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Analysis: In Same Party, Not Always on Same Page

One the of state's political parties can’t get itself together, and the other can’t seem to stop tearing itself apart.

Gov. Rick Perry is shown with New Hampshire voters at the Defend Freedom Pork Roast in Rochester on Aug. 23, 2014.

Texas Republicans seem preoccupied with purity these days, overrun with people who want to eradicate real and imagined apostates within the party.

Texas Democrats are so starved for an audience that many have staked their hopes on support from people who have been voting for Republicans for all these years but just cannot go as far as conservatives are taking that party.

One party can’t get itself together, and the other can’t stop tearing itself apart.

The Republicans, after 20 years in power in Texas government, are the more interesting case.

Most recently, an unnamed group launched a website questioning the conservative credentials of John Nau, a Houston beer distributor and funder of conservatives and conservative causes at the statewide level who also backs some legislative Democrats in local seats. Among other things, Nau is a prominent supporter of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor.

Some have qualms about the governor himself, the guy who’s been leading Texas Republicans for years, including a long and vociferous campaign against the federal government that has resonated strongly with small government conservatives.

After Perry was indicted last month, conservatives rallied, decrying the charges against him as the product of a corrupt prosecution hatched in one of the state’s most liberal counties.

The rally stopped there: Several Tea Party leaders, for instance, took care to say they back the governor against the prosecutors but do not support him across the board. Perry has been criticized for some of the consultants he has hired, like Henry Barbour, who helped U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran beat a Tea Party challenger in Mississippi, and Steve Schmidt, who managed the ill-fated John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign in 2008. Some, like state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, knock the governor for his support of in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants, and for trying to require preteen girls in Texas to be vaccinated against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease.

What a change: Perry, remember, spotted the rise of the Tea Party early and rode those sentiments to a primary campaign victory over U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010. She was stuck playing an establishment Republican from Washington while he wore ball caps and camo shirts and talked about states’ rights.

David Dewhurst, the Republican lieutenant governor, lost his last two elections to candidates who appealed to the populists and painted Dewhurst as the kind of establishment candidate who inspired those voters to take political action. Dewhurst lost to Ted Cruz in the 2012 race for Senate — a contest in which Cruz positioned himself as the true conservative. In this year’s primary bid for re-election, Dewhurst tried to recast himself as anything but a moderate; state Sen. Dan Patrick had already claimed the conservative ground, however, and the voters chose him instead.

One of Dewhurst’s fellow officeholders succinctly summed up his fate: “Appeasement doesn’t work.”

Now the conservatives are turning their attention to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who is seeking re-election to a fourth term in that position. State Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, has filed the papers required to run for speaker but has yet to demonstrate much support among his fellow House members. That contest will begin in earnest, if at all, after the November elections. But the complaint follows familiar lines, with populists questioning the bona fides of an establishment figure they have deemed too moderate to represent them.

This conservative fever could spill across the state’s borders, with Perry and Cruz working on possible presidential runs in 2016. The senator has been a populist favorite. The governor had a reasonable shot with the voters in that wing of the party four years ago in the last presidential race, but frittered it away in a campaign that left him with a four-letter tattoo: Oops. National Republicans might want another relative moderate to bear their standard in 2016 — or a “true conservative” who is in no danger of being called a Republican in Name Only.

Purification might focus the party and bring moderate Republicans into line. Hopeful Democrats will be looking for the strays.

Disclosure: John Nau is a donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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Politics 2014 elections