Tea Party Nears Its Peak in the Legislature

At the Tax Day Capitol rally earlier this month, Representative Jonathan Stickland demonstrated why the hard-core tea party members of the House can’t gain traction with enough mainstream Republican members to get anything substantial accomplished.

Stickland complained to the crowd that legislation in the House was being “micromanaged” to delay bills, including proposals to revoke in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, to allow the so-called constitutional carry of handguns, and to eliminate toll roads. “Conservative legislation is dying every single minute that ticks by, and we’re not going to take it any more, are we?” intoned Stickland, the Howard Beale of the Texas Legislature. Complaining about the leadership and bills stuck in committee is every member’s right. But then came the part of Stickland’s speech that distances the hard-core from the mainstream. 

“Everybody sounds like a tea party Reagan conservative during the election process, but when we force votes on this Texas House and we force representatives to pick a side, it lets you know back at home what’s really happening here in Texas,” Stickland said. “We are going to find conservatives to challenge RINOs in the Texas House.”

So much for Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment not to speak ill of other Republicans. Stickland declared war and promised re-election fights for the mainstream House leadership Republicans.

Contrary to the dreams of Stickland and other tea party activists, an analysis of the 2012 elections tells me the tea party has peaked in the gains it has made in the Legislature and actually may face setbacks in 2016. If the GOP primary between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst is any indication, tea party strength in the Legislature has peaked.

The Plot Against Public Education

As we all know, thanks to R.G., shots were fired at yesterday’s weekly statewide bigwig breakfast meeting, with Dan Patrick ultimately objecting that Greg Abbott and Joe Straus were “picking on” him. Among the issues of contention, bizarrely, was the Lege’s push to expand pre-K. Doing so is a stated priority of the governor. A bill to that effect passed the House several weeks ago with broad bipartisan support after substantive debate about the size and scope of the proposal. Its companion legislation, similarly, is expected to pass the Senate. And so Abbott, as R.G. reports, was not amused at the broadside issued Tuesday by the Lieutenant Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Board.

Patrick had swiftly issued a statement disavowing any prior knowledge of the council’s letter and expressing his support for “a pre-K program”–hence his dismay, presumably, that Abbott would still be irritated the following morning. Today the Lege was full of rumors about what Patrick knew and when he knew it, but I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, and don’t think it matters. Even if he was blindsided by the letter, he was the one who noisily established the advisory board and empowered the grassroots activists in question to represent themselves as his official advisors. At the same time I don’t see why he would have encouraged them to send this particular letter. As I suggested in my post about the Senate’s vouchers proposal, conservative advocates for education reform fall into two camps. Some, probably the majority, want to improve public education. Others want to end it. Those in the latter camp are a problem for people in the former, like Patrick.  

His grassroots advisors seem to be in the latter camp. The letter is basically a collage of internet rumors, backwards reasoning, paranoid suppositions and lies, marshalled to make the case against a relatively modest proposal to authorize an additional $130 million to expand Texas’s longstanding public pre-K program so that thousands of students who aren’t currently eligible will have the option of attending. The Grassroots Advisory Board elides the “optional” aspect: “This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights.” It misrepresents Dan Huberty, the author of the House bill. He did say, during the House debate, that Texas hasn’t been able to assess the outcomes of its current program, but he wasn’t saying that outcomes don’t matter. He was explaining why his bill requires school districts to provide such data, as a condition of participation—in other words, he was saying the opposite. (Abbott, similarly, has always insisted on accountability measures in this context; that’s why Wendy Davis charged him with trying to subject 4-year-olds to standardized tests.)

It would be a long and thankless task to fully annotate the letter, so I’ll just summarize the argument: according to the Grassroots Advisory Board, the state’s effort to expand pre-K is part of a long tradition (“historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights”) in which governments seek to remove children (“even younger and more malleable” children as socialism creeps across the land) from their parents’ care and install them in a “Godless environment” and mold them according to the government’s own preferences.

Their overarching concern is one that most Texans share: “TEXAS LEGISLATURE SHOULD PROMOTE HEALTHY FAMILIES, NOT BREAK THEM UP.” Many of us, however, would be hard-pressed to explain how expanding access to public pre-K is an effort to break up healthy families, or how doing so would be “sending a message to the rest of the Nation that parents do not or cannot care for their children as well as the State can.” I was confused by this line of argument the first time I heard it too. Over the years, however, I’ve puzzled out the reasoning, if we can call it that:

The Legislative Boiling Pot

Some of the oddest personality and political dynamics that have filled the Capitol’s melting pot in years are creating simmering frustrations and anxieties that started moving toward an angry boil as the House debated a $209.8 state budget proposal today.

Budget debates always are contentious because they involve bringing home the bacon, stealing someone else’s bacon or a flat-out refusal to slaughter the hog. Budget fights also are heated because the majority of the amendments – and there are more than 350 this year – have less to do with good governance than they do with creating record votes that the opposition can use in the next election.

This debate, however, also is setting the tone for a coming blow-up, not only in the House but also in the Senate, where a near meltdown was narrowly averted last week. There are three main factions this year: frustrated tea party Republicans, conservative Republicans and frustrated Democrats.

A Mini-Referendum on Speaker Straus

Over the weekend state representative Brandon Creighton placed first in the special election to replace Tommy Williams in Senate District, and will head to a runoff with state representative Steve Toth. Creighton got about 45% of the vote, Toth about 24%. 

Like the other three candidates who ran, Creighton is a Republican. He is obviously a conservative one, having spent much of the last regular session as a de facto leader of the House’s amorphous Tea Party caucus, and attracting the approval of right-wingers for, among other things, his efforts to block Medicaid expansion. He is sufficiently conservative that EmpowerTexans has described him as having “a strong record,” despite the fact that, as they note, he voted to keep the dread Joe Straus as speaker in 2011. He is sufficiently conservative that Toth, his strongest challenger, acknowledged as much

There are four nice guys running — four conservatives — but in the Senate, it’s not enough to just be a conservative voice. You’ll get pushed out,” Toth said. “You need a conservative record and fight to get things done.”

And yet Toth was somehow challenging Creighton from the right, and received the support of several influential right-wing groups, including EmpowerTexans, which endorsed Toth despite Creighton’s aforementioned “strong record.”

The Debra Medina Interview

In 2010 Debra Medina, a nurse and the chair of the Wharton County Republican Party, startled the Texas Republican establishment by winning almost nineteen percent of the vote in that year’s gubernatorial primary. It wasn’t enough to win, obviously, but it served notice, especially given that Medina was running against incumbent governor Rick Perry, already the longest-serving governor in Texas history at that point, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The Dan Branch Effect

I take a dim view of Dan Branch’s campaign for attorney general. A former member of our Best legislators list, Branch is in the process of ruining himself by running away from who he really is, which is a mainstream Republican. On Sunday, the Houston Chronicle ran story titled “Branch shifts to far right in AG race: once a moderate, Dallas Republican takes up tea party mantle–and cash” (sub req). The first thing Branch ought to do is fire his campaign spokesman, who proclaims that Branch is the most conservative candidate in the race. Of course, this is not the case. There is nothing to be gained by saying something that is demonstrably untrue.

Stuck in the Middle

John Cornyn has come a long way since 2002, when he was first elected to Phil Gramm’s old seat in the U.S. Senate. In just two terms the 61-year-old has become the senior senator from Texas and the minority whip, making him the second-highest-ranking Republican in the chamber. But it was his split with freshman senator Ted Cruz over Obamacare this fall that turned heads in conservative circles back home.

Republican Civil War

How long can the Republican party endure the civil war that is raging between tea party conservatives and mainstream conservatives? It doesn’t take a genius to know that when a political party is split between its factions, its chances of winning an election diminish accordingly. Congressional Republicans are expending their energy on internal battles, not the least of which pits Ted Cruz against John Cornyn. In the meantime, much of the infrastructure of the party is atrophying. In particular, the Heritage Foundation, once the intellectual foundation of the Republican party, has diminished in stature. The elevation of Jim DeMint to the leadership of the foundation has had the effect of raising politics to the core concern of the foundation (as opposed to policy, the Heritage Foundation’s traditional specialty).

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