White House

Texas Trump backers say staying in Austin, having president’s ear, suits them fine

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller at the Gaylord National Resort in January. Miller was a vocal defender of President Donald Trump during the campaign.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller at the Gaylord National Resort in January. Miller was a vocal defender of President Donald Trump during the campaign. McClatchy

A month before the election, Republican politicians in Texas were in an awkward spot.

Their presidential nominee was behind in the polls. A leaked videotape capturing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women dominated the headlines.

Some Republicans, like Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth and Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio, called on Trump to drop out. Others, like Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz, condemned Trump but stopped short of saying he should quit.

But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller had a clear message in Trump’s darkest hour: Hillary Clinton is far worse.

“We can’t let this firestorm distract voters from the frightening policies revealed today in the WikiLeaks of Hillary’s emails, including her dream of open trade and open borders, which would spell ruin for the future of our country,” Patrick said after the tape was released.

The two statewide officials were Trump’s biggest Texas cheerleaders in the final stages of the campaign, headlining fundraisers, introducing Trump at rallies and shouting down naysayers on cable news when others shied away.

“I was basically the only surrogate speaker Trump had out of all the statewides,” Miller said, referring to officials who’d been elected in statewide contests. “Some wouldn’t even mention his name. It was kind of like he had kryptonite in his pocket or something.”

There’s a difference between who is officially in power and who is actually in power. Presidents will have a back channel relationship, and that’s really Dan Patrick and Sid Miller.

Brandon Rottinghaus, University of Houston professor

Patrick said members of Trump’s inner circle reached out to him hours after the election results were official to thank him for the role Texas had played in the campaign.

“Five hours after the election was called I got a text from Don Jr., his son,” Patrick said. He said, “ ‘I just want to thank you and all the Texans who helped us. You all came through just as you said you would, and everywhere my father and I went the last two weeks of the campaign we ran into Texans working for us in all the key states.’ ”

But Miller and Patrick aren’t headed to the White House, despite their loyalty to the president.

Patrick publicly declared he had no interest in an administration position shortly after the election, while Miller was unsuccessful in his bid to lead the Department of Agriculture.

For now, both will continue to hold statewide office, emboldened by a conservative electorate that rewards charismatic leadership and gravitas over rigid political ideology.

But both also have the Trump administration’s ear.

“Both Miller and Patrick are vanguards of a new, more vocal aggressive wing of the Republican Party that wants change at any cost, willing to push over boundaries and see past traditions to get there,” said University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus, author of a recent book on contemporary Texas politics.

Patrick said he had sent Trump’s transition team the names of 20 Texans who he thought would be assets to the White House. Miller said he would continue his role as an adviser to Trump on agricultural issues.

“Rural America put Donald Trump in the presidency, and they can get mad just as quick as they got glad for Donald Trump,” said Miller, a cattle rancher from Stephenville, Texas.

The pair’s leadership style mimics the president’s. Patrick and Miller frequently talk to the news media – and use news conferences and interviews to bash what they perceive as unfair coverage. Both are prolific on social media, although Miller prefers to sound off on Facebook instead of Twitter, Trump’s chosen platform.

Both politicians insist they are happy in Texas. Patrick quashed speculation that he will challenge Abbott for governor in 2018, and said he was content in his current role.

“I don’t think the public cares about an elected official’s ambition,” Patrick said in an interview with McClatchy. “I think the media cares more about it. My ambition is to be the best lieutenant governor in the history of the state. That’s my ambition. I love what I do. I get to live in Texas 20 minutes away from my grandchildren.”

Miller and Patrick aren’t policy wonks in the mold of Jeb Bush; they embrace controversial issues and talk about them in plain, simple terms.

Patrick has made a point of spearheading a so-called bathroom bill in Texas, which would require transgender Texans to use the restrooms that correspond to the genders on their birth certificates, and he said voters rewarded politicians, like North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who took a stand. Forest, who vocally supported the bathroom bill in North Carolina, beat his Democratic opponent by 6 points in November despite his running mate narrowly losing his bid for re-election as governor.

“Legislation to protect women’s privacy and business is essential to assure that sexual predators . . . will not be able to freely enter women’s restrooms,” Patrick said in a note after North Carolina decided not to overturn its bathroom bill in December.

“North Carolina has the second strongest economy; they had a couple of basketball tournaments canceled and PayPal and a couple of companies who have liberal leadership decided to leave,” Patrick said. “Donald Trump knows he was elected by the conservative Christian voters of America. I don’t know his personal views on every issue, but I talked to him about the (bathroom) issue on his plane.”

Miller’s first action as agriculture commissioner was to give “amnesty” to cupcakes in opposition of state-mandated nutritional policies in schools. He maintains that local school districts should have more decision-making power and lamented fraud in the school lunch program.

But a Trump presidency could have rocky moments for libertarian-leaning Texas Republicans like Miller. Earlier this week, a list of proposed infrastructure projects the federal government might fund included a high-speed rail project from Dallas to Houston that has drawn the ire of landowners in Central Texas worried about the threat of eminent domain.

Rottinghaus said Miller and Patrick were adept at dealing with issues that might anger their base like the proposed high-speed rail project, using the Trump tactic of vocally taking credit for any progress made as a sign that their leadership mattered.

“There’s a difference between who is officially in power and who is actually in power,” Rottinghaus said. “Presidents will have a back channel relationship, and that’s really Dan Patrick and Sid Miller. There are people who have a public face, but people who are calling the president after hours are the people able to set the agenda.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty