HOUSTON -- From the very first words to spill from a candidate’s lips, it was clear the televised debate between the Republicans for lieutenant-governor would get nasty.
“I’m David Dewhurst and I’ve been David Dewhurst ever since I was born,” said the incumbent, who’s been needling his opponent for changing his name.
“Look, folks,” said State Sen. Dan Patrick. “This is what you’re going to hear tonight: personal attacks, not public policy.”
Dewhurst, an underdog fighting for his political life, came out swinging from the start but occasionally seemed to have trouble gathering his thoughts during a combative debate sponsored by the Houston Chronicle. Patrick, who’s probably spent more time talking into microphones than any other politician in Texas history, was literally in his element during the live broadcast from KUHT-TV, the University of Houston’s public television station.
“For the last two weeks,” Patrick said, “my opponent has spent $2-million in the nastiest and dirtiest attack ads that most people have ever seen in a campaign.”
“This man is divorced from reality,” Dewhurst said. “That’s why the senators cannot rely on what he says.”
Patrick stunned Dewhurst in the March Republican primary when he won more votes – 41 percent -- than any other candidate in a four-man field. Dewhurst trailed at a distance with 28 percent. The results looked so daunting for Dewhurst that many Republicans advised him to simply surrender the runoff to Patrick.
It’s hard to believe these guys used to be friends. Patrick, the conservative talk radio host turned who rode his popularity all the way to the Texas Senate, once staunchly defended Dewhurst. As Ted Cruz’s upstart campaign against Dewhurst for the U.S. Senate set a prairie fire in the GOP’s Tea Party grassroots, listeners to Patrick’s radio station complained he was cozying too close to Dewhurst and deliberately downplaying Cruz’s candidacy.
Dewhurst had appointed Patrick head of the Senate Education Committee and they seemed to have struck a mutually beneficial political relationship. But as Dewhurst’s political fortunes waned, Patrick went on the offensive.
After the wild night when State Sen. Wendy Davis staged her filibuster against a Republican-sponsored abortion bill, Patrick ultimately blasted Dewhurst and claimed the short-lived but electrifying victory for Texas Democrats wouldn’t have happened if the lieutenant-governor had done a proper job of running the Senate.
“And we wouldn’t have Wendy Davis as a rock star today and Texas with a target on our back by millionaires from the east coast and California,” Patrick said during the debate.
“The filibuster,” Dewhurst said. “You know, I’m proud of that evening. All four of the pro-life organizations have endorsed me. They’re proud of my leadership.”
Both candidates rehashed and answered arguments about their business affairs. Patrick’s embarrassing financial travails including tax liens and a personal bankruptcy were played up by Dewhurst, then rebutted by Patrick as long-ago failures from which he’d learned valuable lessons. Dewhurst scoffed at Patrick likening his own bankruptcy case to the financial problems at a company in which Dewhurst was a stockholder.
But even though both candidates disavowed personal attacks, the one-time political allies slashed at each other like a couple of bitter rivals.
“I believe David has not connected with the voters because he’s not connected,” Patrick said.
“Dan has a reputation in the Senate of being a whiner,” Dewhurst said. “He’s a victim.”
These argumentative Republicans will meet again in another televised debate in Dallas next week. The squabbling will continue until the Republican runoff on May 27, the day after Memorial Day.