When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his Tea Party allies took control of congressional Republicans’ legislative strategy last month in an ultimately failed effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, veteran Republicans worried their party had been commandeered by a small faction of extremists.
Those who worry over Cruz’s influence, however, would do well to avoid his home state. A little more than a year after Cruz upset establishment favorite David Dewhurst, the Texas lieutenant governor, in his bid to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), the entire Texas Republican Party resembles the take-no-prisoners, damn-the-torpedoes approach Cruz has taken in Washington.
Dewhurst himself is exhibit one. A conservative businessman and former CIA officer with a low-key temperament, Dewhurst last week called for President Obama to be impeached over the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
Dewhurst’s comments come in the midst of his second difficult primary campaign in two years. Three other Republicans — state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — are challenging Dewhurst from the right. All four candidates are trying to appeal to a Republican base that, in the words of one Texas GOP strategist watching the race from afar, is in no mood to back down.
The crowded field of big-name Republicans has taken a page from Cruz’s playbook by calling for a rollback of a 2001 law that allows undocumented immigrants who have graduated from Texas public schools to receive in-state tuition at state universities.
During his own rise to prominence in 2011, Cruz came out against the law; all four lieutenant governor candidates said at a debate near Houston earlier this month they oppose it, too (Staples was a state senator and voted for the law when it originally passed).
Patrick, in particular, has seized on the issue to differentiate himself from the field. In his first paid advertisement, Patrick calls himself the only candidate to oppose the in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants.
That’s a startling break with the Texas Republican Party of the past. Just four state legislators voted against the law when it passed, in response to a federal court order, in 2001. Gov. Rick Perry (R), just months into his own first term as chief executive, signed the bill, which at the time drew little attention. But the law has had few champions since; Texas Republican strategists said the issue has come up in virtually every statewide Republican primary since.
It remains unclear whether the campaign season fervor building against in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants will lead to actual legislation to overturn the 12-year old law.
“It’s a tough sell to Texas Republican primary voters to support in-state tuition for illegal immigrants while opposing in-state tuition for American citizens,” said Corbin Casteel, a GOP strategist in Austin. “We will see how that issue plays out in the 2014 election cycle and if the Republicans are brave enough to address it.”
The shift to the populist right has been a common move in Texas Republican politics for decades. Several party operatives recalled that Perry himself was the last candidate to openly embrace the tea party movement to his own advantage.
As Perry sought re-election to an unprecedented fourth term in 2010, early internal surveys showed he trailed both Hutchison, in the Republican primary, and Democrat Bill White, in the general election to follow. But on April 15, 2009, at one of the first major tea party rallies, Perry hinted that secession might be an option.
“There’s a lot of different scenarios,” Perry said at the time. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.”
Perry went on to beat Hutchison, who ran as a more centrist candidate, by 21 points in the primary. He bested White by 13 points in the general election.
Two years later, Cruz defeated Dewhurst by riding a tea party wave that was ascendent at exactly the right moment.
The strain of populist anger that has surged through the Texas Republican activist class reflects a “panic,” said Ray Sullivan, a GOP strategist and former top Perry aide, about what he called the “socialist tendencies” coming out of Washington.
Even Sen. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in Senate leadership, has ratcheted up his rhetorical appeals to the tea party. Cornyn was one of just three Republicans — along with Cruz and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) — to vote against confirming Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. Cornyn and Cruz have voted almost entirely in lock step this year, leading some Texas Republicans to joke that Cruz is the only freshman in Congress with two votes.
Cornyn has lately expressed his own frustrations with Cruz’s legislative strategy, which senior Republicans criticized for being poorly thought-out. Cornyn said he would have voted to break a filibuster on a continuing resolution to keep the government open, while privately asking Cruz to give up the Senate floor during an all-night speech that came just days before the government shut down.
Back home, Cornyn took heat for standing up to Cruz.
“If the right candidate showed up, Sen. Cornyn would have a fight on his hands, and a fight his money wouldn’t protect him from,” JoAnn Fleming, a Texas-based tea party activist, told the Dallas Morning News. “I do believe Sen. Cornyn could be retired next year, based on this alone.”
The activist class that sent Cruz to Washington, and so heavily influenced both Perry and Cornyn, is far from finished. And while Cruz didn’t win many friends or much influence in Washington, he’s right at home in Texas.