AUSTIN — Twenty years ago this November, Texas elected George P. Bush’s uncle as governor. That election cemented Republicans in power in the Lone Star State after a steady period of ascendance.
Democrats haven’t won a statewide elective office since and their candidates for governor (state Sen. Wendy Davis) and lieutenant governor (state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte) are currently seen here in Texas as underdogs this fall.
In the two decades since George W. Bush became governor, the Republican Party here has turned several shades redder. Texas might qualify now as the epicenter of the conservative movement across the country. Here is just one example.
George P. Bush is the grandson and nephew of two presidents and the son of a former governor who is a possible presidential candidate in 2016. He is running for land commissioner in Texas this fall. His campaign symbolizes the steady rightward drift of the Republican Party in the Lone Star State.
The younger Bush carries one of the most famous names in American politics but other than the name, he is hardly basing his message on the legacy of his famous relatives. Even someone named Bush, apparently, is cautious about running as a Republican in Texas on the platform and principles of the kinder-gentler party of the family patriarch, former president George H.W. Bush.
He was interviewed here Friday night at the opening of the Texas Tribune Festival, a weekend of political talk sessions that has drawn thousands of people to the campus of the University of Texas.
The session was an illuminating 60 minutes as he sketched his conservative bona fides on immigration, same sex marriage and other issues. He described himself as “a Ronald Reagan Republican” and acknowledged that he has called Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) the future of the GOP.
The most surprising moment came when the conversation shifted to the 2016 presidential race. Evan Smith, the Tribune’s CEO and editor-in-chief, noted Bush’s description of Cruz as the future (offered when Cruz was first running for Senate) and asked if he would endorse the senator for president, should the senator run.
Bush responded diplomatically, saying that he planned to stay out of presidential politics in 2016. Smith then asked the obvious follow up question And got a more surprising answer. He asked: Would the younger Bush endorse his father, Jeb Bush, if the former Florida governor jumps into the race. Bush declined to say he would.
In November, Texas voters could elect the most conservative ticket of statewide officials in the state’s history. Grass-roots activists are even more conservative, as evidenced by the state GOP platform that was produced earlier this summer.
A look at the party’s changing leadership shows how things have changed. In Washington, Cruz replaced former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is a moderate conservative more in tune with the Bush wing of the party. Cruz is the darling of tea party and grass-roots conservative activists.
The state’s other senator, John Cornyn, is far from a firebrand in tone and temperament. On many issues, however, he may be as conservative as former Texas senator Phil Gramm. Still, he drew a primary challenge last spring (one he easily brushed off) because he didn’t satisfy the party’s hard-right faction.
In Austin, the biggest changing of the guard in statewide offices in years will take place after November, regardless of how individual races end.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is retiring after 14 years in office, with an eye to running for president again in 2016. He is more conservative than George W. Bush was as governor. If Republicans are successful in November, his successor, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, would be as, if not more, conservative than Perry in his ideas and style.
The state also will get a new lieutenant governor, an office that is one of the most powerful in Texas, rivaling that of the governor. The current occupant is David Dewhurst. He is leaving after having twice been defeated by tea party-backed opponents.
His first loss came in 2012, when Cruz beat him in a runoff for the Senate nomination. This year he was challenged in a four-way race in the primary for lieutenant governor. He made it into the second round, but lost the runoff.
The winner was state Sen. Dan Patrick, a radio talk show host who ran as the “authentic conservative” and is to the right of Dewhurst. Political analysts here say the next state Senate likely will be more conservative than the current one.
On issues, the grass roots of the party give voice to the evolution. The GOP platform adopted at the state convention this summer jettisoned what was known as the “Texas Solution” on immigration. The new plank calls for repealing the state law that allows resident Texas children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. The law was passed more than a decade ago with almost no opposition in either the state House or Senate.
The platform also calls for repealing the U.S. Constitution’s 17th Amendment, which allows the direct election of senators by popular vote, and returning that power to the state legislatures. The document decried the “appointment of unelected bureaucrats” and called on Congress to “defund and abolish” such positions. It also urged the legislature to “ignore, oppose, refuse, and nullify any federal mandated legislation which infringes upon the states’ 10th Amendment Right.”
Platforms often are ignored by elected officials and should not be taken too seriously as a blueprint for how a party would govern. But the 2014 document is a measure of what the most ardent activists in the state see as an ideal.
Democrats believe the GOP is now outside the mainstream of the Texas electorate. They will be tested to show that in November. Over time, they count on the state’s changing demographics either to bring them to power or to force the Republicans to shift back to the center.
Davis sought to make Abbott’s views an issue in their first debate Friday night. She went on offense, but Abbott parried effectively. Her hope now is to tap the energy around her candidacy to produce a bigger-than-expected turnout in November.
Meanwhile, the question is to what extent the Texas brand of conservatism is exportable in a national election. Perry and Cruz both are both considered possible 2016 candidates.
Perry’s platform would be built around the state’s economic gains and job growth during his tenure — a philosophy of low taxes, less regulation, fewer services and business incentives. Memories of his disastrous 2012 campaign stand as an obstacle in his path.
Cruz is the far more popular potential presidential candidate among Texas Republican activists, already eclipsing Perry even though he has been in office for not quite two years. He has lit a fire at party and conservative gatherings and appears poised to test his ideas in a national campaign.
Texas proudly thinks of itself as a nation-state. It has produced three presidents since the last half century — two Republicans named Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson. But will the country embrace the new Republican Party of Texas, if given the opportunity?