The Elephants in the Room

With solid majorities in both houses of the Legislature and control of every statewide office, Republicans are girding for the ultimate battle with the real enemy in the 2006 elections: other Republicans.

JUST HOME FROM A WEEKEND TRIP in early November, state representative Tony Goolsby, of Dallas, went to his office and left his wife, Toppy, to check their voice mail messages. A few minutes later, Toppy called him. Most of the messages were routine, but there was one he needed to hear—an automated political poll. The first question was no surprise: Do you support Proposition 2, the constitutional amendment to defend traditional marriage? “Answer yes or no,” the robo-voice instructed. The next question took Tony completely by surprise. “If the election were held today, would you vote to reelect your state representative, Tony Goolsby?” It was the last thing he expected to hear—well, almost the last thing. He certainly hadn’t authorized the poll. There could be only one explanation: An unknown enemy was probing to see if he was vulnerable to a challenge. And then came the absolute last thing he expected to hear. “This poll was authorized and paid for by the Republican Party of Texas.” Was it possible that his own party was interested in defeating him?

As it turned out, Goolsby wasn’t the only Republican legislator whose constituents were polled about their representative by the state GOP. Others included Carter Casteel, of New Braunfels; Charlie Geren, of Fort Worth; Toby Goodman, of Arlington; Delwyn Jones, of Lubbock; Tommy Merritt, of Longview; and Todd Smith, of Euless. Smith, in particular, was outraged about the party’s participation in the poll. He says he confronted Jeff Fisher, the executive director of the Texas GOP, who claimed that the poll about Prop 2 was taken statewide, in every legislative district. But were other Republican lawmakers singled out? “Show me the list of the state representatives whose constituents were polled,” Smith said. Fisher refused. “Tell me how the list was compiled.” Again, he refused. “Why did you poll in my district?” This time Fisher answered: “To help you in case you have a Democratic opponent,” a response Smith characterized to me as “lying to my face.” His district is so solidly Republican that David Dewhurst, running for lieutenant governor in 2002 as a virtual unknown, got 65 percent of the district’s vote against veteran Democrat John Sharp. “What I want to know is where all this is leading,” Smith told me. “Who is calling the shots?”

Where this is leading is toward all-out war in the 2006 Republican primary. Many Republicans outside the Capitol—especially on the far right—are angry about the failure of Republicans inside the Capitol to enact the conservative agenda on school finance, spending, and other litmus-test issues. In 2003, the first session of Republican rule in 130 years, everything had gone according to plan: budget cuts, tort reform, congressional redistricting, and new restrictions on abortion. Then, in 2005, the majority couldn’t pass a school finance bill, provide property tax relief, impose budget restraints on local government, pass a school voucher program, or otherwise advance the ideological agenda embraced by Governor Rick Perry and such friends of the GOP as the influential Texas Public Policy Foundation, Republican National Committee member Bill Crocker, major donor James Leininger, and the authors of various conservative Internet newsletters. For months, speculation about a purge of Republican lawmakers who put the interests and desires of their constituents ahead of party orthodoxy has run rampant. If the anger of the ideologues can be transmitted to the GOP primary electorate (which, everyone agrees, is more conservative than the larger group of voters who identify themselves as Republicans), the March primary could become a witch hunt for incumbents derisively labeled RINOs, as in Republicans in Name Only.

But Tony Goolsby, Todd Smith, and the rest of the group that got such unwelcome attention from the state party are hardly RINOs. On the vast majority of votes, especially social issues ranging from gay marriage to abortion, they seldom stray. They see themselves as mainstream Republicans beholden to no one except the voters who sent them to Austin, and they simply aren’t going to support a school finance bill or a school voucher bill that’s unpopular back home. (Goolsby, for example, polls his district by mail every election cycle on their views about vouchers, and the smallest negative response has been 56 percent.)

It is an odd story: Having devoured the Democrats, the Republicans have turned on one another. The consequences for the state have been severe. This became evident during the fight over school finance last spring, when Speaker Tom Craddick and Kent Grusendorf, the Republican chairman of the House Public Education Committee, kept pushing a bill that tossed out the old system and imposed a series of mandates, often unfunded, on school districts in the name of reform. Republican lawmakers were squeezed between the viewpoint of the leadership, which was openly hostile to the education community on ideological grounds, and that of the education community back home, which itself was openly hostile to the leadership on policy grounds. This squeeze, along with the much-remarked-upon infighting between Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick (and sometimes Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn), prevented Republicans from producing a plan that had broad backing inside and outside the Capitol. Now, with the self-sabotage at fever pitch and primary season approaching, the big question being asked in Texas political circles is, What should a real Republican stand for?

Last summer I came across a Midland Web site called Jessica’s Well ( jessicaswell.com). A blogger calling himself “a&mgrad” had posted a plaintive comment about the direction his party was going. “Seems all it takes to be called a Republican these days in Midland and elsewhere is to be against abortion and gay rights and be for tax cuts and ‘the spread of Democracy in the world,’ and to hell with everything else.”

It is the absence of “everything else” that mainstream Republicans mourn. Not too long ago, when the Democrats still ran the state, Republicans stood for a clear set of principles, among them limited government, fiscal restraint, free markets, private-property rights, local control, and individual liberty. But the realities

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