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Analysis: A Test of the Two GOPs in Texas

The Republican Party has two factions: Plain old Republicans and the roughly 43 percent who say they would vote for the Tea Party's candidates if that was a separate designation. They'll be testing each other in the GOP primary in March.

Texas Tax Day Tea Party Rally at the Texas Capitol on April 15, 2015.

Candidate filing is underway and guess what, Captain Obvious? Almost everything that’s competitive in Texas races will come to a head in the March primary and not in the November general election.

That said, recent polling shows that not only are there strong factional differences between Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans, but also that the anti-establishment types are a sizable part of the Texas GOP.

The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll asked Texans which primary they’d be voting in; 50 percent said Republican and 35 percent said Democrat. It also asked how they would vote in a congressional race if there were candidates from the Republican, Democratic and Tea Parties. Once again, 35 percent chose the Democrats. The Republican number dropped to 22 percent, and the Tea Party got 17 percent. The percentage of “don’t know” responses rose, too.

One of the poll’s co-directors, Daron Shaw of the University of Texas at Austin, reads that to say that 43 percent to 44 percent of the GOP primary voters are Tea Party voters. That faction is relatively small in the Legislature, especially in the Texas House. But they’re bucking for a promotion, talking about entering enough candidates in the 2016 elections to seriously challenge the conservatives now in power.

The races will firm up over the next month; the filing period that opened on Saturday continues through Dec. 14. When state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, challenged House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, in January, he got stomped, grabbing only 19 of the 150 available votes. Put another way, they got about one in five Republicans and no House Democrats.

Those are momentum races — politicians scurry to be on the winning side, if one is apparent — but that was pretty weak tea. The folks who want to knock off Straus will have to successfully defend many of their own members in March while knocking off a couple of dozen of his. Their next-best hope is that something big happens to turn voter sympathies their way. It’s a tall order.

Even if their overall effort falls short, they could grow stronger if enough of the March 1 primaries go their way. Austin folks — politicians, consultants, lobbyists, reporters and their ilk — tend to read some of those contests as personality races. But elections at the House and Senate level more often turn on issues and turnout than on personalities.

Most Texas voters don’t have an opinion about Straus, for instance, even though his name is a constant topic in Tea Party gatherings (hint: He’s the establishment they don’t like). Among all voters, about as many think he is doing a good job as not — 20 percent to 22 percent.

Both sides will have to play on issues like immigration, deportation, and particular votes by particular incumbents to win races. Talking about management isn’t going to do it for voters who can’t name the managers, much less those managers’ positions.

The presidential race will almost certainly boost turnout, lessening the usual advantage that activists have over less fervent voters. But the runoffs won’t have giant ad campaigns, super PACs and big stars boosting turnout. Non-establishment candidates who can battle their way into runoffs might have better odds.

The candidate lists haven’t gelled, but some of the targets are known.

Pesky insurgent state representatives are on the establishment list, including state Reps. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford; Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, and Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving. Stickland and Rinaldi are leaders in what is now the minority of the GOP in the House.

The folks defending those three and others will be throwing bricks at vexatious folks from the non-Tea Party side, like Byron Cook, R-Corsicana; Jason Villalba, R-Dallas; and Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. Cook and Geren are top lieutenants to Straus and part of the management the people in the minority of the GOP would like to unseat.

For either side, leaders are trophies, even if it doesn’t change the basic political content of the Legislature.

With that in mind, the speaker is at the top of the outsiders’ trophy wish list: Two candidates have said they will challenge Straus in his March primary. He has won re-election handily in the past — he got 61 percent of the vote against one candidate in 2014 — but the more candidates in the primary, the higher the chances of a runoff.

That’s the stuff challengers dream about.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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