WEATHERFORD, Texas -- Dan Patrick bowed his head and opened the meeting of the Parker County Tea Party with a prayer.
Then he segued into the stump speech he's given throughout his campaign for lieutenant governor: "I'm a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third."
Welcome to one of the hottest political races in Texas. Patrick, a two-term state senator from Houston, is one of three candidates trying to wrest the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor from incumbent David Dewhurst, who is seeking a fourth term.
The other Republicans in the race, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, both bring statewide name recognition and deep pockets. Whoever wins the March 4 primary has a better-than-even chance of beating the Democratic candidate in the general election, according to polls, and claiming one of the most powerful jobs in the biggest energy-producing state in the United States.
The lieutenant governor leads the state Senate, appoints the Senate's committee chairs and, perhaps mostly importantly, co-chairs the board that writes the state budget every two years.
The seat will take on added importance as Texas works its way through a fracking-driven boom in oil production that has filled the state's coffers while leading to side effects such as air pollution and road damage. The capper was a plan announced in the fall to convert paved roads to gravel in some oil-producing areas (EnergyWire, Sept. 9, 2013).
There's been hardly a mention of energy issues during the primary campaign, though. Dewhurst was perceived as weak after losing a bid for U.S. Senate in 2012, which led to the crowded lieutenant governor field. And the importance of the Republican primary in Texas means that candidates have to appeal to energized primary voters.
Right now, a lot of those voters are focused on immigration, abortion and social issues -- the themes that Patrick hammered home in his Feb. 13 appearance in Weatherford, about 25 miles west of Fort Worth.
"It's your usual primary race on steroids in a lot of ways," said Jim Henson, a political science professor at the University of Texas, Austin.
Energy, though, shapes Texas like few other states. The state's oil production has doubled since 2008 as advances in drilling opened up new fields such as the Eagle Ford and boosted production from old ones like the Permian Basin. Public schools and universities are funded with proceeds from drilling on state land. Severance taxes on oil and gas production go into a "rainy day" fund meant to bolster the state budget during tough times. Texas leaders have filed a string of lawsuits against the Obama administration, mostly challenging its positions on energy and environmental issues.
In interviews, all five candidates told EnergyWire they want to use revenue from the drilling boom to ease the side effects of oil production. But they don't want to do anything to dampen the economic rebound it's caused. The Republicans uniformly blame the rift between Texas and the federal government on the Obama administration.
"At all costs, we have to protect the oil and gas industry -- it is the backbone of our economy," Patrick said.
Patrick is a former television sportscaster who made his name as a conservative radio show host in Houston; the station he co-owns was one of the first to air Rush Limbaugh's program, he said.
In an interview outside the tea party rally, Patrick mixed long-term ideas about statewide energy policy with some of the red-meat rhetoric that's made him popular.
On endangered species, he said, "The same people who want to shut down our economy to protect a prairie chicken are the same people who don't mind taking the life of a baby in the womb."
He wants to increase the amount of funding for road maintenance in the oil patch and said converting the state's car fleet to run on natural gas would help create infrastructure that would spur more natural gas vehicles. The conflict over long-term environmental policy, he said, will continue "until we have a Republican in the White House."
"The federal government is messing in our business more than the Constitution allows," he said.
Dewhurst entered politics in 1998 after a career in the energy business that included oil and gas exploration and building electric generation plants. The company he founded, Falcon Seaboard, now manages investments and explores for energy in states like Colorado.
"Every once in a while, I just love when someone asks a detailed question of the four of us in this race," he said. "I'm amazed at how little people know about the biggest and most important industry here in the state of Texas."
Dewhurst, too, is in favor of light-handed regulation and said the state's fight with the Obama administration is about preserving liberty for Texas residents.
On the subject of road funding, he asks a caller to wait while he turns on a computer and reels off the funding levels at the state Transportation Department over the last few years.
Critics have said the state didn't provide enough funding to keep up with road maintenance as the state's population grew. Dewhurst responds that the state and local governments need better planning to accommodate the increase in truck traffic -- most roads in rural areas weren't built to handle the strain of oil field traffic.
"It becomes a funding issue, but ... it's a funding issue because we're tearing them up," he said.
Patrick has a strong chance of forcing Dewhurst into a runoff election, tentatively scheduled for May 27. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll of 1,200 registered voters shows Dewhurst with 34 percent of likely Republican voters and Patrick with 31 percent. State Agriculture Commissioner Staples had 17 percent and Land Commissioner Patterson had 15 percent.
That's the same scenario Dewhurst faced in 2012, when he ran for the Republican nomination to an open U.S. Senate seat. He was unable to break away from eight other challengers in the primary and lost to Ted Cruz in a runoff.
That defeat has helped define the campaign for lieutenant governor and may explain why the candidates are stressing social issues that appeal to primary voters, the University of Texas' Henson said.
"Politicians are very risk averse. They're all fighting the last battle, and the last battle was Cruz versus Dewhurst," he said.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the lone Democratic candidate, said Dewhurst and the state's Republican leaders have hurt the economy by cutting the budget and picking fights with the federal government.
"That might make for great campaign rhetoric -- I truly believe our oil and gas industry has been hurt and hampered by the continued divisive relationship," she said.
Van de Putte represents San Antonio and has relatives who live in the Eagle Ford Shale, the South Texas oil field where the state has issued 13,000 drilling permits since 2008. Local leaders have howled about the cutbacks in state road funding.
"The state has abdicated its responsibility," Van de Putte said. "Smart businesspeople, they know when to cut frivolous expenses, but they also know when to make investment."
Van de Putte faces an uphill fight. President Obama drew 41.4 percent of the vote in 2012, and Democrats haven't elected a statewide official since 1994. Many elections are essentially decided in the Republican primary.
'Do no harm'
Staples and Patterson have both taken populist stances on energy issues in the past. As agriculture commissioner, Staples organized a petition drive to support a 2011 bill that reformed the state's eminent domain laws. The bill gives landowners more rights in cases where pipelines, utilities or governments try to condemn private property.
Patterson sided with a ranching family in 2009 in a dispute with Exxon Mobil Corp., urging state regulators to fine the oil giant for improperly plugging wells. He made a splash when he referred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard as a case of "reptile dysfunction" (E&ENews PM, June 13, 2012).
In interviews, Staples and Patterson both said they wanted to preserve Texas' oil production and the low-tax, light-regulation climate that they say encourages it.
"We need to adopt a philosophy of 'Do no harm,'" Staples said.
But Patterson said the candidates are likely to continue stressing social issues even after the primary ends and rattled off a list of policy issues that are being ignored.
"What do you think we're going to talk about -- transportation, water, education, energy?" he said.
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