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In Tight Texas Lt. Gov. Race, Little Space Left On The Right


There's been a lot of talk lately about Democrats' plan to turn Texas blue. But it is at the moment an exercise in optimism. To understand just how conservative much of the state is, look no further than the Republican primary for lieutenant governor. The incumbent, veteran powerbroker David Dewhurst, is running against three strong challengers.

And as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, all four candidates have been racing each other to the right.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: If you want to see what real conservative Republicans sound like, look right here in Texas. Remember the sad case of Marlise Munoz? The 33-year-old North Texas woman was pregnant when she was found by her husband on her kitchen floor, not breathing. Although Munoz was brain dead, John Peter Smith Hospital refused to take her off life support because they believed Texas law mandated that they try to deliver her damaged fetus.

Finally, a Texas judge intervened, ruling that Marlise Munoz was dead and ordering the hospital to disconnect her. But in a debate on KERA, all four Republican candidates for lieutenant governor said the judge was wrong.

TODD STAPLES: Unfortunately I do believe the court erred in this situation. I think the next legislative session, we're going to go in and clarify what the meaning of the statue is in order to remove the ambiguity.

GOODWYN: That's candidate Todd Staples who believes brain dead pregnant women in Texas should be compelled to deliver their fetus, no matter what she or her family wants. And the other candidates quickly burnished their pro-life credentials too.

STATE SENATOR DAN PATRICK: Life is so precious and there's nothing more precious than the life of a baby in the womb. We're born in the image of God and whenever we have the opportunity to preserve life, we should do that. That's our duty.

LT. GOVERNOR DAVID DEWHURST: This baby could've been born. If I'd been in the judge's shoes, I would've ruled differently.

GOODWYN: That was State Senator Dan Patrick and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst respectively. According to the latest poll, Dewhurst and Patrick are the frontrunners heading for a runoff. But when it comes to conservative politics, there is precious little separating these four candidates ideologically. Border security is high on their list with no path to citizenship for the undocumented. That's amnesty. Creationism in public schools, that's a big yes.

Let the students decide for themselves. Abortion rights, not a chance, not even for rape. So in order to create some contrast between himself and his rivals, candidate Dan Patrick has been playing a little loose with the facts, at least according to his opponents.


PATRICK: Illegal immigration is Washington's responsibility, but it's our problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dan Patrick is the only candidate for Lieutenant Governor to oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

PATRICK: I'll do what Washington won't do.

GOODWYN: Texas does currently provide in-state tuition for the children of the undocumented who want to go to state college. When originally passed 13 years ago, it was bipartisan legislation considered enlightened self interest, but in 2014, helping educate undocumented children is a sign you're squishy on immigration so David Dewhurst, Jerry Patterson and Todd Staples accused Dan Patrick of lying about their record. Here's Todd Staples at a meeting of the Fort Worth Republican Women's Club.

STAPLES: But there is several things in this race that just isn't true and, in fact, some of it's a lie and I just...

GOODWYN: Dan Patrick is a conservative AM radio jock in Houston. His show has won him Tea Party support across the state. Firmly in second place, Patrick shrugs off the charge that his ads distort his opponents' records.

PATRICK: Regardless of what Todd Staples said up here, I like Todd. He's a nice guy. But they're somewhat down in the polls and when you're somewhat down in the polls, what you do is, you know, you attack to try to catch up and that's OK. I understand this. I'm a big boy.

GOODWYN: The last decade the Texas GOP has steadily marched to the right, led by Governor Rick Perry who understood the political power of the Tea Party earlier than most. Mark Jones is the chairman of the political science department at Rice University and has been following the race closely.

MARK JONES: All four candidates have the goal of not allowing any of the others to outflank them on the right. In many ways, it has something of a centrifugal force, whereas every time one candidate goes to the right, the others try to go even further to the right and thus it's taken the party out to the outer bounds of what one might consider to be acceptable political discourse in the year 2014 in the state of Texas.

GOODWYN: The Republican primary in Texas is dominated by its most conservative voters. Jones says it's a very influential group with outsized impact on Texas and the nation.

JONES: And it's a small group of people. We're talking five to seven percent of the voting age population here in Texas and those are the people who are effectively deciding both who wins the Republican primary, but really, who becomes the next governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. senator of the state of Texas.

GOODWYN: Despite outspending his opponent nearly threefold, in 2012, David Dewhurst was crushed by Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz in the race for the U.S. Senate. That election stunned establishment Republicans. Dewhurst, now trying to save his political career, is expected to make a runoff tomorrow and that's when the power struggle really begins. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.