Ted Cruz's Rise, Ken Paxton's Mugshot: The Year in Texas Politics

In 2015, Texans saw their former governor reluctantly exit the political stage as their junior senator emerged as one of the savviest and most consequential Republican presidential candidates. Here are the year’s top political stories.

In 2015, Texans saw their once-powerful former governor reluctantly exit the political stage as their junior senator emerged as one of the savviest and most consequential Republican presidential candidates. 

But in between, many setbacks and triumphs came to pass for Texans in Austin, San Antonio and Washington, D.C.

Here are the year’s top political stories:

1. The rise of Cruz 

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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, proved this year the ground game he built in his 2012 Senate race was no fluke. He began the year still known as a "wacko bird," the moniker U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gave him in his early Senate days. But now, there is a common agreement among his backers and detractors that he built the strongest presidential operation in Republican politics. 

He got to that point by, over and over, making a slew of political calculations that elevated him to the GOP primary's top tier. At the same time, serious voices in the GOP doubt he is a viable general election standard-bearer.

Back home, he started the year as one of several GOP candidates with deep ties to Texas, including the outgoing governor and a Bush. And in that year, he’s methodically worked to consolidate the state GOP in his own image. Republican incumbents up and down the ballot live in fear of “the next Ted Cruz” challenger surfacing in a primary. 

If he doesn’t go all the way to 1600 Pennsyvlania Ave., the biggest question in Texas politics will be: Does he run for re-election in 2018?  

2. The end of the Perry era 

Yes, there was an indictment and the “oops” hangover. 

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But setting common sense aside, a Rick Perry presidential campaign was not that outlandish a notion a year ago. He was still the sitting governor — and the longest-serving one, for that matter. 

In the wake of his second failed presidential campaign, it's worth remembering that for 20 years he dispatched giants in Texas politics: Jim Hightower, John Sharp, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill White.

Yet in some ways, Texas proved his undoing this year. 

The Texas donors who rallied behind him so many times did not follow through this time, and his campaign ran out of money amid a humiliating campaign early exit.

Perry’s future in electoral politics is probably over, and his legal troubles remain unresolved. But his 2015 showing revealed a better and more thoughtful presidential candidate.

3. Grand jury indicts Paxton 

It's never pretty when a statewide official poses for a mugshot. 

Attorney General Ken Paxton had only been in office for seven months when a Collin County grand jury delivered three indictments his way, on charges including securities fraud and failure to register as a securities agent.

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Beyond the legal ramifications, Republicans are in a delicate dance over Paxton's troubles. Some are already positioned to succeed him should he be forced from office. But on the other hand, nobody wants to be seen as a vulture hovering over a powerful official in case he survives. 

4. Taylor defeats Van de Putte in San Antonio  

The Democratic retreat in state politics continued into 2015 when voters chose to keep interim San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor on as former Mayor Julián Castro’s successor. 

And she didn’t just defeat any Democrat: She fended off Leticia Van de Putte, a longtime state Senate fixture and the Democratic nominee for lietuenant governor in 2014. 

It was a non-partisan election. But most galling — and shocking — to Democrats was that was GOP consultants and social conservatives paved the way for Taylor's win. Social conservatives turned out to support Taylor, and Democrats stayed home. 

State Democrats are counting on Castro and his brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, to lead the party back into statewide relevance. But before they can do that, they have to look at what happened in their own backyard. 

5. The Growing Rift Between Cruz and Cornyn  

U.S. Senate decorum dictates that two senators from the same state do their best to present a united front, even when they are members of opposing parties. Which is why the veiled back-and-forth exchanges between U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate Majority Whip, and Cruz — both Republicans — were so startling. 

For most of early 2015, both men maintained to the world they had a productive relationship. 

But without naming names, Cruz published a memoir in June that savaged Cornyn and the Senate GOP leadership of which Cornyn is a member. A month later, Cruz called Cornyn’s ally — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — a liar on the Senate floor. 

Cornyn immediately defended McConnell on the floor with, for Senate standards, a striking rebuke. 

“I have listened to the comments of my colleague, the junior senator from Texas, both last week and this week, and I would have to say that he is mistaken,” Cornyn said. 

By the fall, Cornyn compared Cruz to a football player who sacks his own quarterback and had even harsher criticism for his colleague.

When asked if Cruz could effectively represent Texas in the Senate, Cornyn simply stated: “I would say the jury is out.”  

6. Chaos on Capitol Hill 

Sure, former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner's retirement unleashed unrelenting uncertainty for weeks this fall at the U.S. Capitol. 

But beyond the ascension of Paul Ryan, the power vacuum revealed undercurrents of ambition in the Texas Republican delegation. 

No fewer than three Texans — U.S. Reps. Mike Conaway of Midland, Bill Flores of Bryan and Michael McCaul of Austin — mulled their own runs for speaker before deferring to Ryan. 

U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas briefly ran for House Majority Whip, until the current whip opted to stay put. And Ryan left behind a vacancy as chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means committee, allowing U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, the opportunity to run for and win that position.

Texans began the year with six U.S. House committee chairmen and ended 2015 with seven. 

The Lone Star State is on the upswing of congressional influence. But U.S. House Republicans put term limits on committee chairmen. Already some members of the delegation, like Brady, worry about how long Texas' power will last.