Social Issues Drive Wedge in Texas GOP
Lone Star Republicans are poised to take control of the Legislature, but '96 election is threatened by infighting
AUSTIN, TEXAS — JUST three decades ago, "Lonesome Frank" Cahoon was the sole Republican in the 181-member Texas Legislature. This year the GOP is poised to win control of at least one house for the first time since Reconstruction - and perhaps both.
But a funny thing is happening on the way to the supposed celebration: The GOP is in an internecine fight over social issues.
Since the disunity mirrors some of the tension facing the Republicans nationally, Texas may offer a window on problems the party will confront as leaders gather in San Diego later this month for a key strategy session, known as the Republican National Committee winter meeting.
The Texas GOP is bickering over a proposal to create a "Compact With Texas." Proponents are the so-called social conservatives who foresee a Lone Star State version of the Republican Contract With America, but one that raises social issues dodged by national Republicans.
Compact opponents are the state's fiscal conservatives whose priorities are economic. They are determined to bury the Compact for fear of alienating crucial swing voters.
"Republicans always want to downplay the social part of their coalition. They want those people's votes, but they don't want those people to be writing their platform," says Dean Rindy, a Democratic consultant in Austin. "But increasingly, it's the social conservatives who dominate party organization."
The spat comes at a time when Republicans look stronger than ever going into a Texas election.
For the first time in more than a century all Texas counties will hold a Republican primary. And for the first time ever, the Democrats have failed to field a candidate in a statewide race (for Supreme Court justice).
But some of those primary races hold the potential for politically divisive contests, pitting the two shades of conservatives against one another.
For example, one social conservative will be vying with an incumbent who is a pro-choice lawmaker and the only Republican in the state Senate to vote against a bill that requires notification of parents before a minor can have an abortion.
"We have our little squabbles," admits Ernest Angelo, a Midland petroleum engineer who co-represents Texas on the Republican National Committee.
But it is the floating of a proposed Compact With Texas that has riled some Republican officeholders. Their first objection was that the idea originated with the State Republican Executive Committee (SREC), which oversees the party apparatus in Texas. Social conservatives control the SREC.
"Who should be writing that Compact? The elected Republican legislators or the SREC?" asks Bryan Eppstein, a consultant in Ft. Worth for conservative candidates.
The national Contract With America was written by congressional lawmakers, not by the Republican Party apparatus. The SREC should stick to party-building and candidate support, not dictate an agenda for office seekers or holders to endorse, critics add.
"Look, the governor has his own legislative agenda," says Karl Rove, political adviser to Republican Gov. George W. Bush.
The other problem that conservative pragmatists see with a Compact is its content. A draft version calls for higher state spending on schools, lower welfare benefits, longer prison sentences, a smaller government bureaucracy, and a friendlier business climate. Social conservatives insist that the final document make reference, however mildly, to abortion.
"We will not allow [social issues] to take a back seat anymore," says Roger O'Dell, an SREC member who is chairman of the El Paso Christian Coalition. "We're going to push in those directions."
In Washington last spring, the Christian Coalition announced a "Contract With the American Family" as top Republican Congressmen applauded. That document contained a relatively mild stand against abortion.
But party conservatives remain extremely sensitive to waffling on the issue. Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, was reminded of that last month when offhand comments on abortion brought a shower of criticism from social conservatives.
Political analysts say that taking a strong position against abortion is not a vote-getter.
Only 10 percent of Texas voters favor a total ban on abortion, Mr. Eppstein says. Extreme antiabortion planks in the party platforms have cost the GOP swing votes in the past, Mr. Rindy adds.
Some Texas Republicans say that the draft of the Compact has already drawn so much fire that it won't get off the ground.
"It's dead," a key Republican operative says flatly. Social conservatives, though, say they expect elected officials will join in writing the document.