Texas GOP runoff: five take-aways from big tea party wins

Tea party wins in the Texas primary broke a string of losses. It's important, given the size of the Texas delegation in Congress, and it confirms that Sen. Ted Cruz is the 'president' of the tea party.

Patric Schneider/AP
Republican Dan Patrick speaks at his campaign watch party at the Hotel Sorella after incumbent David Dewhurst conceded the Republican primary runoff for lieutenant governor, in Houston, May 27, 2014.

In contrast to the weak performance of the tea party brand in Republican primaries to date, Texas Tea still boils to a potent brew. That was proved in the state's primary GOP races, which concluded in runoffs on Tuesday. The tea party overpowered the oldest member of Congress, Rep. Ralph Hall; it derailed established conservatives for key statewide jobs, such as lieutenant governor and attorney general; and it reinforced the uncompromising style and tone of Sen. Ted Cruz for the state – and the US Congress.

Here are five take-aways from the GOP runoff in Texas.

The tea party is not dead.  A string of defeats for tea party candidates in GOP primaries this spring leave the impression that the movement is six feet under. But it is alive and well in Texas – the second most populous state in the country – fed by a conservative base, a lot of money, and strong candidates, political experts say.

“The organizational structure the tea party has built, the tea party brand, and the expression of tea party power in Ted Cruz are all still very powerful in Texas,” says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Texas tea will be slurped in Washington. Texas has the largest Republican delegation in Congress, and that fact “has a Texas-sized impact on the Republican caucus in the House,” says Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. The 2014 Republican primary, building on previous ones, has shifted the “center of gravity” of Texas politics – and by extension, the Texas congressional delegation – further to the right, he adds.

In 2016, Texas will be the first big state to vote in the presidential primaries. 

Senator Cruz is fortified. The take-no-prisoners senator who drove the Congress to a partial government shutdown in his first months in office is already supremely confident. Now the man, a potential presidential candidate for 2016, will be even more so. Tea party candidates in Texas followed the “Cruz model” that insists on no compromise with Democrats. They won, with Dan Patrick, a strident state senator, easily besting incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for that nomination on Tuesday, and Ken Paxton, whose ads showcased Cruz, handily beating state Rep. Dan Branch for the attorney general nomination. 

For Cruz, thinking ahead to 2016, the outcome suggests that he, rather than outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry – who ran with tea party backing for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 – will have the hearts of Texans.

Did the Texas tea party overreach, ideologically? Some Texas Republicans, especially in the business community, are concerned that the tone and policy positions of tea partyers such as Mr. Patrick could hasten a political evolution in Texas from a red state to a purple and then blue one. Democrats hope that a growing Hispanic population (Latinos will be the majority by the 2020 election) can make this state competitive.

If elected in November, Patrick, on the far right of immigration, abortion, guns, and spending issues, would “be the most conservative lieutenant governor in the past 40 to 50 years,” Professor Jones says. “He will try to push through policies that are rejected by a majority of Texas voters and engage in rhetoric that will polarize voters,” he predicts. That could create a backlash – maybe not in 2018, but perhaps in 2022, he suggests.

A reminder about who votes. In low-turnout GOP primaries, it is those who are most conservative who go to the polls. Tuesday’s “results say much more about Republican voter turnout than the quality of candidate who ran,” former Dallas County Republican Party chairman Jonathan Neerman told The Dallas Morning News. 

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