Inside Patrick's inside game

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

For all the talk of a “new day in Texas,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s emerging effort to ensconce himself in the familiar channels of the political process by building on his stature among the Texas GOP’s insurgent grassroots is a new gloss on an old strategy that Rick Perry had refined to an art by the end of his tenure as governor.

Both Patrick’s rhetoric and his base of support among the GOP’s insurgent set have led observers to predict that he may be hamstrung by his commitments to the activists and voters who propelled him to victory in the 2014 primaries. But Patrick’s clear intent to jump-start the lieutenant governorship as a powerful vehicle for his ambitions suggests a different scenario — one in which Patrick benefits from the increased room to maneuver among the established corners of his party as a result of, rather than in spite of, his cozy relationship with its rightmost wing.

Patrick’s conservative legislative record, along with his rhetoric from the earliest days of the bruising 2014 primary campaign through his inauguration speech, portends a greater commitment to ideological principle than Perry’s version of this strategy. But more recently, Patrick has made moves to send the message that he’s here to govern, too — a signal meant to reassure the less insurgent elements of the political world in the halls of government and the boardrooms of the business sector that it’s not going to be all fire, brimstone and populist outrage.

Whatever the speculation about how Patrick will wield his new power, there’s no doubt that he has the vigorous support of the GOP’s right wing, but less ardent approval among the party’s large, though seemingly dormant, center right. Patrick enters office with a 27-point approval gap between “strong Republicans” and “weak Republicans.” Among conservatives, he enters office with a 31-point favorability gap between voters who identify as extremely conservative and those who only lean conservative.

Views of Texas’ new governor, Greg Abbott provide a telling if subtle contrast. Abbott garners favorable attitudes from 91 percent of strong Republicans, 64 percent of weak Republicans and 74 percent of leaning Republicans. He receives favorable ratings from 87 percent of those who identify as extremely conservative, 80 percent of those who identify as somewhat conservative and 64 percent of those who lean conservative.

So while Patrick can still count on broad approval from Texas’ Republican and conservative voters, the bulk of his support is coming from the most Republican and the most conservative among them. Abbott’s support among the right is commensurate to Patrick's, but stronger across the breadth of the party.

The fact that Patrick has room to improve among the merely conservative illuminates the fact that he hasn’t exactly expelled the money changers from the Temple upon his re-arrival in Austin. Several of his early appointments sent the reassuring message to Capitol regulars that there wouldn’t be a wholesale rejection of business as usual. Patrick also engaged in the time-honored ritual of collecting a good haul of campaign contributions in the fundraising interlude between his election and the beginning of the 84th session. His six citizen advisory boards, unveiled with moderate fanfare last week, looked more like a joint committee for post-election reconciliation and exploratory fundraising than a broad-based citizen commission.

These moves show that understanding how Patrick will occupy the office may be a more complicated question than his rhetoric or base of support suggest. While his poll numbers and steadfastness in his rhetorical approach have led many to believe that he enters office propelled, but also limited, by a more narrowly defined base than Abbott or Perry before him, he still has significant latitude to re-energize the office of lieutenant governor after David Dewhurst’s years of backseat-taking.

The coup de grâce of Patrick’s inside game so far has been his masterful management — and marketing — of the changes in Senate rules that transformed the much-discussed two-thirds rule while instituting a much less publicized reduction in the number of Senate committees from 18 to 14. These changes were widely viewed among the press and punditry as depriving Democrats of “clout” or “silencing” them. While these descriptions contain some truthiness in the Colbertian sense, much less noted was the likelihood that these changes strengthened Patrick’s position in the Senate, increased his (already significant) ability to control the agenda and will make it easier for him to exert command and control by way of committees. Not bad for his first official day on the job.

To see these signs of Patrick’s adeptness at the inside game as somehow fundamentally at odds with his grassroots support among the GOP primary electorate misses the degree to which they’re mutually reinforcing. It’s actually Patrick’s secure position among the conservative wing of the GOP — both the dissident elites with their slates and scorecards as well as the primary voters motivated by seemingly atavistic anger at the powers that be — that provides him with the latitude to settle in among the well-established mores of the Capitol. He can do this even as he continues to keep the old guard wondering when and whether he’s going to pick his moment to sacrifice someone’s ceremonial ox.

This is a key part of the Perry-perfected inside game of conservative populism: knowing what to give the grassroots — in both policy and politics, substance and symbol — to keep them loyal enough to intimidate potential challengers, while still keeping the trains running on time in the halls of government. The lieutenant governor forcefully playing this game is new territory in the Republican era of state government, though it is deeply rooted in the state constitution and the political culture of Texas. Dewhurst, Patrick’s predecessor, remained in Perry’s shadow for the better part of his tenure in office, and his dependence on Perry’s ability to maintain the loyalty of both the business establishment and the increasingly fractious grassroots became manifest in his last two campaign defeats.

The conclusion of a large chunk of GOP primary voters is now becoming even more obvious to the general public: Dan Patrick is no David Dewhurst, so don’t look for him to operate in anyone’s shadow.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin