DALLAS (AP) — State Sen. Dan Patrick burnished his tea party credentials by appearing Thursday with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in hopes of further distancing himself in the race for lieutenant governor.
Huckabee, who once endorsed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in his failed bid for U.S. Senate in 2012, is now helping Patrick in his campaign to unseat the longtime Republican leader in a May runoff. Huckabee's shifted allegiance is another blow for Dewhurst, who Patrick topped by 13 percentage points in the GOP primary to weed out two other candidates and set up a runoff.
Appearing together at a luncheon with Patrick supporters, Huckabee called the lopsided voting tallies an "incredible, almost beyond historic kind of result." He also said Patrick, a Houston Republican, is "a person of impeccable integrity" and great communicator.
Patrick, a devout Christian, founded the tea party caucus in the Texas Legislature, making him a natural fit for Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and former 2008 presidential candidate who remains popular with evangelical Republicans and is mulling a possible second run at the White House in 2016.
Still, an appearance with a leading conservative figure such as Huckabee sparked speculation that Patrick could be attempting to become the top of the Texas tea party heap since U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's rise as a national superstar in the movement may have left a bit of a void back home.
Patrick, though, shrugged off that notion. "Ted is the tea party leader in Texas," he said, adding of Cruz: "We get along very well."
"I don't know where we would differ on the conservative issues," Patrick said. "I think he's doing a terrific job in the U.S. Senate and Ted and I are both feisty people. We stand and fight but we are very good friends; we've had good discussions."
Cruz, himself frequently mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential hopeful, visited Iowa on Tuesday to address an influential group of Christian homeschoolers and a GOP fundraiser — but then returned to Texas for a series of public events. A spokeswoman didn't return a message Thursday seeking comment.
Neither side, however, denies that Patrick and Cruz have had their differences. Dewhurst named Patrick the head of the powerful Senate Education Committee in 2012 and Patrick supported Dewhurst's senatorial bid against Cruz — an easy move since the state Republican establishment had all but anointed the sitting lieutenant governor as successor to retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
But Cruz eventually pulled off a once unthinkable upset over Dewhurst — and feuded with Patrick in the process. The pair even traded heated accusations of lying when Cruz appeared by phone on Patrick's radio show in July 2012.
Patrick said that if he is elected lieutenant governor, he will seek Cruz's help on ways to expand school choice in Texas. In Iowa, Cruz called offering greater educational flexibility to youngsters who live in neighborhoods with failing public schools the civil rights issue of the 21st century — echoing Patrick's past statements on the matter.
Indeed, Patrick has long called himself an "education evangelist" who strongly supports expanding charter schools and vouchers that would allow parents to pull their children out of struggling public schools and use state funding to send them to private ones. He also supports teaching "creationism," or the idea that the universe was made by a higher power, in public schools.
Patrick said Thursday that the theory of evolution and natural selection can co-exist with religious teachings in classrooms.
"I think we should teach both," he said. "The idea that we want to continue to deny God in this country has to end."
Dewhurst spokesman Travis Considine declined to comment.