Yesterday, in response to the speaker’s race in the US House, I argued that such staged purity tests are risky for the Tea Party-type groups that insist on them, for several reasons. Ross Ramsey, at the Texas Tribune, also has some cautionary words for the would-be insurgents. I broadly agree with his analysis and want to underline one point. In Ross’s view, the substantive problem with these Tea Party v RINO fights is that the Republican party itself has assimilated some of the issues that initially galvanized the Tea Party, leaving the factions to argue over more marginal issues:
Since the Tea Party wave that surfaced in April 2009 and crested in the 2010 general elections, the GOP — at both the state and national levels — has appropriated enough of the movement’s ideas to insulate itself from the renegades within its ranks. What might have become a third party has instead been assimilated by the establishment, and for all but a small number of conservatives who remain unhappy with the GOP, there is no need to shop around.
This is especially true in Texas, for two reasons.
1) Our Republicans were conservative enough to begin with. They didn’t appropriate the movement’s ideas; in some cases they generated them. At the time the Tea Party coalesced, in 2009, Texas had been led conservatively, by conservatives for more than a decade. Our Republican incumbents had already been going after federal officials, including Republicans, including former governor George W Bush, for years. “George has never, ever been a fiscal conservative,” said Perry in December 2007, two months after attorney general Greg Abbott sent Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court to argue Medellin v Texas.
2) The apparent inability of Texas Democrats to do anything ever means that there is no pressing incentive for most Texas Republicans to pander to centrists, and they rarely do.
Tea Party Republicans in Texas, then, are in an even more thankless position than their national counterparts when it comes to challenging the “moderates” in their own party. To establish their credentials as the more conservative option they can either adopt genuinely extreme positions or they can fight over scraps. To their credit, most of them eschew the extremist route, but the result is that the Tea Party Republicans in Texas often end up championing weird little causes, like “the Senate should use a 60% rule rather than the two-thirds rule, because 67% is for squishes.” Having campaigned on such issues for several cycles now, the insurgents have convinced a lot of primary voters that such issues matter; they have made themselves vulnerable to the narcissism of small differences. At times they remind me of this penguin.
These exercises in esoterica may work in primaries. But life is a long game. A few days after winning the special election for Glenn Hegar’s senate seat, for example, Lois Kolkhorst told the Houston Chronicle that she was definitely looking to modify the Texas “DREAM Act”—either to repeal it or to toughen its standards. Prior to the election, though, she pledged to repeal the law. It was a seemingly political calculation; her opponent had made an issue of the fact that she voted for the law in the first place, in 2001. But now Kolkhorst is stuck with the consequences. If she pushes for reform, rather than repeal, she can expect a backlash from the base. If she pushes for repeal, she can be the senator who trashed a pretty good law, a law she once supported. Seems a little thankless, doesn’t it?