The whole thing kicked off with a "Kumbaya" moment. On the Friday morning of the Republican Party of Texas' biennial convention in Dallas, at a breakfast meeting of the Texas Federation of Republican Women, primary foes U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry made nice on stage, with Hutchison formally endorsing Perry and touting him as “the governor who will keep Texas on the right path in 2010.”
Yet if an old rivalry was laid to rest, by the end of the next day, when the 14,000 or so delegates had loaded up their Suburbans plastered with “Is it 2012 yet?” stickers and headed home, a new one was unearthed.
That much was evident during the battle for the party chairmanship on Saturday afternoon. For the first time in the state GOP's recent history, a sitting chair who was running for the job wasn’t re-elected. Steve Munisteri solidly defeated Cathie Adams, but as her campaign song, “Eye of the Tiger,” portended, she didn’t go down without a fight.
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To understand the extent of the division, you have to wade into the procedural weeds. The state party nominates its chair through a vote of the 31 senate districts. Each district makes its choice and passes it on to the nominations committee. When that happens, delegates usually agree to whoever’s picked. If they don’t, someone can nominate another candidate from the floor and demand a floor vote. No one could remember that ever happening — until Saturday.
Here’s the way it went down. Neither Adams nor Munisteri came out of the district vote with a majority — a third candidate, Tom Mechler, won six of the districts, leaving Munisteri with 13 and Adams with 12. So there was a second vote, this time a runoff between Munisteri and Adams (Mechler withdrew and threw his support behind Munisteri). That time, Munisteri trounced Adams, 22 to 9. After that, it was expected that Adams would yield the chairmanship peacefully. But instead, when the nominations committee, after much delay, gave the nod to Munisteri, Adams was nominated from the floor.
After the historic floor fight concluded, Munisteri was the clear victor, with 59 percent of the vote. Melinda Fredericks, who ran on Mechler’s ticket, was chosen as the new vice chair.
Adams is a favorite of the Christian right and has built her career within the pro-life movement. Before she was party chair, she headed the Texas chapter of the Phyllis Schlafly-founded Eagle Forum. Munisteri is a retired lawyer and businessman from Houston. And though he’ll emphasize that he’s no slouch on social issues, he’s regarded as, above all else, a fiscal conservative — an important credential for a party currently $500,000 in debt.
Does the narrative sound familiar? If not, here’s how outgoing vice chair Robin Armstrong, who ran on Adams’ ticket, characterized the race as he asked for the delegates’ votes on the floor: “It is about whether we will go down the road of moderation … about whether we will water down our conservative beliefs when the country is getting more conservative."
Agitprop floating the convention floor Friday — a proposed platform resolution that called on delegates to “remove and replace” Speaker Joe Straus and a four-page letter making the case for Straus' ouster penned by conservative activist and former state party vice chair David Barton — showed that the Adams-Munisteri brawl isn’t the only sign of fissure.
After elements in the crowd booed Straus’ name twice during Dallas state Rep. Dan Branch’s introduction of him (once when Branch said San Antonian Straus grew up “in the shadow of the Alamo” and once when Branch said Straus was the leader the GOP needed at the helm of the House) — a resolution from the Prosper Tea Party emerged, attacking Straus for fundraisers he’s given for Democratic lawmakers, for his position on abortion and for his family's financial interest in racetracks. The Barton letter said Straus and “his ‘Republican’ lieutenants” were “the greatest threat to conservative Republican gains in the state House this election cycle.”
The Straus resolution never came up for debate on the floor. And the other anticipated platform fight — the one over immigration — never heated up either. After sparring earlier in the week over the adoption of the Arizona-style hardline position that made it into the committee version, 11 platform committee members developed a minority report. That minority position will be written up in the official version of the platform, but the majority plank — one that, like the Arizona law, would require local police to check legal residency when making arrests — was adopted on the floor.
Whether or not ill will from the chair race or against the Speaker breeds serious discontent, it’s clear from their performances at the convention that the torchbearers of the party know the galvanizing power of a common enemy. Now, more than ever, for the most ardent members of the state GOP, that enemy is Washington. Amid urgent cries to “rip the gavel from Nancy Pelosi’s hand” and “retire Obama,” party leaders drenched their speeches in constant reminders that Republicans should focus on the “90 percent that we agree on instead of the 10 percent we don’t.”