AUSTIN, Texas — Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has been one of the most powerful figures in Texas since 2002, but he could be ousted Tuesday by GOP voters who appear ready to steer the state even further to the right by backing tea party favorites over establishment candidates.
Despite spending $5 million of his own fortune on his campaign, Dewhurst has struggled to gain ground on state Sen. Dan Patrick. A victory by Patrick, a fiery conservative talk radio host and founder of the Legislature’s tea party caucus, would complete the overhaul of every elected statewide office next year when Gov. Rick Perry steps aside.
Republican nominations for four major offices — including attorney general and agriculture commissioner — and nearly a dozen statehouse seats will be settled after crowded primary battles in March resulted in a busy slate of runoffs.
With Texas Democrats again the underdogs in November, many tea party-aligned candidates favored to win Tuesday would be poised to pursue an aggressively conservative agenda that would likely include further spending cuts, expanded gun rights and more restrictions on abortion.
“We’re supposed to be this very conservative state, and the people in Texas are, yet our Legislature doesn’t always reflect that,” said Republican Konni Burton, a tea party leader from Fort Worth who is running for Democrat gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ state Senate seat. “We are going in a different direction than many states, but I don’t think we’re the only ones. We’re probably just louder. We’re Texans, right?”
Robert Wilkerson, a 65-year-old handyman in Aledo, near Fort Worth, said just after the polls opened Tuesday that he voted for Patrick because he thought Dewhurst was too “passive.”
“David Dewhurst hasn’t taken control,” Wilkerson said. “His record was good but he’s pretty much gone with how everything else was going. He wouldn’t get in the middle of anything, he would just kind of go along with the status quo and I think we need some changes.”
In the Houston enclave of Bellaire, however, attorney Stephen Smith said he voted for Dewhurst again.
“His opponent is Dan Patrick. He is strictly into ideology and that doesn’t have a place in this system,” said Smith, adding that he thinks the far right “is doing a lot of damage to the Republican party.”
Early turnout was light. Sixty-six-year-old Charles Jacobus was among those who braved a heavy rainstorm in the Houston area to vote in Bellaire. “Everyone needs to vote, even in the rain,” said Jacobus, who voted for Dewhurst.
For Democrats, it’s a less lively runoff. Voters from that party’s main decision is choosing a U.S. Senate nominee to serve as token opposition to powerful Republican incumbent John Cornyn, and Democrats have spent much of the primary trying to dissuade their supporters from picking Kesha Rogers, who has called for impeaching President Barack Obama yet still forced a runoff against David Alameel of Dallas, who made millions with a chain of dental clinics.
Most attention and money, however, has been directed at the Republican races.
Dewhurst, who finished a distant second in March, has reached into his own pocket, trying to mount a comeback and shed accusations he’s become too entrenched and moderate after 11 years in office. But Patrick has seemingly attracted more support — a $4 million haul of donations in the last two months — impressive even by Texas’ lofty political fundraising standards.
Candidates have wooed GOP voters by saying Texas can do more to expand gun rights, further restrict access to abortion and increase police presence on the Texas-Mexico border to slow the flow of immigrants in the United States illegally.
Tea party-backed candidates have also admonished the Republican-controlled Legislature as being financially reckless while vowing to slash economic incentives they deride as corporate welfare.
Unlike in 2010 and 2012, tea party-backed candidates in Texas and elsewhere are dealing with a disappointing election year, particularly in congressional and U.S. Senate races. But when it comes to statewide races, many candidates are trying to emulate Ted Cruz, a once little-known state solicitor general who upset Dewhurst for the 2012 U.S. Senate nomination.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter @pauljweber.