” he ejected when he sensed Dew’s weakness.
Who won this last debate before the May 27 runoff? Well, Dewhurst’s political director thinks Dewhurst won. He’s probably in the minority on this one.
If you still had any doubt about the state of this runoff election after the debate, Dewhurst’s campaign dispelled them for you. The campaign released what must be the most bizarre and freakish ad of any serious statewide candidate in recent Texas history, using surreal B-roll from Patrick’s radio career and banking on accusations that have already been debunked by the media:
It’s a nightmare-inducing ballad to the tune of “Let It Go,” from the Disney musical Frozen. As we head toward the runoff, and Dewhurst faces the prospect of writing himself another million-dollar check, you have to wonder if those close to Dewhurst aren’t counseling him to consider letting it go himself.