Texas has been a Republican state for the past several decades, but over the past two years—fueled by the Tea Party movement and the religious right—the state has tilted even farther to the right. At first glance, yesterday’s election results seem like more of the same. Mitt Romney may have lost the electoral college and the national popular vote, but he thumped Barack Obama in Texas, 57 percent to 41 percent. In 2008, John McCain carried the state’s electoral votes by a measly nine percent margin. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party-backed Republican, sailed into the Senate; he also won by sixteen points, over the Democrat Paul Sadler, and he’s considerably more conservative than the woman he’s taking over from, Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Taking a closer look, however, yesterday’s elections were a rebuke to the far-right faction of the Republican party. Even in Texas, the Tea Party should take a moment to reflect.
Despite having tacked to the right in the primaries, Romney was clearly among the more moderate of the high-profile Republicans in the 2012 elections. Although he came up short, he outperformed the Republicans to his right. That was apparent in the Senate races. Obama won five critical swing states–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Virginia–by a narrower margin than the respective Democratic candidates for Senate did. Missouri and Indiana split their tickets: both states went easily to Romney, but opted for Democratic senators. The reason for those last two upsets is that the extremism of the modern Republican party has become hard to ignore. The Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, Todd Akin, tumbled in the polls after opining that only some sexual assaults count as “legitimate rape.” The Republican candidate for Senate in Indiana, Joe Mourdock, similarly offended voters by explaining that a pregnancy resulting from rape reflects “God’s will.” To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a party that tries to send one rape apologist to the Senate might be unlucky; a party that fields two starts to look careless.
And in Texas? There weren’t many close contests in the general election, but there were some, and they went to the Democrats. In the race for San Antonio’s Twenty-Third Congressional District, Pete Gallego knocked out Francisco “Quico” Canseco, the Republican incumbent. In Fort Worth, Wendy Davis won the fight to keep her state senate seat , even though her redrawn district was more Republican than before. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, will replace Republican Dee Margo in the state house of representatives—one of seven seats Democrats picked up in the house, whittling their disadvantage from a 102-48 split to a mere 95-55. This is still a Republican state, clearly, but Democrats are showing some signs of life. And for what it’s worth, Romney earned more votes than Cruz. About 100,000 Texans voted Republican for president, then moved down the ballot and made a different decision.
The obvious explanation for Romney’s outsized victory in Texas would be that Texans are hostile to Obama. There’s an alternative explanation, however. Consider that Romney is, after all, the same kind of Republican as George H. W. Bush: moderate, business-focused, and willing to pander based on an intermittently errant impression of the Common Man. Despite being unpopular with the party base, Romney would almost certainly have won the state’s presidential primary, in May, even if he hadn’t effectively wrapped up the nomination by that point. Polling in March and April had found Romney beating Rick Santorum, the more socially conservative candidate, by perhaps ten or thirteen points . In other words, it’s possible that Texans actually liked Romney more than the far right’s rhetoric would suggest—that his outsized margin was fueled by moderates, not the far right’s antipathy to Obama.
That possibility is worth considering as the 2013 legislative session and 2014 elections approach. The biggest political story in Texas next year is going to be the battle within the state Republican party, the moderates versus the conservatives. For the past two years, the conservatives have seemed to have the upper hand. Yesterday’s elections proved that Texas is still a Republican state. But if the moderates are willing to push back, the voters may back them up.