The grassroots activists of the Republican Party of Texas tend to not be the most forgiving people on the planet. In the Republican primaries, they only represent about 35 percent of the vote, but they’re motivated, and they largely come from tea parties and fundamentalist religious groups. After the party primary polls close, they’ll actually show up for the caucuses that elect the people who eventually run the state party infrastructure. They often believe in the inerrancy of the state party platform, and any politician who does not strictly adhere to each of its planks is derided as a Republican in Name Only.
For more than two decades, though, the Republican party in Texas has struggled to enforce its platform: candidates and elected leaders are expected “to uphold these truths through acknowledgement and action.” That struggle continues, but woe to the politicians who journalists refer to as “moderate” Republicans. Of course, for many of these politicians, it’s not even accurate to call them centrists. On a circular barbecue thermometer, many are sitting at the temperature between Hot and Fire! But the needle for party activists is vibrating somewhere close to Spontaneous Combustion—and the activists want to purge anyone they believe to be lukewarm.
That was the apparent motivation this week behind an attempt by some on the Harris County Republican Executive Committee to promote a resolution to censure state Representative Sarah Davis, who was on this year’s list of Texas Monthly’s best legislators (not for any partisan or ideological reason, but because she was an effective lawmaker). Davis has called herself a “rational Republican,” and if you look at Rice University political scientist Mark Jones’ Texas House liberal/conservative ranking, you’ll find that there is no Democrat to the right of Davis and no Republican to her left. She is the very definition of purple in the Texas House. But if anything drives the hard Republican right crazy about Davis, it’s her support for women’s reproductive rights and her votes in the Texas House against abortion restrictions. That violates the second principle of the party platform: “The sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, should be protected from fertilization to natural death.”
But the political assaults on Davis actually put the Republicans at risk of losing House District 134 to the Democrats. In truth, the censure resolution had nothing to do with partisan control of the House. This was all about party purity and getting rid of Davis at all costs.
Thanks to David Jennings, who published the draft resolution at Big Jolly Politics, we know that the resolution to censure Davis listed its first charge against her as casting votes that violated the anti-abortion plank of the state Republican platform. That charge was followed by voting in favor of a ban on texting while driving (which is at odds with the plank on personal responsibility), and, lastly, for casting a vote against private school vouchers. The bill on texting while driving, by the way, was carried by former House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican.
Last week, a group of Republican precinct chairs wrote a letter to the county executive committee, saying the censure resolution was misleading.
It’s foolish to attack one of our few Republican officials with real cross-over appeal. We risk losing Davis’ seat to another liberal Democrat who will not only vote against us on abortion, but on virtually every issue. Why should we cut off our nose to spite our face?
We believe the best way to handle intra-party differences is not to take sides in a contested GOP primary–and believe us, this censure vote was created to help Davis’ GOP opponent–rather, we should trust Republican voters to decide for themselves.
Keep in mind, Davis won this district in 2010 by defeating incumbent Democrat Ellen Cohen by a mere 701 votes. Davis has won every Republican primary contest with no less than 55 percent of the vote, and, since defeating Cohen, has won every general election with at least 54 percent of the vote. (House District 134 includes the Texas Medical Center and Rice University. By the numbers, 74 percent of the district’s population age 25 and older hold a college degree, and 59 percent have professional level jobs. Half of the households have earnings exceeding $100,000 a year.)
Davis won re-election in 2016 with 48,192 votes, roughly 12,000 more than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump received in District 134. Hillary Clinton actually carried the district with 55 percent of the vote, or 50,043 votes, and Clinton outpaced Davis’ Democratic opponent by 11,000 votes. In sum, Davis won with the help of crossover votes—a rarity in politics.
Governor Greg Abbott may feel comfortable siding against Davis because in 2012 he defeated Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis by 1,100 votes in District 134. But Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick lost the district to Democrat Leticia Van de Putte by 1,700 votes. Oh, and Sarah Davis—no relation to Wendy—got 4,892 more votes in the district than Abbott. In fact, Sarah Davis received more votes in District 134 in the 2014 election than any other statewide Republican on the ballot.
Efforts to pass the censure resolution against Davis were dropped Monday when Abbott endorsed Davis’ GOP primary opponent, Susanna Dokupil, one of his assistant solicitor generals when he was state attorney general. (Dokupil now runs a strategic communications firm.) So, it looks like Abbott is following through on his promise to keep a list of legislators who didn’t fully support his special legislative session agenda.
By happenstance, shortly after the Abbott announcement, the Texas Association of Business released its list of legislators who were “Champions of Free Enterprise.” Davis’ score put her in the top category, while no members of the Texas Senate made the list. The TAB represents 200 Chambers of Commerce in the state, and CEO Jeff Mosley said the group’s political committee will look at primary races and general elections in Texas next year to support candidates who are pro-business.
If the Harris County Republicans and Abbott are doing anything, they are inviting Democrats to cross over into the District 134 primary election next year, which is how the moderation of any political party begins. But this is about purging the Republican Party of the heretics who don’t follow a narrow definition of who is and is not a Republican. This is essentially the same Republican Party ideology that led delegates to the 1996 state convention to boo U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison for not being strident enough in her opposition to abortion. They also tried to block her from attending the party’s national presidential nominating convention that year. Only the intervention of then-Governor George W. Bush got the delegates to back off.
That’s the same Republican governor who later became president. The same Republican who in 1998 opposed efforts to create a litmus test that would require Republican state candidates to publicly declare opposition to late term abortions to receive party help in the general election. “When a person is nominated by the people, that ought to be the voice of the party,” Bush said at the time. He also refused to endorse the state party platform. “Platforms are statements of principles,” he said. “If I disagree with certain parts of the platform, I just move on and campaign.”
In 2009, during the first few elections after centrist Republican Joe Straus became Texas House speaker, the hard right had some impressive primary ballot box successes against Republican incumbents. But since that time, most of their success has come from unrelentingly grinding down incumbents.
The frustration was pretty clear in Straus’s retirement news conference. He expressed exasperation at the social conservatives who had opposed him one election cycle after another, saying, “It gets so repetitive.” Earlier in the year, his hometown Bexar County Republican Party executive committee passed a resolution denouncing Straus for not following the strictly conservative Republican Party platform, and they called “for a change in leadership in the Texas House speakership.”
Since Straus made his announcement, the Republican Party of Texas has promised that it will pressure candidates to make a promise to elect the next speaker during a closed-door meeting of the GOP caucus. Because Republicans hold a majority in the House, the caucus can elect the speaker if it sticks together. An anonymous legislator has asked the Texas Ethics Commission to rule on whether the state party is committing bribery by making party funding conditional on signing the pledge. State Chairman James Dickey argued that it is voluntary: “The idea that it is somehow bribery to ask Republican legislators to commit to do what Republican voters want them to do is laughable. By that standard no one should ever question elected officials about whether they’ll stand up for what the voters ask.”
A popular Dallas city council member once explained that an election loss was due to illness and fatigue. The voters, he said, “were sick and tired of me.” There’s a different kind of illness and fatigue going on in Texas politics these days, which is how unrelentingly un-fun serving in office has become.