This weekend, some 14,000 true believers will congregate in Dallas for the state Republican convention, a biennial ritual where, among other duties, they will attempt to distill the soul of the Texas GOP into a party platform — the manifesto intended as the ideal vision for the future of the Texas GOP.
Just don’t ask them all to agree on it. If they did, “it'd be a very dull convention and a very short document," says Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
Other than electing a party chairman, developing a platform will be the main event at what is the largest political convention in the nation. This isn’t the year of a presidential election, so delegates won’t even have the selection of their national representatives to the convention to distract them. But for all the vigorous discussion on the convention floor, how closely do the standard-bearers of the party — the elected officials — actually follow it?
Most will say the platform is a guide, not a yoke, and carefully avoid saying exactly which parts they disagree with. It represents “the consensus of the majority of the party that are there and voting; it's not the consensus of every Republican in the state,” Patterson says.
Still, convention attendees make up the party’s most unwavering supporters: In the words of state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, they are the “salt of the earth, rock-solid backbone of who we are.” Every statewide Republican elected official will be there to court them at the two-day gathering with photo-ops, ice cream socials and cowboy boot raffles (that’s at Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples’ booth) that verges on becoming a GOP-themed carnival. They are the elements of the Republican populace who truly care.
"I'm trying not to say yelling matches, but I’ve gotten into energetic debates,” says Chris DeCluitt, a State Republican Executive Committee member from Waco, who give or take a few years for graduate school, has attended every convention since 1988. “Luckily, they did not include much profanity," he says, adding, “I don't know anyone that doesn't have a disagreement with something in the platform.”
The document lays out positions on issues that range from the GOP’s bread and butter, like limited government and abortion, to the finer points of parliamentary procedure, like the Rosebush-Blocker (a bill set first in the Senate lineup so that a two-thirds vote is required to consider other legislation out of order; the GOP doesn't like it because it empowers the minority party) and those less pertinent to a state party’s plank, like foreign policy.
A sampling of the sundry subjects addressed in 2008, the last time the Republican Party of Texas met: the AIDS/HIV crisis (“All people, no matter what disease they may contract, are worthy of deep respect as humans; however, behavior has personal and social consequences”), affirmative action (“racism disguised as social virtue”), the Boy Scouts (we “reject any attempt to undermine or fundamentally change the ideals of the organization) and internet taxation (they oppose it).
Staples calls the platform a “useful tool” for voters to determine which party most aligns with their beliefs, but says the electorate should judge candidates on their “individual positions” and what “they're going to do for this state or their district.”
Patterson says that though he largely agrees with the platform, he depends on his own philosophy to govern: “My principles guide my policies more than the party platform.”
Some Republican office holders, like Attorney General Greg Abbott, don’t even read it. Though he’s elected on a partisan basis, Abbott notes his job “is to focus on ways to better protect the people here in the state of Texas and enforce the laws” — and doing that is not “focused on any particular platform.”
Russ Duerstine, an executive committee member from San Angelo, says it’s not “reasonable” to expect Republican candidates to be in lockstep with the platform, “but it is a matter of degree as to how far off they are that starts causing friction.”
That “friction” may be what some conservative activists who believe opting in to the platform should be less than voluntary seek to avoid. As evidence of this, Peggy Venable, who directs the Texas Chapter of the anti-government spending group Americans for Prosperity, points to the resolutions introduced to require candidates to pledge their support of every aspect of the platform, calling it a “litmus test.”
Venable says she doesn’t think the platform has enough influence on Republican officeholders and that they too often compromise “policy for politics” to get elected. “Frankly, after the last national election, I think it's so much more important," she says. “Republican voters very loudly said they thought that elected officials on the Republican ticket had not adhered to the conservative values and principles in the platform.”
A concern that Republicans have strayed from the party platform prompted Patrick to form the “Independent Conservative Republicans of Texas,” a group made up of members of the Texas House and Senate who’ve promised to adhere to a five-part contract. But even Patrick says that while he takes it “very seriously,” he looks at the platform adopted at the conventions more as a “guiding document.”
For his part, Patterson disagrees with the notion that any kind of litmus test should be required for Republican candidates. “There is a test, and it's called the primary,” he says. “That's the test, and that's the only test that counts. If someone is elected and is so far removed from the platform, then I doubt that they're going to win a primary.” With his primary win in hand, Patterson he knows he’s “already got all the votes there,” and says he attends the convention mostly to say thanks to the GOP's most ardent supporters.
According to DeCluitt, the convention may hold something else in store for elected officials like Patterson. He says they will find out “just how riled up not only people from their own district are, but the people from around the state." And he hopes that when they see that, they'll "understand that the people that are there, the Republican Party is watching how the officeholders do their jobs and will hold them responsible for their actions.”