NPR logo In Texas, A Down-Ballot Race With Big Consequences

In Texas, A Down-Ballot Race With Big Consequences

Texas lieutenant governor hopefuls state Sen. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte shake hands following a September debate. While most eyes are on the governor's race, this contest could have even more political consequence. Eric Gay/AP hide caption

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Eric Gay/AP

Texas lieutenant governor hopefuls state Sen. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte shake hands following a September debate. While most eyes are on the governor's race, this contest could have even more political consequence.

Eric Gay/AP

Texas politics is about to take another big step to the right. While nobody outside Texas would describe Gov. Rick Perry or Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst as moderate Republicans, their likely replacements are considerably more conservative — especially in the powerful lieutenant governor's office.

The eyes watching Texas have mostly focused on the governor's race between Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott. But the contest between former conservative radio talk show host Dan Patrick and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte from San Antonio will very likely be of more political consequence.

Texas has what's known as a "weak governor" system, which Rick Perry overcame only because of his historically long occupation of the chair. But the lieutenant governor is president of the Texas Senate, and Republican Dan Patrick will lead an unprecedentedly conservative Senate, which is mirrored by an equally conservative Texas House.

As a former conservative shock jock, Patrick's politics fit that vein. He wants to teach creationism in public schools, end popular election of U.S. senators and outlaw abortion including cases of rape. But what's got establishment Republicans particularly concerned is Patrick's plan to do away with the state's property taxes. Texas already doesn't have income taxes. That means property taxes and sales taxes are high to compensate. If Texas were to stop collecting property taxes too, the state's school system — and indeed many elements of local government — would have to be drastically cut back while sales tax would soar.

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The regressive consequence could be similar to what has happened in Kansas under the leadership of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

But Texas is not Kansas. If it were a sovereign nation, it would have the 14th-largest economy in the world. For decades, the conservative Dallas Morning News editorial board has been the voice of the state's Republican business establishment. It tends to endorse a Democrat only when it feels the GOP candidate is refusing to serve the state's business interests. And in the lieutenant governor's race, the News endorsed Van de Putte, Patrick's opponent.

In its endorsement editorial the News said of Patrick, "Some of his ideas are singularly disruptive. Taken together they could destabilize state government, the enemy of sound business practices." The News called a vote for Patrick "reckless" and described Patrick's primary MO for governing Texas as "fear and division."

Compared with some of the other more liberal newspapers' descriptions of Patrick's politics, the News' editorial language was toned down. Be that as it may, the latest poll has him leading Van de Putte by 17 percentage points. It's very likely Dan Patrick is Texas' future.

And that is expected to intensify the ongoing power struggle between Tea Party Republicans like Patrick and the state's business elite. But in Texas, after this election the Tea Party wing may well have the votes. Still, don't count out the state's millionaires and billionaires, of whom there are many. It is apt to become a test case of conservative politics — big money's self-interest vs. grass-roots, right-wing ideology, Texas style.