When Senator John Tower started the Associated Republicans of Texas, in 1974, the group had a clear mission: to elect a Republican majority to the Texas House and Senate. That seemed almost impossible at a time when Republicans held fewer than two dozen seats in the 181-member Legislature. For years, the organization largely devoted itself to backing Republicans in general elections against Democrats. It has never involved itself in federal races and has only rarely taken part in statewide, county, or municipal races; doesn’t lobby the Legislature; and has long stayed away from primaries of any sort. That strategy eventually bore fruit. After the 2010 election, the Legislature was dominated by Republicans, and it seemed that ART’s job was done.
But at that same moment, a new opponent started flexing its muscles. With the Legislature safely in Republican control, the far right saw an opportunity to capture the party and push culture-war issues—abortion, gay marriage, and, later, transgender access to public bathrooms—that had nothing to do with economic prosperity. “Now we’ve got the folks that are a little bit to the right—to the right of Attila the Hun,” says Hector De Leon, the group’s co-chair. “They don’t necessarily have the views that got us to where we are.”
That inspired ART to change its strategy. In 2016 the group got involved in primary races for the first time—though only to protect 32 Texas House incumbents, like Speaker Joe Straus and some of his top lieutenants, many of whom were facing serious challenges from the socially conservative right.
“After a lot of soul-searching, discussion, and consideration, ART decided to get involved on a very limited basis in primaries,” says De Leon, who was strongly in favor of the move and who served on a working group that determined how ART would manage the shift. “It wasn’t something that happened on a whim. It was a very difficult decision, because it ran contrary to what historically we had done. Change is tough.” ART spent $1.2 million in that year’s Republican primaries, and only three of the candidates it backed lost. This year, ART was even more radical in its ambitions: the group not only protected incumbents, it recruited candidates for open seats, spending $3.1 million in the Republican primaries. It got its money’s worth: in 31 of the 40 races the group contributed to, its candidates won.
This year, ART spent $3.1 million in the Republican primaries. It got its money’s worth: in 31 of the 40 races the group contributed to, its candidates won.
The chief opponent of ART’s candidates is Empower Texans, an organization that uses fiscal issues as a front for a socially conservative agenda. Empower CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan has described ART as “a liberal interest group that works politically to thwart conservative lawmakers.” Sullivan sometimes accuses ART-backed candidates of being beholden to outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, the business-oriented Republican who is best known for his strong support of public school funding and his successful opposition to the “bathroom bill.” Straus this year donated $250,000 from his campaign account to ART.
De Leon’s politics are rooted in his life story. He grew up in East Austin, raised by parents who never graduated high school. De Leon attended UT-Austin, put himself through UT Law School, and eventually found success as an insurance lawyer. His experiences with poverty and his time at UT instilled in him a deep belief in a form of compassionate conservatism that provides social services to the poor (so long as there are responsibility requirements) and recognizes the importance of public education and public universities as drivers of economic growth. For a long time, when Texas was a one-party state, De Leon considered himself a conservative Democrat. But when he was effectively told in 1985 that there was no room for a conservative in the modern Democratic party, he became a Republican.
The 71-year-old De Leon is the sort of person the tea party derisively calls a RINO (Republican in name only), a characterization he quickly dismisses. “I’d like to know who selected the committee that determines who is a Republican in their soul for real and who’s a Republican in name only,” De Leon says. “When we start engaging in that kind of rhetoric, we start engaging in the kind of rhetoric that’s going to divide and decimate this party.”
Going forward, De Leon says the most important task for ART will be to elect fiscal conservatives in 2020 who can influence the 2021 redistricting session. Since redistricting happens once a decade, a successful electoral strategy could keep the Lege in Republican hands through 2030. Right now, De Leon wants to make sure they’re what he considers the right kind of Republicans.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.