Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick brushed aside speculation of a 2018 gubernatorial run at the end of Texas’ last legislative session, insisting he’d never challenge his “close friend” and fellow Republican Greg Abbott.
But more than 18 months after that declaration to reporters — which came without anyone actually asking about a potential intraparty clash — Patrick has meticulously moved to the governor’s right on many issues that GOP primary voters hold dear.
Patrick fully embraced Donald Trump before the election, while Abbott kept his distance. The lieutenant governor also has become Texas’ leading social conservative voice, promising to impose strict state transgender bathroom rules, promoting school vouchers and blaming Black Lives Matter for encouraging anti-police sentiment.
Patrick is a tea party-backed, fiery former conservative talk radio host, while the governor is a lawyerly, ex-Texas Supreme Court justice who appeals more broadly to traditional Republicans. Both are downplaying possible intraparty gubernatorial fight that could send shockwaves through America’s second-largest state, while also giving no indication they won’t simply seek re-election to their perspective posts in two years.
Still, hints of Abbott-Patrick discord could reshape the session for Texas’ GOP-controlled Legislature, which convenes for the first time since 2015 on Jan. 10. Abbott can fast-track legislation, while Patrick oversees the state Senate.
Such tensions were on display last session, when a grass-roots advisory board convened by Patrick attacked Abbott’s signature expansion of pre-kindergarten statewide, claiming it imposed “Godless” classroom environments on youngsters.
“Is there somebody out there who wants the lieutenant governor to primary the governor? I’m sure somebody does,” said Patrick strategist Allen Blakemore. “But the only person who really matters is Dan Patrick. And Dan Patrick has stated over and over again that he has no desire to be governor.”
Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said: “This is nothing more than fake news.”
It’s a possibility some Texas politicos nonetheless are discussing. They note that Patrick would be expected to shun a possible gubernatorial run right up to the moment he changes his mind and actually announces one, while Abbott has to shrug off a hypothetical primary challenge publicly while preparing privately for one, just in case.
Though 2018’s a long way off, that cycle will begin gearing up shortly after the Texas legislative session ends on June 1.
“I hear there’s friction,” said Carl Tepper, a West Texas grass-roots activist who was a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention. Tepper said he doesn’t believe there will be an Abbott-Patrick primary showdown but that some Trump loyalists remained unhappy with Abbott.
The governor vocally supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid but was wary of Trump. Abbott long wouldn’t mention the billionaire businessman’s name, saying only that he’d support his party’s presidential nominee. Patrick, who also originally backed Cruz, quickly became the state’s top Trump cheerleader after the senator dropped out.
Todd Smith, a consultant for Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, another top Texas supporter of Trump, noted that the coolness of some Republicans toward the party’s White House nominee sparked “frustration and tension.” Smith said that may have contributed to Trump’s winning Texas by only 9 percentage points, the first GOP presidential candidate since 2000 not to take the state by double-digits.
“I think the Republican base in Texas appreciates loyalty,” Smith said, “and I think they appreciate folks not being wishy-washy.”
Just ask Cruz, who has seen his popularity slip in Texas since refusing to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, even though he eventually came around. Associated Press exit polling from Election Day showed slightly more than half of statewide voters holding unfavorable opinions of the senator.
There’s no indication Abbott’s standing has suffered. But, so far, Patrick has been out front in setting much of the 2017 legislative agenda. He has vowed Texas will ban transgender people from using public bathrooms of their choice, despite a similar North Carolina law sparking national uproar.
Patrick also has made passing school vouchers, which give families public money for private or religious schools, a priority. Both he and Abbott have praised police as heroes, but Patrick fired up conservatives by suggesting that Black Lives Matter protests contributed to growing anti-law enforcement sentiment that helped spark a July sniper attack in Dallas that killed five police officers.
Abbott is trumpeting the convening of a convention of states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution limiting federal power. The governor has coincided with Patrick in wanting stricter immigration policies and fortifying the Texas-Mexico border, but Abbott is less vocal about bathrooms bills.
Abbott and Patrick share many donors, and there aren’t indications that top ones are choosing sides ahead of 2018 — yet. Patrick has $11 million-plus in his campaign war chest, a princely sum except when compared to Abbott’s nearly $29 million.
At 59, Abbott is also seven years Patrick’s junior — though Texas’ oldest governor, Bill Clements, was 70 when he began his second term in 1987.
“It’s sort of like these two heavyweights,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Austin. “But I wouldn’t expect a fight.”