Two Factions in the State's Majority Party

Texas has two Republican parties.

After the general election in 2008, Republicans and Democrats were almost equals in the Texas House, with 76 of the former and 74 of the latter sitting at the oak desks in that chamber.

Now, that two-vote Republican advantage has exploded into a 48-vote difference in a 99-51 House. Republicans don’t have to share power with Democrats — they have to share it with Republicans.

Democrats had the same challenge in the days when they were in power and Republicans met in phone booths. Back then, the factions were the conservatives and the liberals. Now it’s a GOP thing. Pick your own taxonomy: moderate and conservative, country and country club, mainline and evangelical, establishment and insurgent, social and financial, old and new, Bush and Perry. However you characterize it, it’s bumpy.

The situation in the House is new, but the predicament is familiar: The split has developed along with the steady climb of the state Republican Party. This year’s primary for governor had the two camps front and center. Here, Kay Bailey Hutchison, a lifelong Republican, the first woman in her party to serve in the Texas House and in statewide office, the first woman of either party elected to the United States Senate from Texas. There, Rick Perry, elected to the Texas House as a Democrat in 1984, switched parties in 1989 (barely a year after co-chairing Al Gore’s Texas campaign for president), elected to statewide office as a Republican in 1990 and every four years since.

Prominent supporters of both George Bushes — Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, James Baker — lined up mostly with Hutchison. Social conservatives and the rising wave of fiscal conservatives sided with Perry.

Two years ago, when Rudolph W. Giuliani was running for president, Perry was traveling on his behalf. Perry — in a YouTube learning experience — was captured on video telling a group at a private gathering in Iowa that the younger Bush was no fiscal conservative, even as governor of Texas. The Bushies still haven’t forgotten that.

The roots run even deeper. In 1994, the state Republican Party debated whether to seat a particular delegate to the national Republican convention, wondering publicly whether she was conservative enough. The delegate was Hutchison, already a U.S. senator.

The current battle is between partisan siblings for control of the House, with some of the more conservative elements working to knock off the lifelong Republican who became speaker two years ago. Their chief gripe, at least publicly, is that Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, wrested that office away from Tom Craddick, R-Midland, by combining the votes of a small band of Republicans with those of 60-odd Democrats. As they see it, he’s a creation of the enemy.

His defense? He was Republican before Republican was cool, working for Ronald Reagan, Lamar Smith and others while his GOP rivals were either in diapers or still affiliated with the Democrats.

Outside conservative groups, from the Texas Eagle Forum to various Tea parties in Texas to Empower Texas, a political action committee bent on irritating and defeating Democrats and moderate Republicans, have called either for Straus’ ouster or for a House speaker — Straus or not — who is elected by the Republican caucus, without any say from the minority party. That would be a departure for the Texas Legislature, where the power of the parties is highly variable and where it’s normal for the out-of-power party to hold a more or less proportionate share of committee chairmanships and assignments.

The House fight parallels a quieter but older quarrel in the Senate, where some partisans would like to kill a genteel rule that allows one-third of the Senate to block consideration of particular legislation. Democrats have used the rule to their advantage in battles over voter ID and redistricting. Republicans used it in 2001 to block congressional redistricting plans they disliked, setting up a mid-decade revision of those maps that was steered by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Taking the rule away altogether would move power now held by the lieutenant governor — who sets the Senate agenda — to the caucuses.

Institutional Republicans like the rules as they are. Insurgent Republicans, giddy over their wins on Election Day and in possession of a supermajority in the state Legislature for the first time in modern history, want to remove the last roadblocks. It’s a decision that the two parties will probably make all by themselves.

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