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Analysis: A Movable Definition of Conservative

The Texas Senate's swing to the right started more than 20 years ago, when the incumbents' definition of extreme simply meant a Republican had entered the Capitol. Now some of those same Republicans are under fire for being too liberal.

From left to right, state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and former state Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco.

Jane Nelson was considered a “crazy right-winger” when she was elected to the Texas Senate in 1992.

The pejorative was attached to anyone entering the sacred space of incumbent senators at the time — most of whom were Democrats.

The label was passed along from year to year as the Texas Senate became more conservative, and now some of the politicians who originally represented the leading edge of the conservative wave — like Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville — are themselves under attack for being too liberal.

The description attached to Nelson, R-Flower Mound, back in the 1990s said a lot about the makeup of the Legislature back then. Democrats were in charge, and almost every Republican elected to the Senate replaced a Democrat. From their own perspective, each defeated member of the club was being knocked off by, as they put it, “some crazy right-winger.” It was their name for any incoming Republican.

Nelson, for instance, replaced a rural Democrat named Bob Glasgow. Unlike some of her colleagues from back then, she is still considered a bona fide conservative today.

Only eight senators had more conservative records than Nelson in the 2013 session, according to an analysis by Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University. Nelson is on the short list of senators who could lead the budget-writing Finance Committee — an idea floated by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who is in a runoff for lieutenant governor against the incumbent, David Dewhurst. Patrick, by the way, cast the Senate’s most conservative votes last year, according to Jones’ analysis.

David Sibley, R-Waco, came to the Senate two years before Nelson. Initially cast by the resident Democrats as an extremist, Sibley, a former Waco mayor and McLennan County prosecutor, turned out to be a very effective legislator. He left in 2002, became a lobbyist and decided, in 2010 — the year of the Tea Party’s rise — to run for another term. But his time as a lobbyist proved a handicap, and Sibley found himself painted as a “moderate” — a dreaded term then and now in Republican primaries. He lost the race to Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who now ranks right up there with Patrick on the conservative voting chart.

The Republican Party label itself was what once marked Senate newcomers like Sibley as fresh evidence of the pendulum swing to the right. New Republicans came in as old Democrats went out. When he arrived, there were nine Republicans in the 31-member Senate. Almost 20 years later, Birdwell replaced one of the 19 Republicans in office. What had been a process of replacing Democrats with Republicans — the first part of the pendulum’s swing — had become a process of replacing Republicans with Republicans — usually, more conservative ones.

The party that once followed the 11th Commandment made popular by Ronald Reagan — “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Any Fellow Republican” — has lost that particular religion. Calling a Republican candidate moderate during primary season is considered an attack, which happened to Deuell, who finds himself in a runoff with Bob Hall.

Deuell came to Austin in 2003, after his second attempt to defeat Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, and became one of that year’s scary new conservatives (his was the class that brought Republicans to their current 19 members). Now he is the dreaded moderate, under attack and held to 48.5 percent in this month’s primary. Hall bought himself an additional 12 weeks by getting into a runoff.

Deuell is battling his opponent, but has also sent out mailers attacking Hall’s support from Austin-based Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, affiliated conservative groups that generally side against establishment Republicans.

They are siding against Deuell, saying he is less conservative than most of his Senate district’s voters and ought to be replaced. That looks to be one theme in the runoff. And Deuell has kept up the criticism of the nonprofit political groups and their undisclosed donors, defending his voting record and working to shake claims that he is something less than a conservative.

Now it is people like him who are talking about the “crazy right-wingers.”

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

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