On one weekday morning in late August, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s campaign had an announcement to make: After laying low throughout the summer, he was ramping up his reelection effort with a statewide bus tour, with plans to make 131 stops.
Not only had it already started — it kicked off the day before in a bus befitting a touring musician with Patrick’s silver hair and smiling face wrapped across the outside of the vehicle — but his campaign would not say where exactly he was going.
In the weeks that followed, Patrick would make clear he was focused on rural Texas, turning his social media feeds into something of a travel diary for the state’s most powerful elected official.
It is perhaps the biggest example in this election of a timeworn tradition by Texas Republican leaders: campaigning strictly on their terms and sometimes keeping much of the media in the dark.
It is not surprising given the political environment. Polls show every GOP statewide official has a clear — if not overwhelming — lead over their Democratic opposition, and they want to selectively campaign while minimizing situations where they can be knocked off message, especially by unfriendly media.
In the governor’s race, Republican incumbent Greg Abbott has been opting for small issue-based roundtables and news conferences over the come-one-come-all rallies and town halls that his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, is known for hosting. But unlike Patrick, Abbott’s campaign tells the media statewide about his stops in advance, and he tends to take three or four questions from the media at the end of each event.
In keeping with the spirit of the bus tour, Patrick’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Despite his polling advantage, Patrick’s campaign strategy in rural Texas shows he’s trying to shore up the party’s most reliable base of voters in an area that Mike Collier, his Democratic opponent, and O’Rourke have spent considerable resources to win over this election cycle. O’Rourke swung through a host of far-flung communities as part of a 49-day road trip in the late summer, and Collier has run ads in West Texas and the Panhandle appealing to the GOP.
“We’ll win rural [Texas], but we cannot take it for granted,” Patrick said during a stop in Gaines County that an attendee livestreamed on Facebook. “We’re going to win, but the difference is we have to run up the score.”
Patrick added that winning 65% of the rural vote is “not good enough” for Republicans. He suggested 70% or 75% would be better to offset Democratic votes elsewhere.
(Republicans are already regularly getting roughly three-quarters of the vote in rural Texas, meaning an above-average performance would be higher than that.)
Collier mocked Patrick’s bus tour as a “crowdless, eventless tour in search of support across the state.” The initial photos of the tour showed Patrick by himself or meeting with small groups.
“I do not envy Dan Patrick’s task,” Collier said in a statement. “I would avoid Texans, too, if like Dan Patrick, I had to defend skyrocketing property taxes, underfunded schools, and a broken power grid.”
Since the bus tour started, Patrick has begun airing TV ads, including one that plays defense on Collier’s signature issue — the reliability of the power grid. And more recently Patrick started airing his first anti-Collier TV ad, a stark departure from 2018 when Collier first challenged Patrick and was confidently ignored by the incumbent.
But for now, the bus tour stands out as the most unique feature of his November election, and despite some social media mockery, his campaign seems happy with it.
After a poll came out last month showing Patrick leading in his race by a slightly wider margin than Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton in their respective races, Patrick’s top political strategist, Allen Blakemore, tweeted, “The bus tour is working.”
State Sen. Drew Springer, a Republican who represents a largely rural district in North Texas, said he thought Patrick’s bus tour was “resonating a lot.” Springer, who joined Patrick for some stops, said rural Republicans often need an extra push to turn out in November since most local races — like county judge and sheriff — are effectively decided in the primary.
Springer suggested local media — some of whom are invited to Patrick’s events — still matters in rural Texas.
“Because your guy or gal over 40 years old reads it because it’s 12 pages long and it’s once a week, and most of it is local issues, and so they’ll read it front and back,” Springer said of local news coverage in rural Texas.
In Springer’s district, a photo of Patrick’s Sept. 27 visit to Gainesville made the front page of The Weekly News of Cooke County, which bills itself as the county’s “LARGEST and MOST READ Newspaper!”
While Patrick’s campaign does not advise the stops to statewide media, it does reach out to local media ahead of time and let them know he is coming to town. The Texas Tribune and other larger news organizations have not been given advance notice about appearances.
The content that Patrick’s campaign produces from the bus tour paints the picture of a folksy — sometimes apolitical — romp through small-town Texas. He gave a motivational speech to the men’s baseball team at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. He took a picture in front of the oldest continually operating courthouse in the state, in Cass County. He learned how boots are made at M.L. Leddy’s in San Angelo.
One Dallas-based TV journalist caught up with Patrick one day last month in Bowie, which is 68 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Patrick’s campaign did not tell the reporter Jack Fink about the stop in advance, but he found out about it anyway and was invited inside, according to the story that resulted. Fink asked Patrick three questions outside his bus after the event, including one about the state’s new abortion law lacking exceptions for rape victims.
It has emerged as a severe political liability for Texas Republicans in this election — and one they are not eager to discuss on the campaign trail.
On the issue, Patrick told Fink there is “going to be a lot of discussion this session.”
“I’m pro-life for everyone because I never think any baby should be another victim of a crime, but I understand people’s thoughts on it, and we’ll work through that,” Patrick said.
But beyond the media-shy ethos of the bus tour, it belies an increasingly clear Republican anxiety about rural Texas. While its population is dwindling, it has long served as a solidly red firewall that is more than enough to cover GOP deficits elsewhere in a statewide election. But as Republicans have lost ground in the suburbs, they have realized the need to not just maintain their wide margins in rural Texas but also stretch them.
Democrats like O’Rourke and Collier are betting that they can win rural Texas by emphasizing their support for public education while Republicans embrace vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to subsidize private school tuition. GOP lawmakers in rural Texas have long been resistant to vouchers, convinced they would destabilize the public schools that are the lifeblood of the communities they represent.
While pro-voucher Republicans argue recent polling and election results show rural Texans favor their cause, Patrick went out of his way at one tour stop to try to assuage rural concerns.
“We’re gonna protect all the rural schools,” Patrick said in an interview with a Lubbock TV reporter. “They’re not going to lose any money. Where we need options for parents particularly is in our inner cities, where we have a tremendous dropout rate, failing schools.”
Chad Hasty, a prominent conservative radio host in Lubbock, said he thought the bus tour was proving effective specifically in the “really, really small towns and on social media.” These are places where “everybody knows everybody,” Hasty added, and something as simple as a picture of the lieutenant governor posing with a local business owner can travel far.
Hasty said he gave O’Rourke credit for his rural campaigning and going to places “where he’s not going to be welcome with open arms.” But he said he felt rural Republicans were already energized — it’s the first midterm election under a Democratic president — and that he is more concerned about their turnout when national conditions are less ripe.
“Right now, I think the Republicans are fired up enough to where that’s just going to be a natural barrier out here,” Hasty said. “What worries me in the future is you still don’t have enough statewide candidates coming out here and spending enough time … and really trying to build up the score.”
It is unclear when the bus tour ends — or what comes next. In an email Thursday to supporters, Patrick said he still has “a ways to go.”
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