Texas Democrats offering stark contrast

CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas voters won’t have a hard time telling the difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates next year.

With the addition of San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, attorney Sam Houston and party activist Steve Brown last week, the Democratic slate offers a vivid contrast to the Republican ticket, both in demographics and politics. And there are more announcements to come.

So far, Democrats are offering a diverse roster with most running unopposed on a strong progressive record, not unlike the so-called Dream Team in 2002. Republicans are more conservative than ever, with a ticket that is predominantly white and male.

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The Democrats lost dramatically in 2002 and haven’t won a statewide elected office since 1994. But this year they are banking on delivering more supporters to the polls, while Republicans are relying on a dependable conservative base that has kept them in power for 20 years.

Van de Putte, a Latina pharmacist and businesswoman, gained statewide fame among abortion rights activists when she protested the way Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst treated her and Wendy Davis during the filibuster against a law restricting access to abortions. Now she’s running unopposed for the Democratic nomination to replace him, promising better treatment of the middle class.

Dewhurst, meanwhile, is taking ever-more conservative positions to fend off three Republican challengers. The bruising campaign against Houston Sen. Dan Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commission Jerry Paterson has all four taking stridently opposing abortion rights and proposed immigration reforms.

Davis has taken a “no-labels” approach to her campaign for governor, leaving the word Democrat off of her placards, letting Republicans bring up abortion-rights advocacy and instead focusing on public education funding. Abbott opposes abortion in all cases, except to protect the life of the mother, and has campaigned on states’ rights, gun rights and privacy issues.

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Houston, a Baylor-trained attorney, announced last week he would seek the Democratic nomination for attorney general. In addition to his famous name, he won the endorsement of the Dallas Morning News when he ran for Texas Supreme Court justice in 2008 and won more votes than any other Democrat that year. He says the attorney general needs to protect Texas citizens, not sue the federal government 30 times, one of Abbott’s key talking points.

In the Republican race to replace Abbott, the three candidates have staked out some of the most right-wing positions so far, focusing on banning abortion, allowing open carry of handguns and opposing gay marriage. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, McKinney Sen. Ken Paxton and Dallas Rep. Dan Branch know they need the Republican grassroots to win the nomination.

Steve Brown, the Fort Bend County Democratic Party chairman, has announced his candidacy for railroad commissioner, becoming the first black Democratic statewide candidate so far. The only black Republican for statewide office is Lisa Fritsch, an outsider candidate for governor.

Both parties will draw stark contrasts next year, each side confident they reflect the views of the majority of Texans. Republicans argue, based on their winning streak, that Texas is a conservative state that will always elect Republicans.

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Texas also has the lowest voter turnout in the nation, Democrats say, and the majority of eligible Texas voters are either minorities or liberals. They say getting more Texans to vote is the key to their victory, and Republican policies will help them accomplish that.

The result has been two very different tactics during primary season. The Davis campaign brags about making 100,000 phone calls to potential voters. Battleground Texas, the PAC hoping to turn Texas blue, is training thousands of field organizers and voter registrars.

Abbott has spent much of his time introducing himself to Republican activists and promulgating conservative policies that appeal to tea party members. The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, meanwhile, have held nearly a dozen candidate forums where they tear each other down.

Going into the election, momentum is certainly with the Republicans, who voted for Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by 16 percentage points. In the 2002 election, Gov. Rick Perry defeated Tony Sanchez, leader of the Dream Team, by 18 percentage points.

Democrats have a long way to go to win in 2014, but no one can say they’re not offering Texas voters a distinct choice.