This woman could turn Texas purple — and it’s not Wendy Davis

Nationally, not many progressives recognize and know who Texas state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is, though some might remember what she did last June as her colleague Wendy Davis was wrapping up her marathon filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill.

Here’s that moment:

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It turns out that both Van de Putte and Davis used that much tweeted about moment to elevate their profiles. Davis, with her pink sneakers and working class mom turned Harvard Law school graduate storyline, has been much more successful at the public relations part of it.

Even as Davis, who won the Democratic gubernatorial primary last week, has stumbled over the last months, she is still seen by national progressives as someone who could help galvanize Democratic voters in the Lone Star state and make it purple.

But increasingly, on the ground in Texas, attention is shifting to San Antonio’s Van de Putte, who is running for lieutenant governor, a position that is in some ways the more powerful one in Texas, because that official presides over the Senate.  Van de Putte is quietly emerging as a favorite among some Democrats, who see the Hispanic businesswoman and mother of six as the more likely candidate who could help revive her party’s chances.

San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, himself a rising Texas Democratic star, is among her most vocal supporters.


State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, left, introduces State Sen. Wendy Davis, right, Democratic candidate for governor, during a visit to Leal Middle School on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, to discuss Davis’s proposal to improve early childhood education. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, center, was also on hand to speak. (AP Photo/San Antonio Express-News, Bob Owen)

And Van de Putte has also found some unlikely Republican allies in her bid, which will pit her against either state Sen. Dan Patrick or current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the general election. The primary runoff is May 27.

“I am part of Greg Abbott’s finance team and John Cornyn’s fundraising team. I am a Republican fundraiser and bundler, but I am hosting a fundraiser for Leticia,” said Louis Barrios, a Texas restaurant owner. “I have switched sides on this race because it is the most important race that we have had in Texas and I am leaving my Republican credentials at the door on this race.”

At issue for Barrios is what he sees as a harsh and alienating approach to immigration and Hispanics from both Patrick, who likened immigration from Mexico to an invasion, and Dewhurst, who has said that he will focus on securing the border.

E-mails to both campaigns were not returned.

“If anything is going to bring out the Latino vote, it’s going to be a Dan Patrick,” Barrios said. “He is waking and kicking a sleeping giant. Leticia’s race, this is one that can really be won.”

Barrios has been making phone calls for Van de Putte, trying to generate support among Republicans and business leaders in Texas, and others have gone public with their preference.

Barrios said he can imagine Republicans voting for Abbott and Van de Putte, which is possible in Texas because the governor and lieutenant governor run separately. George W. Bush had a Democratic lieutenant governor.

“I am not going to compare and contrast candidates but she brings qualities that are appealing to all sides and genders and races,” said Marcie Zlotnik, who started two retail electricity providers and describes herself as an independent who leans Republican.  “She has Republican support and nobody is afraid to say it either.”

The Texas Republican Party is not weighing in on the primary race and has kept its powder dry in terms of campaigning against Van de Putte, focusing instead on Davis.

“In every race you are going to have some Democrats who support Republicans and some Republicans who support Democrats but I haven’t seen a single poll that doesn’t indicate that we don’t have a substantial lead in all the state races,” said Stephen Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “Most people come out for the top of the ticket and the Democrats have nominated two liberal senators for the top of their ticket, they will not do well.”

Van de Putte doesn’t have the type of statewide name recognition of her potential challengers and her last name masks her Hispanic heritage, which would be an asset in Texas.

In 2010, current Texas Gov. Rick Perry got 37 percent of the Hispanic vote and his challenger, Democrat Bill White got 61 percent, and current Attorney General Abbott is courting this key voting bloc in his race for governor.

In Texas, one out of four eligible voters is Hispanic, yet in 2012, 61 percent of eligible Hispanic voters did not vote, according to a recent report.

From Texas Report, a February 2014 Latino Decisions study
From Texas Report, a February 2014 Latino Decisions study

On the stump and in interviews Van de Putte is quick to remind voters of her roots.

“Things are changing in Texas, and yes, my name is Leticia San Miguel Van de Putte,” she said during a recent interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC. “But I’m a sixth generation Tejana. A sixth generation Texan.”

Campaign aides said that Van de Putte, who is chair of veteran’s affairs in the state Senate, would continue to travel around the state, meeting with business leaders, women and educators, and that she would ramp up the number of large events in the coming weeks.

The most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, taken before the March 4 primary, shows Davis and Van de Putte lagging by double digits in general election match-ups–against Dewhurst the spread is 44 percent to 32 percent and against Patrick it is 41 percent to 32 percent.

In 2010, Democrat Bill White lost by 12 points to Rick Perry, and a similar spread in 2014 would be dispiriting to Democrats.  But a close race by Van de Putte, that comes with a re-built party and an engaged base of Hispanic voters who back a Democratic candidate at greater numbers, would be a step forward for Democrats.

“It would set the stage for a competitive 2018 and create better recruitment and better candidates. It would also mean more money and more mobilization,” said Mark Jones, who heads the political science department at Rice. “And it would allow the Castro brothers [Julián and his brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro] to make the case to donors and national Democrats that to turn Texas blue requires having strong Latino candidates at the top.”

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