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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has quietly amassed influence — to the detriment of fellow Republicans

Dan Patrick
LM Otero
/
AP
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks during opening general session of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, July 9, 2021, in Dallas.

Patrick urged former governor Rick Perry to mount a challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a third term. He’s taken the already considerable power concentrated in the state’s No. 2 job to another level, forcing opponents from races and tightening his grip on the Senate.

At an event for a congressional candidate last October, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Rick Perry “one of my best friends in life” and said the two “talk all the time about politics.”

The former governor gushed, “Put me in a foxhole with him any day.”

But earlier that year, the tone of their conversations was more serious. Patrick encouraged Perry, Texas’ governor from 2000 to 2015, to make a comeback and run again, according to multiple people who had direct knowledge of the conversations, even though fellow Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was already campaigning for election to a third term.

Perry ultimately opted against running. But the plotting against Abbott, which has not been previously reported, was perhaps the most brazen example of Patrick’s efforts this election cycle to handpick a roster of allies across all levels of state government and expand his already massive influence. Often, he has done so by weaponizing his close relationship with former President Donald Trump to help elect his friends and hurt his adversaries.

Most publicly, Patrick has intervened aggressively in state Senate primaries to try to build his most loyal caucus yet. If successful, the chamber is poised to drive the state’s law-making even further to the right.

But in driving for more power beyond the Senate, Patrick may be alienating himself more than ever from his GOP peers at the top of state government. Trump associates have alerted people close to Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller that the lieutenant governor has worked to undermine Trump’s support for them.

Patrick was also behind a Trump crusade against House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, urging him to pass an election audit bill while threatening a primary challenge if he did not.

The Texas Tribune spoke with more than a dozen people familiar with Patrick’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering this election cycle, many of them with firsthand knowledge of his efforts working against incumbents. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to illuminate the often private plotting of the state’s most powerful elected official — who is working assiduously to gain even more influence.

Patrick, in a statement responding to this story, confirmed he encouraged Perry to run for governor “late last summer” but said it was only in the case that Abbott did not seek reelection.

There had been no indication Abbott would not run. His campaign had said as early as January 2019 that he planned to seek a third term. Trump endorsed him for reelection in June.

Asked Thursday at a San Antonio campaign event whether he ever thought about not running for reelection, Abbott emphatically said no.

“I was always clear,” Abbott told the Tribune. “One hundred percent, I’m running.”

Asked if he talked with Trump about Perry’s possible run, Patrick said in an email he does not “discuss my personal conversations with President Trump.” He also responded to questions by saying he has never spoken with Trump about reconsidering his Paxton endorsement. He did not answer, however, when asked if he has raised that issue with people close to Trump.

As for Phelan, Patrick did not deny he used Trump to target the speaker, saying his “displeasure with the Speaker at the end of the session is not a secret.”

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Patrick’s ascent to top statewide power broker has been somewhat unlikely. Born Dannie Goeb in Baltimore in 1950 — he started using the name Patrick in the late 1970s — Patrick got his start as a TV sports broadcaster, eventually reinventing himself in the 1990s as a conservative shock jock radio host. (He famously got a vasectomy during a live radio broadcast.) Patrick, now 71, entered the Senate in 2007 as a rabble-rousing outsider and a thorn in the side of the chamber’s leaders who would go on to topple the lieutenant governor from his own party, David Dewhurst, in 2014.

While he has not always gotten his way, Patrick has tallied significant victories on issues that Republicans had previously shirked, like the ban on so-called sanctuary cities, stricter abortion laws and restrictions on the rights of transgender Texans.

Patrick has done so with an increasingly loyal Republican caucus in the Senate, leaving little room for dissent and retaliating against those who do, stripping them of leadership roles.

“He’s the undefeated heavyweight champion,” said Bill Miller, a veteran lobbyist in the state. “He is absolutely the strongest [lieutenant governor] that’s ever been and he’s every bit as strong as he’s reputed to be, probably more so.”

Plotting against Republicans

The structure of Texas’ government has long favored the lieutenant governor. The state’s constitution, written by Texans wary of centralized power after Reconstruction, limited the governor’s authority; he must rely on the House and the Senate to fund his priorities and send legislation to his desk. The House speaker may oversee a chamber that’s equal to the Senate, but he’s elected by colleagues — meaning he must keep them relatively happy to maintain his perch.

The lieutenant governor, meanwhile, can rule the Senate with an iron fist. He’s elected by the voters of Texas, so he doesn’t have to worry as much about blowback from unhappy senators.

Patrick has a long record of tension — and even open acrimony — with other Republican state leaders. He has repeatedly lobbied Abbott to call special legislative sessions for his unfinished priorities, seeking to force the governor’s and speaker’s hands on matters like which restrooms transgender people can use or a proposal to audit the state’s 2020 election results.

His comfortable perch has made it easier to take that approach. But lately, Patrick has had another tool at his disposal: his relationship with Trump.

Lt Gov. Dan Patrick 2.JPG
Evan L'Roy
/
The Texas Tribune
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presides over Senate session at the state capitol on May 17, 2021.

Trump endorsements remain the most coveted in Republican primaries. The former president had an 80% favorability rating among Texas Republicans in a University of Texas poll released Monday.

Over the past year, the former president has waded into Texas politics at a granular level, endorsing legislation with curious specificity and weighing in on relatively obscure primaries. The latest example came Wednesday, when he endorsed a candidate for Tarrant County district attorney who is a client of Patrick’s top political strategist.

During a rally last month in Conroe, Trump acknowledged the endorsement pipeline Patrick has with him when he told the crowd Patrick calls him making the requests and he responds: “Absolutely, Dan. Whatever you want, Dan.”

“He’s gotten a hell of a lot of endorsements,” Trump added.

Patrick made an impression with the loyalty-obsessed former president by enthusiastically backing him after U.S. Sen Ted Cruz dropped out of the 2016 presidential primary. Patrick went on to chair both of Trump’s Texas campaigns.

Trump Border
Brandon Bell
/
AP
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, center, and former President Donald Trump attend a border security briefing to discuss further plans in securing the southern border wall on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Weslaco, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Pool via AP)

“Patrick was all in, and Donald Trump hasn’t forgotten that,” said a person familiar with their relationship, granted anonymity to discuss their private dealings. “He’s got a direct line of communication. He doesn’t have to go through staff at Mar-a-Lago for a thing … and he usually gets whatever he’s looking for.”

Campaigning recently with Senate candidate Pete Flores of Pleasanton, Patrick plainly said he "asked the president to endorse [Flores], and the president did."

In January, people close to Trump alerted Paxton’s team that Patrick was trying to get Trump to rethink his support of Paxton, according to two people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions. The people said it was unclear if Patrick was doing so on behalf of one of Paxton’s three prominent challengers, but that he was nonetheless driving a wedge between Paxton and Trump, who had endorsed Paxton at the start of the primary.

Paxton is currently facing a difficult reelection campaign as he fends off attacks over his ongoing securities fraud indictment and a separate FBI investigation related to accusations from his former deputies accusing him of bribery and malfeasance. He has denied wrongdoing. But he ingratiated himself to Trump in 2020 when he filed a lawsuit in his capacity as attorney general seeking to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in four battleground states.

In his statement, Patrick said he has never spoken to Trump directly about reconsidering his endorsement of Paxton. But he did not respond to a follow-up question about whether he has raised the issue with other Trump associates, as the people with firsthand knowledge said.

Patrick has similarly loomed over the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner, where Sid Miller, the incumbent, is facing a primary challenge from state Rep. James White of Hillister. Trump endorsed Miller, a vocal booster of the former president, in December, but a Trump confidant told people close to Miller last year that Patrick tried to block the endorsement, according to three people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions.

Miller and Patrick have recent tensions. In March 2021, Miller sued Patrick to try to stop a Senate rule requiring visitors to take a COVID-19 test.

Patrick is also a fan of White — and made that known last month. He said at an event for another candidate that he was “not getting involved in the ag commissioner race, but James, he’s a great man,” according to a Houston Chronicle reporter.

Miller told the Tribune that Trump not only endorsed him but called him before the endorsement statement went out and discussed the race for about 20 minutes.

“I’m glad that the president has full confidence in my reelection and is supporting me in that effort,” Miller said, while declining comment about Patrick.

Allen Blakemore, a political strategist for Patrick, said Patrick had “zero involvement” in Trump's endorsement of Miller.

Then there is Phelan, who drew Trump’s ire in October. Seemingly out of nowhere, the former president issued a statement that blasted the state House leader for inaction on an election audit bill that had become a priority of Patrick’s. The bill would have allowed party leaders to request county-level audits of the 2020 presidential election as Trump continued his nationwide campaign to falsely discredit Biden’s win.

Dade Phelan.JPG
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
/
The Texas Tribune
House Speaker Dade Phelan on the House floor on Sine Die on May 31, 2021.

The statement was extraordinarily specific in the level of knowledge it conveyed about the state of play at the Legislature, and it ended with a thinly veiled threat.

“Texans are tired of Phelan’s weak RINO leadership in the State House,” Trump said. “If this doesn’t pass soon, we look forward to seeing him in the Texas primary.”

Phelan never got a primary challenger. Two well-known activists in his district, David Covey and Judy Nichols, said they were encouraged to run but did not seriously consider it.

Trump’s push for the audit bill was “all Dan Patrick,” according to a person familiar with his relationship with Trump. It was viewed by Phelan and his allies as the lieutenant governor leveraging his relationship with Trump to try to unseat a fellow member of Republican state leadership.

“I supported President Trump’s push for a forensic audit,” Patrick said in response to questions for this story. “We passed this bill out of the Senate twice. The House never gave the bill a hearing.”

Trump’s involvement also put additional pressure on Abbott to act on calls by conservative activists to “audit” the 2020 presidential elections in the state, even though state election officials had said the election was “smooth and secure.” Abbott’s office eventually gave way and began an audit of four of the state’s largest counties, which found no major issues.

A senior Phelan aide, granted anonymity to discuss the inner workings at the Capitol, said Patrick's "constant meddling in state government has damaged" relations between the two chambers and his involvement in House business "will not be forgotten” by the speaker.

Patrick’s meddling in the governor’s race suggests similar tensions with Abbott. Perry, who was Texas’ longest-serving governor before serving as Trump’s energy secretary from 2017 to 2019, was being courted to re-enter politics last year, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions. Three of them said Patrick played a role in that.

Dan Patrick and Gred Abbott.JPG
Sophie Park
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The Texas Tribune
From left: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott gave updates on their plan for Texas to build its own border wall at a press conference at the Texas Capitol on June 16, 2021.

One of the people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions said interest in Perry stemmed in part from some donors who worried about Abbott’s viability after the devastating power grid failure in February 2021. Those concerns have since been allayed, the person said.

Patrick said in his statement that he is “sure others also talked to Perry about running.”

Multiple sources laughed off Patrick’s response that he was only courting Perry as a back-up plan if Abbott did not run for reelection. Perry has told fellow Republicans Patrick proposed he specifically run against Abbott, according to two people familiar with the conversations. One said Patrick made a "hard pitch."

Patrick did not respond to questions asking whether he currently supported Abbott, Paxton and Miller for reelection. Statewide officials traditionally have not endorsed one another in primaries. Patrick has endorsed in only one statewide election: Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, a close ally, in her bid for land commissioner.

“We have worked extremely well together over 8 years, and we have accomplished a great deal for the people of Texas,” Patrick said of his relationship with Abbott. “We don’t always agree, but we agree much more often than not.”

As for Paxton, Patrick said he “has done a great job as Attorney General, probably the best Attorney General in the country.”

Abbott did not respond to a request for comment on Perry’s involvement in the governor’s race. Perry did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the subject over the past two weeks.

Controlling the Senate

As he wades into statewide races with mixed results, Patrick’s grip on the Senate remains unquestioned — and he’s been tightening it since the day he took office. In his first session as lieutenant governor in 2015, he pushed senators to do away with a long-established rule that required two-thirds of the chamber’s members to agree to debate a bill on the Senate floor. The rule change lowered the number of senators required to agree to take up a bill from 21, if all were present, to 19.

Patrick said the change would “make the Texas Senate even better and help us deliver a conservative agenda a majority of voters elected us to pass.” He did it again last year, lowering the threshold to 18 members. In practice, it has allowed the Senate to pass laws without any support from Democrats.

Craig Estes, formerly a longtime GOP senator from Wichita Falls, abstained from the first vote and warned his fellow senators that lowering the threshold, which had been in place since 1947, would lead to further polarization in the chamber. When Estes was next up for election in 2017, Patrick did not endorse him and spent $17,000 to help his opponent in the GOP primary.

It was one of the first displays of the dire consequences of crossing Patrick.

“If you’re a senator who’s not on board with the more conservative agenda of Dan Patrick you will ultimately have substantially less influence or just cease being a senator,” said Luke Macias, a consultant to some of the state’s most conservative politicians.

With the threshold for debate lowered, Patrick was free to pursue bills that Democrats might have previously thwarted, such as measures to allow handguns on college campuses, roll back abortion rights and force counties to honor requests from immigration agents to hold noncitizen inmates who are subject to deportation.

But to pass those more divisive policy priorities, he still needed unanimous support of Senate Republicans. And that has often meant punishing fellow Republicans for the seemingly smallest infractions.

In June, he stripped Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, an Abbott ally and usually a loyal vote for Patrick, of his chairmanship of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and put him in charge of the less prominent Veterans and Border Security Committee. Then, last month, he sought to further isolate Hancock, eliminating border security from the purview of the committee. The move was widely perceived as a response to Hancock refusing to go along with Patrick’s push to force energy companies to take back $16 billion in electricity charges to consumers that were accrued during the statewide power failures of February 2021.

Abbott and House leaders opposed the move because they feared it would throw global energy markets into chaos. Hancock agreed and bottled up the legislation in the Senate. For that, he was relegated to lesser roles, and Patrick found another ally in the Senate to push his repricing bill forward. It ultimately died in the House.

But Patrick’s biggest target has been Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican. In 2017, Seliger voted against a pair of the lieutenant governor’s top priorities, a bill aimed at restricting local governments' abilities to raise property taxes and a program similar to private school vouchers that would have subsidized private school tuition and homeschooling expenses. The next session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his title as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Kel Seliger.JPG
Juan Figueroa
/
The Texas Tribune
State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, on the Senate floor on May 6, 2019

Last year, during a redistricting session, Seliger voiced concern that Patrick was drawing his district to be more favorable to his chosen candidate. When the maps were finished, the Senate had shifted population away from Seliger’s Amarillo home base and toward Midland, where one of his primary challengers lived.

Before the map was even approved, Trump endorsed that challenger, Kevin Sparks.

Court records in a Senate redistricting lawsuit revealed how intimately Patrick was involved in the race at the time. A few hours after Trump’s endorsement, which compared Seliger to Trump critic U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Patrick sent a text message to Sparks.

“Looks like the full endorsement went out,” Patrick wrote. “The endorsement will resonate with voters and his votes live up to the Mitt comparison.”

“Should spike interest in you,” Patrick added.

The next day, Patrick texted Sparks again, this time offering lengthy advice. Patrick said it was important to “follow up” on Trump’s endorsement to “show why Trump calls [Seliger] a RINO” — Republican in name only. Patrick provided seven examples that Sparks could seize on. He told Sparks to make sure he pinned the Trump endorsement to the top of his Facebook page and website.

Seliger announced two weeks later he wouldn’t seek reelection. Patrick formally endorsed Sparks five days later.

In another Senate primary, Patrick declined to defend a loyal Republican incumbent, Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, against Mayes Middleton, an up-and-coming House conservative who has echoed many of Patrick’s priorities in the lower chamber. With days left until the deadline to file to run for office, Middleton, who has immense personal wealth to finance a campaign, called Taylor and made clear he was interested in his seat.

After initially trying to hold off Middleton, Taylor hastily announced his retirement minutes before Middleton filed for the seat. Patrick went on to endorse Middleton, as did Trump.

Sen Larry Taylor.JPG
Sophie Park
/
The Texas Tribune
State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, speaks with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate Chamber on Aug. 9, 2021.

The lieutenant governor typically works to protect members of his own party, and Patrick’s lack of action to back Taylor was viewed as clearance for Middleton to run. It was striking because Taylor was no Seliger — he had been a loyal soldier for Patrick, serving as Senate Education Committee chair.

“I told both of them: If they both ran, I would not endorse because both of them are friends,” Patrick said in a recent interview. “If they both decided to run, I would stay on the sidelines of that race.”

Taylor declined to comment for this story.

The redrawing of other districts during the 2021 redistricting seemed to open up paths for Patrick allies. When the Senate unveiled its proposed map on a Saturday last September, it included an open seat that conspicuously encompassed the hometown of a former Republican state senator from Pleasanton, Flores, who announced his candidacy three days later. Patrick endorsed Flores one day after that.

The proposed map also gutted a North Texas district held by a Democrat and turned it into a Republican-leaning district. A little over a week after it was unveiled — and before it was approved — conservative Republican state Rep. Phil King announced he’d run for the seat. Patrick endorsed him less than a half hour later.

In all, Patrick has endorsed five candidates for open Senate seats, many of them before the new Senate map was signed into law. In each case, the Patrick-endorsed candidates are either as or more socially conservative than their predecessors — but most importantly, they will be indebted to Patrick.

In a recent interview, Patrick said he was endorsing candidates like King and Flores due to their legislative backgrounds.

“I’m losing a lot of experience,” Patrick said. “Those are people that I can plug and play right away.”

Bill Miller, the lobbyist, said Patrick appeared to be “topping off the tank” of his power in the Senate. “And I thought it was already full.”

For the Republicans opposing Patrick's preferred candidates, life can be tough.

"I tell people I got in this race to run against Mayes Middleton, and I felt like I could beat Mayes Middleton, but I didn’t know I’d be running against the lieutenant governor at the same time," said Middleton primary opponent Bob Mitchell, whose nonetheless been able to secure endorsements from a group of mayors in the district.

Final term in office?

If everything goes Patrick’s way this year, he could end up with his most supportive Republican caucus yet, raising the question of what policies he could pursue with his loyalists. During a radio interview Monday, Patrick said his third-term goals included continuing to lower property taxes, strengthening the power grid and securing the border.

Lt. Gov Dan Patrick.JPG
Sophie Park
/
The Texas Tribune
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks at a press conference held regarding Democrats breaking quorum and voting legislature at the Texas Capitol on July 21, 2021.

Few doubt that Patrick wants to make a renewed push on vouchers, providing taxpayer dollars to families to take their kids to non-public schools. It has been one of his longest-running policy priorities, though it has always encountered resistance in the House — and even opposition among GOP senators.

Seliger had long opposed that idea, while Sparks would be a reliable vote for it. And while Taylor was not against vouchers, replacing him with Middleton would add a more vocal advocate to the Senate.

As Patrick seeks a third term this year, he faces minimal primary competition. The Democrats running for the job include Mike Collier, an accountant from the Houston area, who lost to Patrick by 5 percentage points in 2018.

If reelected, Patrick has said his third term would be his last. In an interview with the Tribune, he said that could possibly change, “but right now for me personally, for my family, it will be time.”

Given the anticipation that Patrick would not run again in 2026, there has been an early start to speculation about who could succeed him — and he is already shaping the race. He said it is “really important” that someone with Senate experience come after him, saying it “would take a good full term of two sessions, I think, to really learn the job.”

“I think there are probably several [senators] who are seriously thinking about it, and maybe some other statewides,” Patrick said. “But I’d like to see a senator — or someone who’s served in the Senate — step up, and we’ll be looking at that.”

Patrick does not appear to be eyeing another office after leaving his current post. He mused in 2019 that he would “love to do a combination of teaching and ministry.”

Sherry Sylvester, a longtime aide who recently left Patrick’s office, said he does not have higher political aspirations and believes he is already in the best position to influence Texas politics and policy.

That nothing-to-lose attitude, Sylvester said, “gives him a great deal of freedom.”