This isn’t how this was supposed to work.
For all of the media attention they have been getting for the last five years, the anti-establishment politicians in the Republican Party — a group variously identified as the Tea Party, the populists, the insurgents — have won some primary elections in Texas but have not produced the legislative results that would indicate real clout.
Look at their attempts to win leadership jobs, which many of them argue would give them the leverage to achieve other legislative goals.
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, and state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, have challenged establishment Republicans in their respective Houses of Representatives with less success than Texas Democrats had in November’s statewide elections.
Gohmert’s challenge to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio added to the fuss in the Republican Caucus in Congress but didn't win enough supporters to fill all of the seats in a Honda Fit. It was a blowout.
And next Tuesday will probably bring another one when Turner’s challenge to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus comes to what both sides promise will be a public vote. Turner will beat the point spread if he musters even two dozen votes in the 150-member House. More than half of the members — including four-fifths of the Republicans — have already indicated their support for the incumbent.
The Republican renegades are louder than the Democrats. But if voter support — either from regular voters or from insiders in their respective party caucuses — is a measure, the insurgents are a smaller force in the Texas House than the anemic Texas Democrats.
These long-shot challenges to sitting speakers in Washington and Austin do not necessarily help the cause.
Those contests put other Republican legislators in the uncomfortable spot of choosing sides at a moment when they are forging political relationships that will get them through the coming legislative sessions.
A split GOP invigorates the reeling Democrats, who hope to pick off votes on this or that issue from the ranks of the disgruntled Republicans who are out of favor after these lopsided votes on leadership.
The whole exercise can undermine the losers’ ability to get things done, in the legislative sense, if it shows them to be weak. They begin their sessions as untouchables.
Since the Tea Party wave that surfaced in April 2009 and crested in the 2010 general elections, the GOP — at both the state and national levels — has appropriated enough of the movement’s ideas to insulate itself from the renegades within its ranks. What might have become a third party has instead been assimilated by the establishment, and for all but a small number of conservatives who remain unhappy with the GOP, there is no need to shop around.
Rick Perry famously got in front of this before it produced someone who could run to his right. He beat Kay Bailey Hutchison over the head with it in the 2010 Republican primary for governor, painting her as the poster child of the Washington establishment and himself as an outsider and an agitator trying to undo the misdeeds of government. It was a sweet gambit for a guy who, at the time, had been an elected state official for 25 years; he seemed to be giving up his spot in the establishment even as he was cinching four more years in office.
But if you believe that the conservative anti-establishment politics of 2009 should have developed outside the shadow of the GOP, then Perry’s jump is when things started to go wrong. The governor was just the first Republican to see the political shift, to co-opt its power and to defang it as a threat to adaptable incumbents like himself.
In the years since, others have found themselves following his path, keeping their establishment bona fides while also defeating conservative challengers or shutting them down altogether. John Cornyn of Texas is in the No. 2 leadership spot in the U.S. Senate, a little more than a year after conservatives in his own party were trying to paint him as a Republican in Name Only who ought to be challenged seriously from the right.
The Gohmerts and the Turners are not toothless; they represent a noisy and intermittently influential, if somewhat hard-to-label, faction of the conservative movement. But public failures to win seats at the adults’ table could make them and their supporters and their ideas easier to dismiss, both for the Republicans they are challenging and the Democrats they disdain. They’ve grown weaker, which makes their foes more powerful, at least for the moment.
Politics is full of jujitsu moments, however, where fighters use opponents’ strengths against them. Republicans had an 88-62 advantage in the 2003 session. Six years later, the Democrats had whittled that down to a 76-74 advantage, and those Democrats and a small number of disaffected Republicans mounted a successful challenge to then-Speaker Tom Craddick.
The factions behind the Gohmerts and the Turners might be able put something like that together, especially if the establishment stumbles. But lopsided losses don’t build confidence. Just ask the Democrats.