Right to Strife

The May primaries proved that Republicans care more about partisanship than they do about governing. That’s not just bad for Texas—it’s bad for conservatives. 

July 2012By Comments

Elections are clarifying events. The 2010 cycle, for instance, confirmed that the Democratic party was no longer a force in Texas politics. The lesson of the 2012 primary, which will become clearer after the runoff elections on July 31, is even more dramatic than the death of the Democrats: the Republican party in Texas is in danger of breaking into factions as it moves inexorably to the right. Its candidates are increasingly representative of two types—call them insurgents and moderates, or ideologues and mainstream conservatives, or tea partiers and civic leaders. They coexist though they have nothing in common, and the future course of the party favors the insurgents.

The May 29 primary revealed itself to be, in part, an exercise in purification. One of the most significant aspects of the election was the increasing numbers of ideologically driven political operatives—former county chairs and staffers for high-profile politicians, for example—who were running for office against mainstream conservatives. And the results were decisive: seven incumbents knocked off, including three House committee chairs (with two others forced into runoffs).

Consider the battle for an open House seat in Fort Worth. The ideologues, led by the Young Conservatives of Texas, mounted an all-out attack against Susan Todd, a former nurse, a volunteer for such charities as the local food bank and the American Heart Association, and a past president of the Texas Medical Association Foundation. Her opponent Craig Goldman, a Washington lobbyist who had worked for U.S. senator Phil Gramm and Congressman Jeb Hensarling, immediately targeted Todd’s conservative credentials. Goldman’s supporters claimed she wasn’t a “real” Republican because she had voted in Democratic primaries over the years and criticized her for having supported Tony Sanchez for governor in 2002 (more precisely, the Texas Medical Association PAC backed Sanchez). Though Todd was a member of the Fort Worth Republican Women’s Club, the attacks worked, and Goldman beat her with 55 percent of the vote.

Other veteran leaders have been driven out of politics by, well, the politics. Addressing a meeting at Texas A&M in February, retiring Republican state senator Steve Ogden summed up the situation this way: “You’re electing people who tend to be very, very extremely conservative and very, very extremely liberal,” he said, “and the middle is getting left out in the cold.” In a nutshell, that is the problem facing the Republican party today. There is no middle, and the people on the extreme ends of the political spectrum don’t want one to exist.

The result is that, with each successive election cycle, the GOP becomes more and more the party of ideologues, who entered politics in the age of hyper-partisanship, and less and less the party of Main Street business leaders, who cared about fiscal responsibility but also focused on improving public education and building better roads. This puts the party on a dangerous course, because excess is typically followed by backlash. The local leaders who have always been the foundation of the Republican party are not going to follow the ideologues over the cliff. They will leave first.

Of course, the reshaping of the party will not occur all at once. As Karl Rove once said of the rise of the Republicans in the eighties, “It’s not an event, it’s a process.” The Republican Party of Texas has been fracturing along ideological lines for a decade now, starting with Rick Perry’s election as governor in 2002. Indeed, Perry has remade George W. Bush’s big-tent Republican party into an organization that is obsessed with who is and who isn’t a true conservative. Perry has aligned himself with the tea party, the right-to-life groups, the homeschoolers, the movement conservatives, and the scorecard-keepers who get to define who has been naughty and nice. As this faction grows stronger, it has less use for mainstream Republicans and their résumés listing their civic activities. If anything, such credentials are a black mark for those who care only about partisan politics. Just ask Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who now faces a runoff in his U.S. Senate race against Ted Cruz.

If this pattern sounds familiar, it is because a similar thing happened to conservative Democrats several decades ago. They ran the state for generations after the Civil War, and then all of a sudden they vanished, in part because they were out of step with the prevailing ideology in their party. Attorney General John Hill’s defeat of Dolph Briscoe in the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial primary marked the end of the conservative Democratic era, and Ann Richards’s triumph over Jim Mattox in the 1990 gubernatorial runoff sealed the deal. There was no longer any room for conservatives or apostates in the party.

By the mid-eighties, buttons had sprouted on the lapels of conservative Democrats in the Legislature reading, “We would rather fight than switch.” But it was too late. By the time Richards became governor, the buttons had disappeared, and so, for all practical purposes, had the conservative Democrats.

In 2003, when the Democratic party finally lost control of the House, Republicans elected Tom Craddick as Speaker, and the Democratic caucus split into pro- and anti-Craddick factions. That’s when they set about eating their own. The liberals began targeting the “Craddick D’s,” as they were known, for defeat in primaries. It worked. Over several election cycles, most of those members lost their seats.

And now history is repeating itself in the Republican primaries, as the dominant hard-right faction seeks to weed out the so-called RINOs (“Republicans in Name Only”). No one has pushed harder for this transformation than Perry. In a conference call with the Texas Right to Life PAC before the primary, Perry played the role of ideological enforcer, saying that any Republican who isn’t pro-life is a RINO. One of the most bizarre TV spots of the election was an attack against Dewhurst by an outside group that labeled the lieutenant governor a “moderate,” which has become one of the ugliest insults a conservative can hurl at an opponent. 

Perry’s defeat of Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial primary was to the GOP what the Richards-Mattox race was to the Democrats in 1990. It established that there was little room for nonideological politicians in the Republican party. Hutchison was the most popular Republican in the state at the time, but personality was no match for ideology. Perry ran a campaign against Hutchison based on national issues: the bank bailout of 2008, earmarks, and pork (which is nothing more than Texas getting back some of the tax dollars it sends to Washington). Combine this with the rise of the tea party, and it becomes clear that Republicans emerged from the anti-Obama fever of 2010 fully radicalized. I doubt Bush could be elected to the Legislature today, much less become governor.

Still, when the Main Street conservatives get defeated or leave the party, it creates a problem for everyone. The local business and civic leaders are the ones who know how to govern and build coalitions. The tea party types have a different skill set: they know only how to make demands. That lesson was learned during the Eighty-second Legislature, in 2011, a session that featured a feeding frenzy of state budget cuts, which was essentially obeisance to the tea party.

Governing the House may become impossible anyway, given the intense partisan intrigue that has overwhelmed both parties. On primary day, Bryan Hughes, who is backed by the tea party, announced that he intended to run for Speaker against incumbent Joe Straus. If this were simply a straightforward challenge to Straus, it would be hard to take seriously. But at the same time that Hughes was emerging as a challenger to Straus, the Democrats were getting back into the game, like a bit player in a melodrama who, with his last ounce of strength, drags the protagonist down. Trey Martinez Fischer, who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, sent a letter to his fellow Democrats urging them to hold off on supporting Straus for another term as Speaker, citing Straus’ support for “the most extreme agenda in Texas history.” Martinez Fischer is a dangerous opponent for Straus, totally dedicated to throwing a wrench in the gears whenever he has the opportunity. Now he has assembled 48 Democratic votes, with possibly more to come after the general election. Because it takes 76 votes to elect a Speaker, Martinez Fischer would need to find 28 Republicans to unseat Straus. Can’t happen? Think again! The Democrats found enough Republican allies to unseat Tom Craddick in 2009, and Craddick was considered invincible.

All of these crosscurrents in Texas politics are in play: the fracturing of the GOP, a governor who has lost his mojo, a Democratic party that yearns to be relevant, and a Speaker under fire by outside groups. As if that weren’t enough, several races for the state Senate will shift the ideological balance of the body rightward and likely empower Senator Dan Patrick in his quest to dominate the upper chamber. It is a fascinating time in Texas politics, but not a fulfilling one. As long as the majority party is fixated on waging ideological warfare instead of addressing the state’s needs, governing is going to continue to take a backseat to politics, though eventually the hard-line conservatives will lose support. If you don’t believe this is possible, I suggest you ask a conservative Democrat—if you can find one.

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