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Analysis: For the GOP, It's the Year of the Hunter

The Republican establishment is finding itself in the role of the hunted, as conservatives — especially in statewide races — dominate the political conversation.

Pictured are (clockwise, from top left) Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Sen. Dan Patrick, state Rep. Dan Branch and state Sen. Ken Paxton.

The elephant hunters in the Texas Republican Party have been doing a better job lately than the elephants.

The elephants — mainstream Republicans, many of them incumbents — have been under attack since 2010. The Tea Party was the political story that year, sweeping dozens of Democrats out of the Legislature and taking the Republican Party’s center stage. In the elections since, more of that fighting has taken place inside the party. The Democrats are out of the way, or as out of the way as redistricting has allowed, and now the best way for an ambitious Republican to take office is by knocking off another ambitious Republican.

The challengers have forcefully asserted themselves. The establishment, while winning its share of races, particularly in the Legislature, looks weak. For all of their complaints about the populist wave in conservative politics, old-school Republicans don’t have the momentum. They are not holding their own in the most visible primary fights at the top of the ballot, and those elections are most likely to define the party as it moves out of an era dominated by Gov. Rick Perry.

Naming the factions is tricky, because they all operate under the same banner. But it is safe to say that there is the sort of Republican who refers to the opposition as RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — and the sort who refers to the opposition without attaching a kind word, like “conservative,” to the least-compromising wing of the party. Political naming and name-calling resemble kindergarten if all the children wore business suits, went to town hall meetings and obsessed over their Twitter accounts.

Each side has its lists of wins and losses; in truth, this month’s Republican primary results were mixed.

A half-dozen establishment legislators lost their primaries to conservative challengers. The establishment fell short in efforts to knock off three Tea Party officeholders elected in 2010 and 2012.

Some of the establishment’s prize elephants — state Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland was a top conservative target — successfully eluded the hunters.

The top of the ticket is where the establishment is really taking a beating. Movement conservatives in Texas — a label that includes fiscal and social conservatives, Tea Partyers and the religious right — seem to be forming up behind Dan Patrick, a state senator running for lieutenant governor; Ken Paxton, a state senator running for attorney general; and Wayne Christian, a former state representative running for railroad commissioner. Each finished ahead of the establishment candidate in his race — in Patrick’s case, the incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst.

Challengers are louder about counting coup than defenders, and the victories of challengers often look bigger, somehow, than defensive wins. The establishment successfully defended several incumbents, but failed to unseat any of its antagonists. The challengers are still short of the numbers needed to take over the Legislature, but they made enough gains to spook the survivors. Every Republican senator has probably given some private thought to state Sen. John Carona’s loss to Donald Huffines, and that kind of private thinking often leads to changed voting patterns.

Do not forget the money. The establishment is frozen by caution. Some donors are switching sides after looking at the first-round results and deciding the challengers will win.

The challengers are where they are because of their politics, sure, but they have serious financial backing from establishment-like donors. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is where he is, in large measure, because of money from FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.

So it is with the conservative legislative candidates in Texas, who received direct and indirect help from groups like Empower Texans, which also operates as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and which has sided with the most conservative candidates against the establishment. It is fashionable to say many of those candidates won without spending much for each vote. But a lot of money was spent on their behalf. For instance, in the last full report it filed before the primary, Empower Texans (also known as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility) had spent $480,833 on behalf of various campaigns around the state, much of it without actually donating to those candidates.

If they win enough races and turn enough heads, the elephant hunters will be the new establishment.

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