All things considered, Texas’s 2016 Republican primary was a great night for candidates associated with the Tea Party wing. Ted Cruz, as I predicted, won Texas’s presidential primary, and a similar pattern prevailed downballot, with House representatives Jonathan Stickland, Matt Rinaldi, and Tony Tinderholt winning hotly contested primaries.
It was also a great night for the candidates associated with the state’s Republican establishment. Joe Straus, as I also predicted, was re-elected in such a landslide that his critics should once again be thankful that he’s so much more gracious than they are, because the man has proven bulletproof, and could easily assert a mandate. We already know the House’s right-wing faction can’t beat him in a Speaker’s race; we now know they can’t beat him a well-funded and ferocious primary challenger in a year with Ted Cruz on the ballot. Straus lieutenants Charlie Geren and Byron Cook, both of whom faced energetic primary challenges from the right, will also return to the House. So will John Frullo, who had, like Straus, been dishonestly accused of taking an overly feckless attitude toward sanctuary cities.
Meanwhile, both sides suffered some disappointments: Molly White, an icon for the EmpowerTexans crowd, lost her bid for re-election. And Rinaldi prevailed in his primary over the highly regarded Bennett Ratliff. And every faction of the Texas Republican Party suffered the political version of a freely bleeding head wound in Travis County, where voters elected Robert Morrow as the new chairman of the county party.
The explanation for these disparate results is straightforward, and potentially of interest to Republicans around the nation, because yesterday was Super Tuesday, and seven more American states succumbed to Donald Trump. Here it is: 2016 has nothing to do with ideology or policy. Every one of the winning Republicans named above has effectively represented their constituents. The voters recognized that, despite the attacks and lies that were directed at some of the candidates. Stickland’s primary, for example, was strangely similar to Straus’s. He received an avalanche of personal and invidious criticism from his challenger, Scott Fisher, and the voters responded by giving Fisher a drubbing. That makes sense to me. Stickland receives no shortage of criticism from his colleagues in the Lege, but Stickland’s constituents are probably less concerned about their representative’s approach to the legislative process than with the work he does for the district, which is surprisingly real.
The Republicans who lost, by contrast, aren’t any good. White may have a perfect score on the Fiscal Responsibility Index, but that’s because she was a perfectly obedient scorecard voter; every time she tried to do something on her own initiative, it turned into a bad news day for the good people of Belton. And Travis County showed us what happens when the GOP has a leadership vacuum. There aren’t that many effective Republican leaders in Travis County, if only because Austin is so heavily Democratic that Travis County doesn’t have that many Republican leaders at all. That’s why the voters were unable to differentiate from a low-profile incumbent and someone manifestly unsuited for the role.
A similar leadership vacuum, I expect, explains why voters in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia, and Vermont went for Trump, making him such a clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination that it may be impossible to stop him at this point. Cruz, who won Oklahoma and Alaska in addition to Texas yesterday, has a chance of doing so, but only if the media and the establishment finally realize what’s driving so many voters to Trump, which they as yet don’t. But I’ll return to that tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s just take the day to celebrate our state’s unusually rational 2016 Republican primary: a fitting way to commemorate Texas Independence Day.