The official infighting of the political parties is usually over by now — but the Republican Party of Texas opens its biennial convention Thursday with high-profile runoffs still raging at the top of the ballot.
That might be a lucky break for candidates trying to get the faithful signed up to vote in July 31 runoffs for U.S. Senate, the Texas Railroad Commission and 22 other state positions: They'll get chances from now through the weekend to talk to their most enthusiastic partisans.
While the candidates try to get delegates to choose sides, party officials will be bashing Washington, D.C. — the theme of the convention is "Taking Back Our Country" — and praying for unity.
"This will be a little more this year than just a parade of speakers," said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the state GOP.
The party has scheduled "breakout sessions" during the convention to let delegates hear from candidates still battling for Republican nominations. The campaigns and runoffs are usually over before the conventions, which makes it easier to sell the unity thing. But this year’s situation has its upside, Munisteri said: "It offers a great opportunity for the party to sell exhibition space to campaigns."
The risk is that it pits sections within the party against one another. Munisteri said he hopes to avoid divisions between factions like the Tea Partiers, Ron Paul supporters, We Texans, evangelicals, traditional Republicans and party regulars. "We want to have a smoothly run and fair convention with no breakdowns," he said. "The challenge is to de-emphasize the areas of disagreement and emphasize the areas of agreement so that people can work on those.
"It's important to unify so we can go forward and get behind our candidates for the general election," he said.
The regular business of the convention is to elect party leaders, the members of the party's executive committee that handles party business between conventions, to select delegates and electors for the national convention and general election, and to approve a platform. The last task might prove to be a trial for party unity. This year, the platform committee is attempting to streamline the document to make it more concise, said committee chairman Tom Mechler. That will probably mean much discussion on the convention floor about what was and wasn't left in — and opens the door for hurt feelings among the party's many factions if they think their positions haven't been adequately represented.
The delegates will also get a look at many of their candidates and their officeholders. Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential nominee, won't be there, but four of his former rivals will be. Gov. Rick Perry is on the program for Thursday, and Ron Paul will lead one of the breakout sessions. Rick Santorum is the headliner for a gala dinner on Friday night. And Herman Cain is set to host a party on Friday with the Texas Young Republican Federation.
Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott will speak to delegates on Thursday. Friday's lineup includes U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Comptroller Susan Combs and House Speaker Joe Straus. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin will speak at the gala, on the same bill with Santorum. Saturday's list includes U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
Ted Cruz, who is in a runoff with Dewhurst for Hutchison's Senate seat, is speaking at the convention on Saturday, according to his campaign. And he'll be around for the breakout sessions and for a day of campaigning in North Texas with Santorum, who has endorsed his candidacy.
Combs, Staples and Patterson are already positioning themselves for the 2014 race for lieutenant governor, on the assumption that Dewhurst won't be back for another term. The weekend gives delegates an early chance to size them up before that contest is fully under way.
The Texas Republican convention is one of the biggest in the country, with 12,000 delegates and alternates. By comparison, the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay expects just over 4,400 delegates and alternates.