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. 

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

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