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The Grand Old Divide

A victim of its own success, the Texas Republican Party is having an identity crisis.

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Illustration by Valero Doval

On April 14, 1976, Ronald Reagan stared in the face of political oblivion. Reagan, who was facing off against incumbent Gerald Ford in the Texas Republican presidential primary, knew that losing Texas meant the end of his campaign. And winning required dispensing with party purity. In Houston, Reagan appealed to  “November Republicans”—Democrats who voted in their primary in May and then voted Republican in the fall—to vote for him against Ford. “I think the election here concerns not just Republicans versus Democrats,” Reagan said. “I’m trying to appeal to a broad base of those whose philosophies are similar to mine. I wish they wouldn’t wait until November. I wish they would cross over now.” They did in droves, delivering a Texas victory to Reagan. Although Ford eventually won the party’s nomination that year, the victory was an important benchmark in Texas politics: The success of coaxing Democrats to cross over in that election set the state on a path to party realignment.

Four decades of realigning later, the Republican Party of Texas is having an identity crisis. Mainstream business Republicans are now derisively called “Republicans in Name Only” by many of the party newcomers, and the establishment found itself suddenly shoved aside by culture warriors and freedom fighters in the Freedom Caucus. The frustration is palpable.  “There are a number of us who have taken the position that we should just let the Freedom Caucus have the keys to the car, and when they drive it into the ditch as soon as they pull out of the driveway, then the adults can come back in and take the wheel,” Dallas lawyer and former county GOP Chairman Jonathan Neerman said.

This party disorientation does not portend the imminent downfall of the Republican empire of Texas. Without some unpredictable and swift change of fortune, the party will continue to dominate statewide elections—at present the Texas Democrats do not appear ready to even field a candidate for governor. But the party’s next moves could have effects for years to come. The question is whether the GOP establishment can keep the party focused on policies that promote economic growth, or if ideological purists will force party leaders into endless debates over gender and sexual identity, immigration, and abortion.

A widening split was evident in the Eighty-fifth Legislature. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick led social conservatives into a standoff with business-oriented House Speaker Joe Straus over transgender bathroom rights, ultimately crashing must-pass bills and forcing Governor Greg Abbott to call this summer’s special session. In the midst of this legislative flameout, state GOP Chairman Tom Mechler resigned for personal reasons, but left with a warning against party infighting. “A party that is fractured by anger and backbiting is a party that will not succeed,” Mechler wrote in his resignation letter.

The friction can partly be attributed to a Democratic party that’s too ineffective to rally against, said Neerman. Without a true outside opponent to spar with, he said, the various social conservative organizations have formed a “Justice League of the right wing” to battle against old school Republicans. “If the Democratic party was a viable option in the state, then that would allow the parties to have a real debate about policy,” Neerman said. “Instead, because on a statewide basis the Democrats have not been a viable alternative, it devolved into this civil war over bathrooms and other silly side issues that aren’t relevant to most Texans.”

And that is a precursor to another major issue: The Texas Republican Party is suffering from too much success. Party candidates have not lost a statewide election since 1994. For more than a decade, the party has held a legislative majority, thanks in part to district gerrymandering. Democrats still held 53 percent of the local elected offices when President Obama took office in 2009, but now Republicans hold 67 percent, more than 3,000 offices at the state and county level. Outside of the major cities and the Rio Grande Valley, Texas is effectively a one-party state. As a result, the party has factionalized, and the infighting is rampant.

Texas ideology map. Information courtesy Michael Baselice, Republican pollster.

Illustration by Anna Donlan. Photographs courtesy Zach Gibson / Stringer, Pool / Pool, Aaron P. Bernstein / Stringer, Mark Wilson / Staff, and T.J. Kirkpatrick / Stringer.

It has been a long time coming. The modern party founders in the 1960s and 1970s were business Republicans, divided into Goldwater/Reagan conservatives and Ford/Bush moderates. Then, in 1994, evangelical Christians took control of the Texas party infrastructure. U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison—the last pro-choice Republican to win a major primary—was badgered at a county convention for her stance on abortion. A long-time party secretary snidely joked that 1994 was the first state convention where delegates asked about trailer hookups instead of hotel rooms, and a candidate for party chair was booed for declaring “the Republican Party is not a church.” A shift was beginning.

As governor, George W. Bush maintained a truce with the religious right as he pushed a business-oriented agenda of tort reform and tax restructuring in the Legislature. Governor Rick Perry also stayed friendly with the business community, but he saw the value of appealing to evangelicals on issues such as gay marriage. With Perry’s encouragement, evangelicals became an entrenched part of the party. Former congressman Ron Paul then brought libertarian-leaning supporters into the fold during his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid. As a result, tea party groups that erupted the following year were a coalition between social conservatives and libertarians determined to make fundamental changes in government at all levels.

Although the tea party groups and organizations like the Eagle Forum, Texas Home School Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Empower Texans, and Grassroots America are not officially a part of the state Republican Party, they operate like auxiliaries. Business-oriented groups, like the Associated Republicans of Texas and the Texas Association of Business, often have their own priorities and candidates, and that leads to proxy wars within the GOP.

Austin businessman James Dickey, who replaced Mechler as state party chairman, downplays the party’s division. “Those wings have their own preferred top issues, or maybe even have some fairly substantial differences on multiple issues. And that’s appropriate for a party that welcomes all who agree with us,” he said. Just because Republicans don’t see eye to eye on one issue, Dickey explained, they may agree on another, meaning that disagreements shouldn’t automatically end in “contentious environments.”

Former Harris County Republican Chairman Jared Woodfill, who now heads a group opposed to gay rights, sees that divide a little differently. According to Woodfill, the real problem is what he called “Strausians,” or the “liberal to moderate Republicans . . . who clearly are more closely aligned with the Democrats on many issues than they are with the Republican Party of Texas and its platform.” Woodfill also notes that Straus’s political base as House speaker is the Democratic caucus and a core group of Republicans. Straus initially won election as speaker in 2009 by building on a coalition of Democrats and eleven House Republicans. Since then, his re-election has never been seriously challenged.

Straus’s position on issues such as transgender bathroom use and public school finance reform have been in line with conservative business groups like local chambers of commerce and the Texas Association of Business. In the past, business in Texas has been practically a political party of its own, and for more than a century it existed within the once dominant Democratic party. Economic populism in the late nineteenth century tended toward farmers challenging railroads, and in the twentieth century business interests used political clout to limit union influence. As the national Democratic party moved toward civil rights and the Vietnam war, many in Texas business started seeing the Republican party as a conservative alternative.

But now, the big business relationship could be strained. One of the oldest Republican support organizations is the Associated Republicans of Texas. Founded in 1974 by the late U.S. Senator John Tower, the group probably has done more to move Republicans from holding less than two-dozen seats in the 181-member Legislature to its current majority. The ART donated more than $8 million to legislative campaigns over seventeen years and helped finance redistricting fights. Current co-chairman Hector DeLeon fears that the social conservative agenda is going to damage the Republican brand, just as liberals harmed the Democratic party in the eyes of many Texas voters, particularly those in rural areas.

“There’s nothing that says that the Republican party has a mandate from God to be the majority party in Texas forever and a day,” DeLeon said, cautioning against the members of his party who won’t acknowledge the existence of moderate Republicans. “That’s the danger you run into when the party becomes so successful that it cannot stand prosperity. And that’s what happened to the Democrats . . . They cannibalized themselves into a minority party, and if the Republican party isn’t careful, that’s what’s going to happen to the Republican party.”

Even as many Republicans agree that there is a party identity crisis, there is little agreement on how to meld the business and social conservatives into one harmonious group. For some, such as Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party President Julie McCarty, the real answer is to drive apostates out. McCarty—who once opposed a candidate because he was a Methodist, a denomination that, in her words, “believes everything goes”—said that for the Republican Party to grow, its candidates must a passionately embrace the platforms passed by activists at the state party conventions. “The party is definitely divided, and I think it will continue to be divided, simply because there are two schools of thought on what really defines conservatism,” she said. The “establishment,” she said, “doesn’t really care about the platform.” She is disappointed that tea party groups have to “babysit” legislators to make certain they follow the party.

There are several wild cards going into next year’s elections—Democratic discontent over the 2016 presidential outcome, President Trump and the Russia investigation, and uncertainty over whether the Texas sanctuary cities law will inspire a new wave of Hispanic voters to turn out. At present, however, the overall statewide outlook is for another scorched-earth series of Republican victories. But politicians need opponents to fire up their base. Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke’s unabashed liberalism may yet serve that purpose in his challenge to incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. But if O’Rourke fails to become the Republican boogeyman, without President Obama on the ballot, Republicans are left without the usual suspects. McClatchy’s Washington news bureau reported earlier this summer that strategy already is being formulated by Republican consultants, and quoted one as saying, “Hillary Clinton is not on the ballot so you have to have something else to run against.”

Republicans seem to have a replacement in mind. In a discussion I had with former party chairman Mechler, he repeatedly brought up, without prompting, the idea that the news media is biased against Republicans. “I think the mainstream media is an extension of the Democratic party, and it’s always touting the party line,” he said. Mechler said he believes the media downplayed Trump’s recent visit to the Middle East to meet with the heads of numerous Muslim nations. “And if Obama had done that he would—they would have gone on and on. It’s absurd. What’s happening in the process of that? People ignore the media. They don’t trust the media.”

Media bashing and would-be Democratic candidates only get Republicans just so far. Still, they have each other as sparring partners. “There’s no way to accommodate everybody,” said McCarty. “And I hear that all the time—it’s all about unity, we’re all going to come together, we’re all going to work together. There’s no way. You have two completely opposite ideals. If we’ve got to find common ground then you’re giving up on what you truly believe in. So I think the momentum is in favor of the conservatives because that’s where you have your most passionate activists. So there are a lot of people that are still establishment GOP, but our numbers are growing—the conservative numbers are growing—and theirs are not.”

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  • WUSRPH

    Glad to see you back Hope you had a great vacation….well earned of course.

    As to this thread…..about all I can say is, if the McCarty’s are triumphant, Texas is in for a very bad time to come…
    .
    Bullock used to say that we—as a state—would not really face up to our responsibilities until the schools were closed, the prison gates were opened wide and the roads were full of holes…..He may have been too optimistic about what it will take.

  • WUSRPH

    Glad to see you back. I hope you had a good vacation. I found your piece very interesting and, needless-to-say, disturbing for the possibilities it raises for the future of Texas and the nation…

    You may remember that back last year when Ms. G was doing the BB we had a lengthy discussion of what would happen to the GOP after it lost the presidential election (boy, were we off on that one)….There were all kinds of predictions…mine was for a three-way split between the remnants of the Trumptarian movement (with or without Trump himself), a group of “social-religious” conservatives possibly headed by Cruz and the rump of the old “business conservatives”…..From what you say I may not have been that far off the mark….although I now see that I should have given a bigger role to the basic anti-government elements that infect the Freedom Caucus and perhaps less of a role to Cruz. . However, I must admit that few of us at the time saw—as your piece makes clear—that the breakup of the GOP would actually accelerate AFTER they won and with even greater vehemence. In fact, if we thought the GOP primaries were nasty two years ago, I suspect that 2018 will make that look like a school yard squabble.

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  • BCinBCS

    R.G.,great synopsis of today’s Texas Republican party. It’s articles like yours (and TV programs like PBS’s Frontline) that I especially enjoy because they bring into focus the interrelated forest composed of the many separate trees that I tend to only see.

    It’s interesting to read the emphasis that you and others place on the problems that the GOP has because they do not have a viable opposition against whom they can run. I may be looking at this wrong but it seems that Republicans should be campaigning for ideas rather than campaigning against ideas.

  • Mark Sanders

    Well done, R.G. New hat. Same great insight.

  • John Bernard Books

    I think it is healthy when a party has disagreements and works through them. I like it that the republican party isn’t going in lockstep over the cliff like the dem party.
    What is unhealthy is being told how to think:
    ““Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said in a statement. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/democrats-tom-perez-abortion-rights_us_58fa5fade4b018a9ce5b351d

    I like it when dems self destruct…..

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  • donuthin2

    Seems to me that the party which has a convincing majority in the legislature, has an opportunity from a position of power to take the high road. They could be more inclusive with the minority party and create an atmosphere of cooperation that would help make things happen for the best interests of the people. But in today’s environment, that doesn’t happen. They seem to use their position of power to take the low road. Guess it would be true today, no matter which party was in the majority.

    • WUSRPH

      What you describe was once possible at least at various times but when both parties have worked themselves into a frenzy over the moral evil of their opponents it becomes impossible.

      • donuthin2

        Unfortunate, but I agree. A problem at both the national and state level. We all pay the price.

    • José

      My take was something very similar. This is a party that is not interested in governing. The one thing they do well is opposing. That’s a fundamentally fatal flaw. I don’t see how they can overcome it.

    • St. Anger

      You guess wrong. The missions of the parties are fundamentally different, but this doesn’t mean they both only care about themselves.

      The very premise of the Democratic Party is to help those who need it, not just other democrats. Republicans, no.

      I know it is important for your worldview not to see that, though.

      • donuthin2

        It has been so long since the Democrats have had a commanding lead that we don’t know, but with the changing times I would guess they would be very much the same.

        • St. Anger

          Yes, national evidence to the contrary.

  • roadgeek

    There’s a good article in this month’s New Yorker about Texas, and the Texas legislature. Fairly even-handed.

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/10/americas-future-is-texas

    • BCinBCS

      Now that is a good read.

      As I commented earlier, I especially like articles that enable me to see the big picture of the forest rather than trying to interpret it from the close-up of the individual trees.

      Even though it is long, I would recommend everyone who is interested in the “politics” of Texas politics take the time, grab a cup of coffee or tea and kick back and read it. If you seek clarity about what is going on with the Texas legislature, it’s a great read.

      Thanks for the catch, geek.

      • roadgeek

        I cannot take all the credit. The AA-S mentioned the article and provided a link.

        • WUSRPH

          And it was posted on the prior thread last week when it first came out.

          • BCinBCS

            And it was posted on the prior thread last week…

            Well. you know the story about the mule and the 2X4…for me, sometimes it takes two whacks.

          • WUSRPH

            Maybe it was because you are getting more discerning in which posts you read.

          • BCinBCS

            Y’all know that my particular interests lie in science, healthcare and Keynesian (as versus trickle-down/supply-side) economics. I have expounded many times against the discredited yet still alive theory of conservatives that if the nation simply gave more money to people who have more than they can now spend that the economy will soar to new heights.

            The Republican party’s overarching goal is to redistribute as much money to the upper class as possible. Comrade Trump/Bannon’s sole purpose in repealing Obamacare is to capture the taxes that pays for the ACA and pass them to the ultra-wealthy. After wrecking healthcare for literally millions and millions and millions of people, Comrade Trump/Bannon wants to next tackle “tax reform”. And by “tax reform” the Republicans mean funneling even more money away from the middle- and lower class to the upper class.

            So, Wusrph, roadgeek and any others who want to know the history and consequences of modern U.S. economics, I’m going to do you a “solid” by recommending a July 3rd analysis by Josh Mound in Jacobin that enables the big picture “forest” from the political “trees” to which we are daily exposed. It a great article called “The Democrats Are Eisenhower Republicans” and it is well worth the read.

            https://jacobinmag.com/2017/07/trump-tax-cuts-health-care-democrats-redistribution

  • WUSRPH

    I found the chart with this article interesting for the relative strengths it shows for the various factions in the GOP…..but, while it may reflect their actual sizes, it fails to project what Ms. McCarty said about the “passion” that would ultimately result in giving her radical right group full control of the party. They—and the social/religious conservatives—already control the platform and are picking up about two or there seats in the House each primary. The power of a small, dedicated and radical group—whether it be the “Vanguard of the Proletariat” or the “Tea Party”—to have a much greater influence than justified by their actual numbers has been a recurring problem throughout history. JJ and company used to talk about how more “moderate” Republicans would emerge to take back the primaries and the party’s image….but, from what I can see, they are either mythical or not willing to join in the fight….Perhaps the problem with the mythical moderates is that they are too moderate to get down in the trenches at the precinct conventions and party meetings where Ms. McCarty and her friends work so hard.

    • BCinBCS

      Perhaps the problem with the mythical moderates is that they are too moderate to get down in the trenches at the precinct conventions and party meetings…

      Similar to to the way that Hispanics are with voting for the Democratic party in Texas.

  • SpiritofPearl
  • St. Anger

    Talk about an Overton shift. Democrats don’t win anything, sure, but to suggest, as the chart does, that “Texas ideology” is 100 percent republican factions ignores the 37 percent or so of Texans who think all that stuff is bulls$&t.

    Maybe the chart is mislabeled?

    • WUSRPH

      It only reflects on GOP pollster’s view of the Republican Party and does not attempt to do something similar for the Democratic Party….But it would be interesting to see one….as long as it is not the legendary firing squad formed into a circle facing inwards.

      • St. Anger

        I realize that. Just thought it was amusing that it doesn’t say that.

  • WUSRPH

    You have probably heard about the buttons supposedly being worn around the Capitol (by staff) that say: Sunset and Sine Die. The buttons advocate that the Legislature pass the necessary sunset bill and then go home leaving the rest of Governor Abbott’s 20 item agenda for another time. I have been promoting such a move since before the regular session needed. And at least one major newspaper has endorsed the idea. BUT although doing so would certainly feel good and, in some ways, would be good public policy since it would kill Abbott’s ill-conceived and power grabbing measures, it would be horrible politically. It would just give Patrick, Empower Texas and the so-called Freedom Caucus ammunition for an all-out attack on Speaker Straus and his allies during the GOP primaries with claims that they were afraid to face the issues. As such, as much as we would all enjoy the picture of Patrick (and Abbott) standing there watching the Legislature leave town….it probably won’t happen. Shame.

    • SpiritofPearl

      Slightly off topic, but from my studies of Latin, I was taught to pronounce “sine die” SEE-NAY DEE-AY. A person I know recently pronounced it SIGN DYE. Is that the Texas pronounciation?

      • WUSRPH

        Pretty close…..I would say Sy ne die myself.

        • SpiritofPearl

          Really?

          Another Texasism . . .

  • WestTexan70

    There is no identity crisis — they’re nasty. horrible, greedy people.

    That’s all one needs to know about “conservatives”. I’ll fight these SOBs until my last breath.

  • scottrob

    I think this is inevitable. You just can’t hold a totally single party governing structure together. Something similar is happening in California, only it is the dominant democrats splitting. it is the nature of the beast.

  • WUSRPH

    A little bit off the thread: If you have not read Gov. Abbott’s “call” of the special session—-released today—you should…I do not think I have ever seen such a declaration of war on the idea that “the government closest to the people is the best government”. It includes item after item that represent a direct attack on the ability of local voters and their elected representatives to control their own local affairs. Republicans used to talk a lot about the importance of “local control”, but Abbott clearly does not share that belief….except, perhaps, when what the local citizenry wants is limited to what he approves. It will be interesting to see how many of the GOP majority in the House and Senate follow his lead….I suspect that we will see a number of amendments to exempt rural and smaller sized cities and governments since it is primarily the larger “Blue” cities and counties that appear to bother Abbott the most. And to think this may all be result of the fact that the City of Austin would not let him cut down a pecan tree.

    • WUSRPH

      We probably have not had a governor so intent on concentrating power at the state level since our first GOP Governor Edmund Davis……One can only hope that what happened to him as a result happens to Abbott….It would be nice to go another 104 years without a Republican governor.

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  • WUSRPH

    While there is still no firm evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, Jr.’s e-mails sure make it look like they wanted to.

    • BCinBCS

      “We’re now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what’s being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements, and even into potentially to treason,” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s former vice presidential running mate, told reporters Tuesday morning.”

      “Republican Senator Lindsey Graham also expressed concern, saying: “Anytime you’re in a campaign, and you get an offer from a foreign government to help your campaign, the answer is no. I don’t know what Mr. Trump Jr.’s version of the facts are, definitely he has to testify, that email was disturbing … on its face this is very problematic.”

      Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who is a member of the Senate committee probing Russian election involvement, put out a statement on Tuesday saying “these emails show there is no longer a question of whether this campaign sought to collude with a hostile foreign power to subvert America’s democracy. The question is how far the coordination goes.”

      https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/donald-trump-jr-emails-russia-congress/533262/

      • WUSRPH

        Try this wild theory: Daddy didn’t know (at least at the time)…It was the “kids” trying to impress him.

        • SpiritofPearl

          I knew they were corrupt. I’m astonished at how stupid they are.

          • WUSRPH

            The National Review says that all this makes the full investigation “an national necessity”

            http://tinyurl.com/yccj5s8b

            “As of now, we should have zero confidence that we know all or even most material facts. We should have zero confidence that Trump’s frustration is entirely due to his feeling like an innocent man caught in the crosshairs of crazed conspiracy theorists. It now appears that his son, son-in-law, and campaign chair met with a lawyer who they were told was part of an official Russian government effort to impact the presidential election. The Russian investigation isn’t a witch hunt anymore, if it ever was. It’s a national necessity.”

          • WUSRPH

            Here is a horrible thought:

            We’ve gotten so cynical and disdainful of politicians that none of this makes any difference, especially to the Trump base? Will they see this as the dangerous threat to our national institutions or will they say: “So what….everybody does it…Hillary would have if they had offered it to her…and what counts is that Trump won.”

            People were still shocked by what Nixon did but after Watergate was followed by Irangate with its blatant violations of the law “pardoned” by George HW , all the investigations of the Clintons (that produced nothing). the “WMD” and the “birthers’ and worse, have we lost our belief in what might be right and wrong in politics and public office. I am almost afraid to find out.

          • SpiritofPearl

            Papa Bear knew. He’s a micromanager.

        • BCinBCS

          It was the “kids” trying to impress him.

          As you know, though, it’s not the act but the cover-up that creates the problem.

  • WUSRPH

    The fact that Straus’ own county GOP Executive Committee has called for a new speaker is just another demonstration of how radical right the party structure has become…..one has to hope that the voters in his district don’t follow their lead.

    • donuthin2

      Too many R legislators are afraid to stand up to the radical right of their constituency even when they might not represent the majority but rather the loudest.

  • WUSRPH

    I guess that after all I am still able to be shocked… Hey, folks….it DOES NOT matter whether what Donald Jr. and company did was a crime or that they got nothing useful from the meeting, IT WAS WRONG. IT WAS WRONG TO KNOWINGLY MEET WITH WHO YOU THOUGHT WAS AN AGENT OF A FOREIGN GOVERNMENT THAT WAS INTERFERING IN THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE DO IN THIS COUNTY–ELECT A PRESIDENT. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN WRONG IF HILLARY DID IT. OR CRUZ. OR CHRISTIE. OR ANY OF THEM. CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?

  • WUSRPH

    Well Trump finally has gone one up on Obama…..He’s actually had an article of impeachment filed against him. Obama was never able to achieve that “honor”. Although various GOPers called for and advocated impeaching Obama many times during his presidency, but, unlike Trump, no member of Congress ever actually filed an official charge.
    The Donald is off to Paris to see how people really can put on a parade…..horsemen with shinny silver breastplates and fancy helmets and everything.. hope he doesn’t get carried away by it all and like Nixon dress the WH security in fancy uniforms….Nixon got laughed at for it, but then he never surrounded himself with gold-plated tin like Trump does.

  • Kozmo

    If the Republicans have nothing except fear and paranoia to feed upon, they have nothing. What a bankrupt, hollow, hateful organization they have become. Still very dangerous, of course, just like a rabid dog is.