On the cool, clear night of October 17, 2019, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the chair of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in Texas, took the stage of the American Airlines Center, in Dallas. As he revved up the crowd before the president’s speech, he spoke with the zeal of a crusader knight urging believers deeper into some unknown desert in search of infidels. “The progressive left,” he said, “are not our opponents. They are our enemy! They are the enemy of the Constitution. They are the enemy of freedom . . . they are the enemy of our belief in God!”
Some of these enemies have been pointing out that Trump’s standing in Texas is middling. Almost half of the state’s voters disapprove of his performance, weak numbers in a historically Republican state, and in the 2018 midterms, GOP candidates here suffered surprising losses up and down the ballot. But these doubters, Patrick said, misunderstood what was happening. “We did not have an election in 2016. We had a revolt! And this is what the media doesn’t understand, or the progressive left,” he said. “The revolution is only getting louder and larger!”
In a Fox News appearance after the rally, Patrick went further. “Keep this tape for after the election next year. He’s not going to lose Texas. He will win it by more votes,” he said. “The only thing [the Democrats] may win will be New York and California and maybe a few other states on the coasts. This is going to be a great year!”
Patrick’s job is to be Trump’s cheerleader, but his triumphalism is expressed, albeit usually in a diluted form, by plenty of other Texas Republicans, at least in public. At the rally, Republican incumbents swore fealty to Trump’s greatness and goodness and sought protection under his coattails. Both Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz confidently predicted victory. To the Dallas Morning News, Texas GOP chair James Dickey and Dallas County party chair Rodney Anderson praised Trump simply for coming to Texas.
But when the president took the stage, he was quite muddled, even by his own standards. “Few people would’ve been able to do what we did,” he said, seemingly touting his record on the border wall. “But we got it from here and we got it from there and we got it from all over the place and we’re building that sucker right now and it’s having a tremendous effect already. Not easy. Highest level. Everything we said it would be.”
Democrats, he said, envisioned a future for Texas with “no guns, no religion, no oil, no natural gas. Abraham Lincoln could not win Texas under those circumstances.” (Rather famously, Texas did not give Lincoln much support in his day.)
Eventually, Trump turned his attention to a sensitive subject for many Texans. “Well, you had a hurricane, two years ago now. They still keep calling me for money,” he said, indicating Cruz, Cornyn, and other Texas elected officials standing on the arena floor. “ ‘Sir, could you give us another?’ When the governor called up, Dan [Patrick] was there. ‘Thank you for being so generous to Texas, sir.’ The hurricane, it was a big one. It was a bad one. A lot of water dump. I think the biggest dump of water.”
He expressed irritation—perhaps jokingly—that the state had asked for so much in aid. “I paid billions and billions of dollars to the state,” he said, before once again mimicking the supplications of the Texas politicians. “ ‘Sir, thank you for being so generous on the hurricane.’ They made a fortune! You made a fortune on the hurricane,” he said.
In Houston, where Harvey uprooted tens of thousands of lives and where many residents are still waiting for help to rebuild their homes and businesses, Trump’s implication that the city had profited from his charity made headline news. It was the latest of many times Trump had appeared to mock or garble the details of one of the most traumatic things that’s ever happened to Houston—a city whose footprint happens to include three congressional districts and seven state House districts in the crosshairs of the Democratic party. At least some Republicans must have been wondering in that moment: Is this the guy I want to be stuck in a foxhole with?
They may not have much of a choice. Trump is a big reason the Texas GOP slipped in 2016 and 2018—getting blown out in big cities, watching once-red suburbs go purple, and handing over twelve state House seats, two state Senate seats, and two congressional districts to Democrats, in addition to a whole lot of local elections. But he’s also the most obvious answer to Texas Republicans’ short-term problems. Political strategists think a record 10 to 11 million Texans may vote in November, including a whole bunch of fired-up Democrats. For the first time in many years, the GOP needs to do more than just turn out its base. The party needs to find a lot of new voters, and Trump may be the best way to get those folks to the polls.
For decades, the Texas GOP has been an election-winning, opposition-crushing machine. But the apparatus is getting creaky. Among the party’s interlocking problems: the implosion of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a dizzying intraparty fight over guns, the increasing unhappiness of the party’s right-wing base over the GOP’s unwillingness to cater to them, and the alienation of moderate voters. Despite the chest-beating from their party’s pooh-bahs, many cool-headed Republicans are worried. The same night as the Dallas rally, at a meeting of the Texas House Republican Caucus, longtime GOP strategist Karl Rove warned that Republicans were in danger of losing the lower chamber for the first time since 2003, according to the insider publication Quorum Report.
Like so much in American conservative politics these days, everything begins and ends with Trump. If he can pull in enough new voters while retaining enough old ones, he might carry the Texas GOP long enough for it to get its act together. If he can’t, Republicans will lose some of the advantages they’ve long held in the state—a footing that, once it’s gone, could be difficult to regain.
It wasn’t that long ago that the state’s top Republicans had achieved a rough peace. In May, at the end of the legislative session, Governor Greg Abbott, Patrick, Bonnen, and the governor’s golden retriever, Pancake, assembled on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion to celebrate the deliverance of a grand bargain on property taxes and school finance. Their pitch to the TV cameras made them sound like triplets running a car dealership. We’re working for you, to save you money. And look, here’s a cute dog!
The subtext of the day, and one that ran through the entire session, was more primal: strength through unity. The party’s terrible showing in 2018 was a wake-up call. Horrible old Joe Straus, that wicked Bolshevik, had given up the Speaker’s gavel for good, and for now, the Republican civil war was over. It was time to focus on external threats. The GOP was declaring a moratorium on pissing inside the tent.
Beyond the sunny scene presented by the triumvirate, though, discontent was brewing among the conservative activists who fund Republican campaigns and power them on the ground. The session had been a bewildering experience for the grassroots. It was clear that the party leadership, including former allies like Patrick, were focused on the general election, instead of on its agenda. For an extended period during the session, the Big Three had actually tried to raise taxes. The hard-line House Freedom Caucus broke apart. Activists left the session feeling dispirited and alienated.
And the détente called for by party leaders fell apart almost immediately. Shortly after the session ended, Bonnen met with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the leading figure in the party’s insurgent right and the voice of Christian megadonors Tim Dunn and the Wilks brothers, Dan and Farris. At the meeting, Bonnen offered to give members of Sullivan’s organization, Empower Texans, media credentials, so they could be on the floor of the House, if Sullivan helped him defeat ten Republican House lawmakers on Bonnen’s hit list. Bonnen’s quid pro quo violated a public promise the Speaker had made to protect every member of his flock.
In late July, in a shocking turn of events, Sullivan announced that he had recorded his meeting with Bonnen. For three months, Sullivan let the Speaker twist in the wind as Bonnen repeatedly mischaracterized the meeting. Then Sullivan delivered the coup de grâce, releasing the tape that forced Bonnen to announce that he would not seek reelection. The episode devastated GOP morale and kneecapped the figure who was supposed to protect GOP incumbents in the Texas House by raising mountains of cash for them. Now Bonnen was a lame duck, and both he and his money were tainted.
Then came August, bookended by the mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. State leaders felt pressure to do something, especially after it turned out that the Odessa killer had taken advantage of the private-sale loophole in state gun laws to avoid a background check when he purchased his weapon. Abbott ordered the creation of a state commission and a task force, which met behind closed doors, a move that was widely mocked as ineffective. Patrick called for a modest expansion of background check requirements, a popular idea with voters, but he was immediately accused of betraying conservatives.
In September, Sullivan blasted Patrick for appearing to cave on guns. Patrick lashed out at Sullivan, previously a close political ally who had helped put him in office, tweeting that Sullivan was “destroying our party.” Sullivan countered, saying that it was Patrick who was “destroying the GOP.” At this point, many members of the base were in open rebellion.
On October 30, two weeks after Trump’s Dallas rally, a broad cross section of conservatives held a press conference to demand that Abbott call a special session of the Legislature to take up what they called the Lone Star Agenda, a right-wing wish list of legislation designed to give ideologically motivated conservative voters a reason to turn out.
The primary speaker was longtime East Texas activist JoAnn Fleming, a Patrick ally and the head of Grassroots America–We the People, a tea party group that warns darkly about UN machinations and illegal aliens at the polls. She worried that GOP leaders were forgetting about people like her, who have long driven the agenda on the right. “It’s great for the Republican party to be out registering people to vote,” she said. “But we have unfinished business.” With a tough year coming up, she said, “Republicans are not united. And I think we all understand that our Republican leadership can ill afford to lose any of its base.”
Race to Watch
On January 28, Democrat Eliz Markowitz and Republican Gary Gates will face off in a special runoff election for a statehouse seat in Fort Bend County, a GOP stronghold that’s rapidly diversifying. Many consider the race a bellwether of the direction of the state in 2020.
In order to win in 2020, most strategists agree, the party needs to keep its base engaged while bringing in new voters and winning back some support from independents. But those goals are in tension, and there’s hardly anyone left to call the shots on how best to balance them. Bonnen, whose chamber is in danger, is a dead man walking. Patrick has alienated his friends. Abbott has stepped up to help fill the void, but he remains an enigma to nearly everybody. And Cornyn, at the top of the statewide ticket, is a follower, not a leader. At the moment, the ship feels rudderless. But what about Trump?
A recurring theme in the tape Sullivan released of his meeting with Bonnen is each man’s concerns about how the November election is shaping up. Bonnen’s take: He “loves” the president, but Trump is “killing us in urban-suburban districts.” He points to Republican legislator Angie Chen Button, who holds a seat in North Dallas. In her district, Trump’s approval rating is fifteen points underwater, and Button is barely pulling even, Bonnen says. (Trump’s visit to the area probably didn’t help.)
Sullivan, for his part, worries that the elimination of straight-ticket voting, a measure passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2017, could end up hurting Republicans more than Democrats. Trump will win the state, he predicts, but the new voters he turns out “are going to be people who really don’t know or care what a state representative is,” and may skip down-ballot races altogether.
On a September webcast hosted by GOP strategist Luke Macias, outgoing representative Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican, and former state rep Matt Rinaldi, of Irving, commiserated over the party’s rough year. “What do we look like now, with all of this going on? We’ve got the Speaker’s scandal going on. We’ve got a do-nothing session that completely alienated conservatives. We’ve got the gun issue now alienating our base. We look like a bunch of idiots,” Rinaldi said. “We do,” said Stickland. “We really do,” said Rinaldi.
On the night before Trump’s Dallas rally, at an event hosted by the Dallas Jewish Conservatives, the tension between the members of the pre-Trump Texas Republican party and the post-Trump party was on display. One of the featured speakers was Allen West, a minor conservative celebrity and former congressman from Florida. Now a candidate for chair of the Texas GOP, West spoke under a screen showing rotating giant pictures of himself superimposed over American flags. Emceeing was Rodney Anderson, the Dallas County party chair and a former state representative, and sitting near the front row was Rafael Cruz, Ted’s dad.
West, no great public speaker, held forth about hierarchy and tradition and sacrifice, recounting the plot of Saving Private Ryan in excruciating detail. “He’s bleeding out,” West said of Tom Hanks’s character, Captain John Miller, as he gives his last order to Matt Damon’s character. “His two words were ‘Earn this.’ ” Texans, he said, must earn their freedom and dignity. As West was nearing the end of his speech, the laptop transmitting his image to the screen died. The audiovisual equipment displayed a giant message box on-screen with an unintended meaning: “Please check the TX input signal.”
West’s address was reminiscent of a lot of speeches you might have heard at conservative events in Texas during the Obama era, when the tea party—and its older, whiter demographic—was dominant. However, the night’s other speaker would most likely not have been found at those events. Pro-Trump activist Scott Presler is six feet five inches tall and possessed of a honeyed Southern accent from his upbringing in Jacksonville, Florida, and long stringy hair that says Skynyrd—or would, if he weren’t 31. A leading member of Gays for Trump, he boasts more than 374,000 Twitter followers.
This was one of numerous events Presler had spoken at in that month alone, in cities including Austin, Dallas, Lubbock, San Marcos, and Waco. Presler, who got his start working as an organizer for the GOP in purple Virginia, was here to teach Texans to register new voters. Clicking through a PowerPoint, he told the crowd they should set up tables in places where they’d likely reach unregistered right-leaning voters, such as Chick-fil-A, where, Presler joked, finding conservatives is like “shooting fish in a gosh dang barrel.” In their outreach efforts, Presler said, Texas Republicans should be “loving, kind, caring, appreciative, grateful, putting gratitude in our attitude!” Feel free to show your love physically, but always “ask permission—you don’t just go hugging everybody, like Joe Biden.”
It’s new for the state GOP to emphasize voter registration at all. Republicans tend to do better in low-turnout elections, when Democratic-leaning voters such as people of color and young people stay home. But with voter turnout expected to surge again in November, the GOP can’t afford to just rely on the JoAnn Flemings of the conservative base.
Presler clicked to a new slide featuring two young people: a man with scraggly, neon-green hair, facial tattoos, and a tracksuit covered with Nickelodeon cartoon characters from the nineties and a woman dressed head to toe in black, showing ample cleavage and wearing leather jewelry with lots of spikes. Her hair was equally green. There were oohs and aahs and various sounds of amusement and disgust from the audience. “Don’t you dare laugh,” Presler said. “These are my friends.”
“Do I look like a Republican? No!” he said. “We are a no judgment movement. Do you hear me? We are a no judgment movement!” The Texas GOP of the future, according to Presler, is one in which all people are “included, accepted, welcomed, and embraced into our family. These two people that you see in front of you are real-life Trump supporters!” The room applauded.
The Republican Party of Texas has not traditionally aspired to be a “no judgment” movement; in fact, it has prided itself on being at least a “some judgment” movement. Yet this room was undoubtedly younger and more diverse than most gatherings of conservatives, and so was the rowdy crowd at Trump’s rally the next day. There were tons of people who probably do not belong to local tea parties, such as one young pro-Trump woman carrying a baffling sign that said, “I might be gay but I’m not stupid.”
But are they Trump voters or Republican voters? Does it matter? Can you build a party that captures both JoAnn Fleming and Scott Presler? Smart money doesn’t bet against the Republicans of Texas. But the least we can say is this: they’ll have to break a sweat. And that’s more than has been true in a long time.
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Red State.” Subscribe today.