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Paths of Dewhurst, Straus Reflect Challenge Facing Republican Party

The state's top two legislative leaders reflect the split in the Texas and national GOP — between populist conservatives on one hand, and mainline, old-school Republicans on the other.

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David Dewhurst and Joe Straus might as well be the Republican Party in miniature.

The lieutenant governor, defeated in a jolting United States Senate primary he was supposed to win, is running to the right, where he apparently thinks the party is regrouping. The Texas House speaker, already defined by his foes as a moderate, remains where the mainstream party used to hang out.

The question, for them and for the party, is this: Where will the Republican Party, in Texas and elsewhere, end up? The national punditry is already yammering about whether the Republican Party’s leaders should run to the base or reconsider and follow the country’s demographics. It’s one of the fundamental questions in politics or marketing: Do you go where the most loyal and enthused voters and customers appear to be going, or do you try to go where you think the crowd will be in the years to come?

Dewhurst ran his last election as the mainstream party guy and got whacked by a Harvard-educated lawyer who, in turn, ran his first campaign for public office as a hero of the thriving populist wing of the Republican Party. Ted Cruz doesn’t have to face the voters again until 2018, and he can now enjoy the senatorial luxury of observing a couple of election cycles without any risk to his own political career. Wait, watch and learn.

Straus and Dewhurst are among those who have to play right away, first in the legislative session that begins in January, and again in the 2014 election, when both of their offices are on the ballot.

Dewhurst’s takeaway, judging by his actions since that humbling July 31 primary runoff, is that the party is more conservative than he is perceived to be and that he’s got to convince the rowdy Tea Party folks that he isn’t the moderate insider Cruz made him out to be. In the meantime, he has to convince others who might covet his position that he remains a powerful incumbent too dangerous to challenge.

He is tacking right, evidenced by his appointment of conservative Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to chair the Senate’s public education committee, and by his decision to dethrone the higher education committee chairwoman, Judith Zaffirini, Democrat of Laredo.

Straus won re-election to his House seat without breaking a sweat. For a speaker, the electoral pressure starts when the general election ends. He’s running for another term as presiding officer, and the 149 other members of the House are his voters.

He doesn’t appear to be in trouble, internally. His allies say he’s got enough commitments from members to win another term. But that vote won’t be held until January. Now that the general election is over, some of the party’s outside activists are ginning up their opposition to another speaker term for Straus, telling his voters that they shouldn’t continue on with someone who’s not from the most conservative faction of the Republican Party.

The letter-writing, blogging and organizing on that subject are under way. State Representative Bryan Hughes, Republican of Mineola, who is challenging Straus for the speaker post, is starting to make what had been a relatively quiet campaign for the job more public. He sent members a letter on Thursday proposing new rules he said would move power from the speaker to the members and would make the workings of the House more transparent.

Straus is from one of the state’s mainline Republican families and represents a district that fits right with that. He and his buddies won’t admit to it — that would be stupid — but he represents the Texas Republicans who have elected people like George W. Bush, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and, well, David Dewhurst.

That’s not the fashion at this instant. Texas Republicans favored the Ted Cruz who ran as a firebrand. They preferred presidential candidates like Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich until those were no longer alternatives to Mitt Romney — the mainline Republican in that race.

Republicans all over the country are trying to figure out how to read the election results and move forward. For most of them, it’s an academic exercise or something that doesn’t have to be resolved right away.

The leaders of the state’s two legislative chambers have to work it out during the first five months of 2013. Assuming Straus wins another term at the helm, the rest of us will get a long look at whether the Texas Republican Party is really one party — or two.

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