AUSTIN -- For many Republican candidates, 2014 began with campaigns already in high gear. As the March 4 primary approaches, the race to make an impression upon voters is more important than ever.
Perhaps nowhere is that more visible than in the contentious four-man battle royal between well-known Republicans vying for the post of lieutenant governor. Each of the four candidates attended Monday's forum hosted by the Texas Business Roundtable, where each pitched how his office would benefit business interests.
"As a life-long businessman, I know how to grow economies," said current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who spoke first.
Laying out his legislative accomplishments and the state's economic evolution over the past decade, Dewhurst's message to businesses was simple: If you like Texas' economic situation, reelect the person who's overseen the Texas Capitol's east wing since 2003.
"We're going to have brand new people as governor, as attorney general, as comptroller, as ag commissioner, as land commissioner, [and] as railroad commissioner," Dewhurst told KVUE Monday. "I'm running for reelection because we're at a crossroads and because we better keep this state growing economically and creating jobs, or we're going to put our children and ourselves at risk of the state starting to slide."
After losing a runoff election to Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination for Texas' open U.S. Senate seat in 2012, the incumbent lieutenant governor would prefer to win the primary for lieutenant governor without a runoff in 2014. One of his biggest selling points, he says, is the need for experienced leadership following an election year that will see changing faces at every level of state government.
"They're all smart guys, but it takes time to learn any complex new job, and I've been doing it for a number of years," said Dewhurst. "But I'm only asking people to vote for me if they think I'm the most qualified, if they think I'm the most conservative, if they realize that I know how to grow economies in good economic times and bad economic times."
"You don't have to guess what I'm going to fight for, what I'm going to stand for," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who spoke immediately following Dewhurst.
During his two consecutive terms in office, has Staples focused much of his attention on border security. Meeting with reporters Monday afternoon, Staples took issue with Dewhurst's claim Monday morning that a surge in law enforcement personnel and technology was close to securing the Texas-Mexico border.
"How out of touch can you be to make a statement like that, when landowners are being chased off their property?" Staples said.
Staples touts himself as the only candidate to have held positions in the Texas House, Texas Senate and at the local level. In distinguishing himself from his opponents, he says he's released his tax returns along with a "Contract with Texans" which sets forth his promises if elected to office.
"I've never stayed at any one place long, because voters expect you to go do the job you said you were going to do," said Staples. "Not to have a fiefdom, not to stay around too long. Texas voters recognize that politicians are lot like socks. They need to be changed regularly and often."
After making a statewide broadcast advertising buy of just under $2 million, Staples said his campaign has the resources to make it to a runoff against Dewhurst. Like his opponents, he's in support of doing away with the Senate tradition of requiring a two-thirds majority to pass legislation in the upper chamber, a measure long supported by the minority party as a means to guarantee bipartisanship.
"I want to be a no-excuses lieutenant governor that doesn't come out and say, 'Well, we didn't get it done because of process,'" said Staples. "I'll tell you something wrong today. We have 18 standing committees in the state Senate. We only have 31 members of the Texas Senate. That's not leadership. That's being afraid to make a decision."
Addressing the business group Monday afternoon, state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston delivered a speech aimed at tying social issues to business interests. The conservative radio host has been a driving force behind much of the socially conservative legislation in the Senate, and argued Monday such legislation promotes economic benefits.
"If you want a path to see poverty, show me a single mom," said Patrick. "Most single parent families, not all, but most single parent families have a life of poverty. The key to a strong economy is a strong family. So, when I look at social issues, I look at the importance of two parents for that child. That child has a better chance of a greater education, and that family has a stronger personal economy."
Pressed by reporters afterward over how he would specifically address the issue of single parents raising children either out of wedlock or separated by divorce, Patrick said parents must be instructed that staying together is to their economic benefit.
"You can't legislate behavior, and you can't legislate culture, but we need a united message from Democrats and Republicans, from moderates, liberals and conservatives, that what is best for their own personal future is a strong marriage and best for their children," said Patrick.
Patrick said polls show him just behind the incumbent Dewhurst, with the gap closing. He attributes the numbers to his popularity in Harris County, along with a coalition of tea party and business interests. At the same time, he argues signs of fractures between social and fiscal conservatives within the Republican party have been overblown by the media.
"I think what makes my candidacy unique is that I do have support from the business community and the grassroots community," said Patrick. "Look, I don't think the tea party goes too far."
"What does the tea party want?" asked Patrick. "They want accountability and transparency from their government. They want less spending, or at least where dollars are spent to make it for a purpose. They want to protect our constitution, both the United States and the Texas constitution. They want to secure our border. They want law and order, and they support school choice. So, all those issues, I believe every business person in that room supports."
The last to speak at Monday's event, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson began his speech by setting his campaign in a historical context. The retired Marine, Vietnam veteran, former state senator and longtime Texas history buff touted a new campaign aimed to win over Tejano voters. Patterson was the key figure in promoting the "Texas Solution" to immigration reform, a guest worker program which he says was politically risky, but was quickly adopted as part of the state party platform.
"I think they're focused too much on cliches, bumper stickers and short two- or three-word phrases to described very detailed issues," Patterson said of his opponents, pointing in particular to Staples' six-point plan to address immigration. "It's a little deeper than that."
Meeting with reporters Monday afternoon, Patterson said his campaign's latest media buy of around $850,000 included television ads and statewide radio ads. He credited the advertisement spot, which features his mother, with narrowing the polling gap between himself and Patrick. Yet Patterson said his greatest boost came in the form of an endorsement from former Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul.
"People who support Ron Paul are, shall we say, very motivated," said Patterson.
While speaking to the audience Monday afternoon, he invoked another polarizing figure in Texas politics in describing his campaign. Patterson described Bob Bullock, the late lieutenant governor known equally for his proclivity for hard drinking and verbal abuse as he was for his ability to pass bipartisan legislation to accomplish "what's best for Texas," as one of his heroes.
"If people remember Bullock for leadership, that's the role I'm going to fill," said Patterson. "It's about Texas. It's about somebody who is more concerned about the next generation than the next election, and Bullock was in that position. He knew he would never be another elected office in Texas. It's liberating."
With seven weeks until the primary, it's off to the races.