Establishment and tea party Republicans can comb through the results of Tuesday’s primaries in Texas and find something to feel good about. But the real story out of the state this winter is the degree to which the most conservative wing of the party is ascendant. This is not the same party that brought George W. Bush to the governor’s office 20 years ago.
Establishment Republicans will take comfort in the easy victories of Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Pete Sessions over their tea party opponents. There was never a suggestion that Cornyn was in real danger, despite the fact that Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party darling, declined to endorse him. Rep. Steve Stockman was not close to being a serious candidate. Sessions’s tea party opponent had the support of Sarah Palin and Cruz’s father, which ended up counting for little in that race.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was nominated as the party’s gubernatorial candidate almost by acclimation. Establishment and tea party Republicans are united behind him as he looks toward a general-election campaign against state Sen. Wendy Davis (D). Abbott starts as the clear favorite to succeed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who will step down at the end of his term after 14 years in office.
Davis must hope that she can overcome some early growing pains in her campaign with the passionate support she has generated since her well-publicized filibuster last summer of an abortion-restriction bill (that later became law). Republicans now are confident that the governor’s office will remain in their hands, and with a candidate who may be more conservative than Perry.
The GOP primary for lieutenant governor produced the most fireworks throughout the campaign. Incumbent David Dewhurst faced three opponents, two statewide officeholders and a state senator, each more conservative than the last. Dewhurst felt the sting of the tea party’s lash in 2012 when he sought the Senate seat of the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison. He led the first round of voting, only to see Cruz overtake him in the runoff.
On Tuesday, he didn’t even manage to lead in the primary for lieutenant governor, gaining just 28 percent of the vote. The leader and now favorite to become the nominee is state Sen. Dan Patrick, who hailed his strong outcome as a sign that the tea party is alive and well in Texas. “We will show the rest of the country what it means to be conservative,” he said at his victory rally.
The lieutenant governor’s office is one of the most powerful in the state; some would say more powerful than the weak governor’s office created by the Texas Constitution. If Patrick becomes the nominee and wins in November, he will be the most conservative person to hold that office in modern times.
Democrats claim that Texas will turn blue in the not-too-distant future, a result of the growing Hispanic population. It’s only a matter of time, they say, before they once again will be able to elect their candidates to statewide office, only a matter of time before a Democratic presidential nominee can compete seriously for the state’s electoral votes.
Realistically, Democrats are years away from making that happen. Davis’s candidacy, Democrats hope, will accelerate the process. She will try to appeal to suburban women and other voters by arguing that her opponent — and by extension the entire Republican Party in Texas — has become too extreme in his conservatism.
Texas is preparing for a wholesale swap of its statewide elected officials. Perry’s departure and Dewhurst’s vulnerabilities set off a scramble that could result in all major statewide offices having new occupants after the November elections. Republicans are favored in all of them; Democrats have been shut out since the 1990s. The primary campaigns provided plenty of evidence of where the locus of power now rests in the Texas GOP, and it is with Cruz and the tea party wing.
When Bush was governor, he made a partnership with then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat. He worked cooperatively with Democrats, who controlled the legislature. In his first race for governor, he took a hard line on crime, as all Republicans did in 1994, and he followed the lead of others for reforming welfare.
But he would not endorse California’s Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to deny services to illegal immigrants that Pete Wilson, California’s Republican governor at the time, pushed to secure his reelection. Bush never claimed to be anything other than a conservative, but his brand of conservatism in Texas was far more mainstream than that of Cruz and some of those candidates running in down-ballot races this year.
There has been little sign that Republican candidates are worried about being viewed as too far to the right. It has been just the opposite. Abbott campaigned with rocker Ted Nugent, who had described President Obama as a “subhuman mongrel” and didn’t back away from him despite a storm of criticism. Under duress, Nugent later issued an apology to the president.
Republicans nationally continue to debate the right strategy to win a presidential election: offering an even bolder conservative agenda or looking for ways to soften the edges in hopes of peeling away parts of President Obama’s coalition of women, minorities, younger voters and those with college and post-graduate degrees.
There’s no such debate in Texas, where GOP candidates play primarily to their base. With no worries for now about winning general elections, all the incentives push them to the right. Their impulse is to out-conservative their opponents.
Republicans campaigning for those down-ballot offices ran on guns (no restrictions), abortion (yes restrictions), immigration (no amnesty) and religion — whether those issues were pertinent to the responsibilities of the offices they were seeking. And they ran against Obama. Abbott’s credentials have included his proud claim of multiple lawsuits against the president and the federal government.
Call this tea party Republicanism or a purer strain of conservatism. The construct that this was a true test of the GOP establishment vs. the tea party misses the point. As a new generation of leaders rises in the Lone Star State, there are few dissenters from the views of the party’s most conservative wing.