AUSTIN, TX -- With a pulsating soundtrack of Latino rhythms blasting and a rowdy crowd of diehard Democrats cheering, Texas Sen. Leticia Van de Putte strides onto a makeshift stage in a parking lot at the state’s Democratic Party headquarters. She is all smiles, a ball of energy, looking for all purposes like a frontrunner in the race to become the state’s next lieutenant governor.
“Make no mistake about it, I want this responsibility,” Van de Putte would say moments later in an impassioned speech blending equal parts policy, tender stories about her family and its sixth-generation Tejano ranching and border roots, and fiery barbs aimed at her opponent, conservative radio talk show host and state Sen. Dan Patrick.
Van de Putte has been endorsed by the state's major newspapers; including some that touted her ability to reach across the aisle in the Legislature. But with the campaign entering its twilight days, the 59-year-old Van de Putte is trailing badly in the polls and she faces a formidable struggle in her bid to win the state’s second-highest office. Were she to win she would become the first Latina elected to statewide office in Texas.
It was a quest brimming with hope when she announced her candidacy a year ago, joining a ticket led by Democratic nominee for governor, state Sen. Wendy Davis. Both vaulted into the spotlight last year when Davis staged a drama-steeped filibuster against a Republican-led abortion bill.
Despite polls showing a strong Republican advantage, the Democratic state senator and pharmacist, grandmother and sixth-generation Texan is counting on a surge of voters.
But Republicans have dominated politics in Texas for almost 20 years, and late last week, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll seemed to double down on previous surveys, showing Patrick with a commanding 17-percentage point lead.
As the sun set on last week’s rally, Van de Putte appeared to acknowledge the gloomy polls. “There are those who say it can’t be done,” she told the crowd. “I need you to help me keep my promise to the future of this state.”
Van de Putte later told NBC News the polls are faulty because they were done online and because they don’t capture new voters or those who rarely cast ballots. Nor do they reflect a newly energized Democratic base, she said.
About 18 percent of registered voters surveyed in the UT/Texas Tribune poll were Hispanic and 16 percent were considered likely voters. For registered Latino voters polled, the margin of error was plus or minus 8.5 percentage points and for likely Latino voters 6.6 percentage points, pollsters said.
In the crowd, Susan Hewitt, a 40-year-old web developer and a self-described “yellow dog Democrat,” agreed, noting that Ann Richards, the feisty late Democrat, never led a poll before her election as governor.
On a grueling bus tour crisscrossing this vast state, hitting 30 cities in 14 days, Van de Putte got an ebullient sendoff last Wednesday in her hometown of San Antonio at a rally not far from the tight-knit westside barrios where she grew up. Two other hometown faves, actor-producer-political activist Eva Longoria and political rising star, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, joined her.
The next day, Longoria and Tejano music icon Little Joe Hernandez stood alongside Van de Putte at a stop at the University of Texas-Pan American in the heavily Mexican American city of Edinburg, where the senator blasted Patrick for, as she put it, disrespecting Hispanics and dramatizing conditions along the Texas-Mexico border for political gain and for supporting budget cuts to education, the Dallas Morning News reported.
The Patrick campaign said Van de Putte’s attacks were an attempt to distract voters from her record on border security and tax policy.
At her campaign event in Austin last Friday, Van de Putte sought to connect with voters by telling her personal story. “Tonight, I am with you so proudly as your nominee – as a Texan first, as a pharmacist, as a mom, as a grandmother … and, mainly, as your friend,” she said.
And as she did at previous tour stops, she drew stark differences between herself and Patrick, casting him as an expedient, out-of-touch politician who cares more about the political score cards of hardline conservative groups than the report cards of Texas students.
Political observers say Van de Putte’s charismatic flair and populist appeal score well in stump speeches, where she articulates policy positions on education, women’s rights and other topics in two languages sprinkled with doses of humor and folksy charm.
“She’s down to earth,” said Ida Solis, a 74-year-old retired teacher who, as dusk crept over Austin, waited patiently in line to get her picture taken with Van de Putte. “You’re not afraid to walk up to her and ask, ‘Can you talk to me?’ She’s always como comadre (like a good friend), you know.”
Hewitt, who like Solis is also a Latina, said she would support Van de Putte regardless of her ethnicity. “But it does make me very proud of her,” she said. “I’m proud of my Latino heritage.” Hewitt said she backs Van de Putte for her support of women and her policies on reproductive rights, mental health, jobs, education, families and veterans.
But Van de Putte’s campaign skills do not appear to be translating into name recognition, at least according to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune online survey which also found that roughly half of respondents didn’t have an opinion about the senator.
That could spell bad news for Democrats who hoped Van de Putte’s addition to the heights of the party ticket could light a fire under efforts to turn Texas blue. Turning Texas into a battleground state could have enormous national implications. Van de Putte is Mexican American, and Texas’ booming Latino population now makes up almost 40 percent of the state’s population, though their voting falls well behind their numbers.
Democratic activists and engaged voters liked Van de Putte from the start, said Jim Henson, co-director of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll and head of the Texas Political Project at the University of Texas. But Van de Putte entered the race with two distinct disadvantages – never having run a statewide race and facing a candidate who besides being a Republican in Texas had come off a very high visibility race, giving him a leg up in name recognition. Patrick trounced veteran incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the primary.
Van De Putte has amassed a strong record over more than two decades in the state Legislature, earning a reputation as one willing to work in a bipartisan fashion.
Van de Putte has a strong record of working in a bipartisan fashion in the Texas Senate, say her supporters, but achieving broader name recognition in a big state with many major media markets has been a challenge.
After attending the funeral of her father, an emotionally spent Van de Putte joined her colleagues late into the night at the state Capitol for Davis’ abortion bill filibuster in 2013. Exasperated after trying unsuccessfully to speak on the Senate floor, Van de Putte raised her voice to ask: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over male colleagues in the room?” It was a white-hot moment and the Capitol’s gallery crowd erupted in cheers. At Austin’s campaign event, Hewitt wore a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with those words.
But translating Van De Putte’s popularity from Democrats who already knew her to a broader base in Texas - with its many major media markets - is a Herculean task requiring lots of money, Henson said.
“Van de Putte’s been unable to overcome those (disadvantages) thus far, and obviously time is running out,” Henson told NBC News.
As for when Democrats might begin to shift the political tide in Texas, Henson said political analysts will closely watch Hispanic turnout and how the parties fare with Latino voters.
In 2010, Republicans got 37 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas, Henson said, and Democrats got about 63 percent.
“That becomes a real benchmark for what happens this year,” Henson added. “The Abbott campaign has set as their goal 40 percent, and they have spent a lot of money on Hispanic turnout. We’ll be watching to see whether that has an impact at the top of the tickets.”
In the state where Republican Gov. Rick Perry touts the so-called “Texas Miracle” of economic growth, much to the chagrin of Democrats who think the claim is disingenuous, Van de Putte may need a miracle of her own if the polls are to be believed.
As night fell, she told NBC News the polls are missing the story of a momentum shift, the story she sees on the ground at bus tour stops in big cities and small towns. Earlier in the day, she said, a lifelong Republican approached her to say he had voted Democrat for the first time.
“These are people who are coming up to us,” Van de Putte said. “They’re either infrequent voters who are coming out, or independents and Republicans who are coming our way. We’re very thrilled in these last few weeks to be gaining that surge.”