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Analysis: Republicans, Party of Two

When one party overwhelms the two-party system, it tends to develop into a two-faction party. That's the case with the Texas Republican Party — as you can see by who the speaker of the Texas House and the lieutenant governor are backing in the presidential race.

House Speaker Joe Straus (left) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Just dying for a new example of how the Speaker of the Texas House and the state’s lieutenant governor personify the major factions in the Republican Party?

Joe Straus is for Jeb Bush, and Dan Patrick is for Ted Cruz.

Tomayto, tomahto. Mars, Venus. Targaryen, Baratheon. Beatles, Stones. House, Senate.

This thing is on.

All of these guys are Republicans, members of the state’s dominant political party who are well aware of the hazards of trying to keep everybody happy in the big tent that is the modern GOP.

Politics is about competition and deciding between different ideas, and when one party overwhelms the two-party system, it tends to develop into a two-faction party. It happened to Texas Democrats all those years ago, when the conservatives and liberals in that party warred in primaries and then crushed Republicans in general elections. And it’s a current fact of life in the Republican Party — a daily battle between traditional conservatives and those who believe those traditions are not conservative enough.

Straus exemplifies one side, Patrick the other.

And each, through his endorsement, is talking to his supporters. Straus’ folks want to see the chamber of commerce in the conversation, the establishment of the party, the sober and risk-averse kinds of moves that have always marked their part of the GOP. You know, people in suits.

The speaker, citing deep family and political relationships, was in the Bush camp as soon as this year's legislative session was over. “I have been a friend of his and his family for many, many years, and his record as governor of Florida proved that he could cut taxes, reduce government waste, and fix broken government programs there,” Straus told San Antonio’s WOAI Radio in June.

Patrick’s followers want to see some fire and brimstone in their politics, a willingness to throw out tired old ways of doing things and try new ideas. They’ve also displayed a bias for new names over old ones in politics, electing Patrick over three statewide officeholders in 2014’s election for lieutenant governor. He signaled his support for Cruz’s presidential run early on, and he gave the candidate his official blessing earlier this week. “He is the outsider in this race, but who understands the inside and how things work, and how to achieve victory in Washington,” Patrick said. “Other people can be outsiders, but we don't really know they'll follow up and do what they say.” 

Gov. Greg Abbott, so far, is playing the Man Who Wasn’t There: He hasn’t endorsed any candidate in the race for the GOP nomination, including Cruz, who was Abbott’s top appellate lawyer at the attorney general’s office. That was before Cruz ran for Senate, Abbott ran for governor and Cruz ran for president.

Things have changed enough that both men have calculations to make before expressing their friendships and alliances. Abbott’s on hold for now, at a moment when his endorsement could have an effect on the race in Texas. But he can wait and still have some electoral clout. The GOP primary isn’t until March, and waiting gives him time to get the measure of the race before he throws his support to anyone. An Abbott endorsement now might help his favorite — whoever it turns out to be — to raise money. An endorsement closer to the election might turn voters’ heads.

If he decides to play, Abbott’s endorsement would be bigger news than those of the speaker or the lieutenant governor. For now, those are the big players on the Texas stage, and they are backing different candidates.

It’s a microcosm of a legislative session, with the House over here, the Senate over there and the governor in the middle, trying to decide which to embrace. For these three politicians navigating the current internal politics of the GOP, this is more than a conventional competition for endorsements.

It will feed not only the 2016 elections but also the legislative session that follows. Patrick has already put Senate committees to work on a list of issues in advance of that session. Straus will soon do the same. Some House-Senate differences will emerge, while others — campaign finance, taxes, school choice and other issues — were revealed during the legislative session earlier this year.

In election years, the lines are drawn by which kinds of candidates win and lose in the primaries — notably the primary at the top of the state’s ballot. Cruz is more popular in Texas than Bush — Cruz has been on the Texas ballot, after all. But the partisans within the GOP are watching their leaders for signals.

The candidates will appreciate the endorsements, at least until March 1, after which they’ll be off to other primaries in other states. For Straus and Patrick — and maybe, Abbott — the tang of that electoral assistance will last into the next legislative session.

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