Analysis: No Middle Ground in Texas GOP's Leadership Race

The contest between current Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler and his opponent, Jared Woodfill, is about purity, about which kinds of conservatives the Texas GOP represents and about what the party is supposed to be doing.

Tom Mechler (l) and Jared Woodfill

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Houston’s Jared Woodfill is trying to win control of the Republican Party of Texas, challenging the current management and saying it has been too quiet in the face of legislative defeats in a state government dominated by Republican officeholders and appointees.

The contest between Tom Mechler of Amarillo, the party’s current chairman, and Woodfill, who once led the Harris County GOP, is a fight about purity, about which kinds of conservatives the Texas GOP represents and about what the party is supposed to be doing. They don’t run as combined tickets, but former state party Chairman Cathie Adams is running for vice chair in tandem with Woodfill while current vice chair Amy Clark is seeking re-election, along with Mechler.

The outcome of the elections, to be held at the GOP’s state convention in Dallas next month, probably isn’t going to change your life, but it’s interesting. Mechler wants the party to bring in more voters — he’s talking about minorities and millennials, among others — who have generally eluded the charms of the GOP. He doesn’t think it’s his job to tell the state’s Republican officeholders what to do.

“Every Republican should be comfortable within the party,” he says. “My vision is and will be that is that this party is welcoming and embracing all conservatives from all over the state of Texas.”

Woodfill is a bully-pulpit guy, a political figure whose effectiveness depends on everything from actual microphones on actual podiums to social media, news media and advertising.

He is appealing for the support of others who, like him, think the state political party should be whipping the Legislature to keep it in line with the GOP platform and the beliefs of Texans in its voting base.

His pitch against the current party leadership seems aimed more at the House than at anyone else. An example from the Facebook page promoting his candidacy: “Friends, we are engaged in a cultural war and our Republican Party of Texas leadership is running from the fight! One need only look at the 2015 legislative sessions to find evidence of the RPT surrendering our values.”

Woodfill focuses on a list of issues that met their demise, he contends, in the Texas House, including bills outlawing references to Sharia in courts, requiring Texas cities to enforce federal immigration laws, allowing the use or diversion of tax dollars for private school tuition, repealing in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants/noncitizens who graduate from Texas high schools, and enacting new ethics legislation.

That plays into existing divisions among the Republicans in government, however they are characterized: establishment against insurgents, social conservatives against social moderates, chamber of commerce against grassroots.

Some legislators and outside groups have endorsed in the race, but the state’s top elected officials have stayed out of the fray. They don’t want to get cut up in a family fight, and there is little to gain by taking part even if they wanted to.

This particular chairman’s election is not as important as it would be in a state where November elections are truly competitive. Political parties don’t play in their own primary elections, endorsing one candidate from their party over another, except in the most extreme situations.

Woodfill’s attack on the status quo hints at a change to that — particularly with his displeasure over the work of the Texas House. But the operations of the parties have generally been available to everyone running under their banners.

In Texas, that means they don’t play in the most important elections — the primaries. The state’s redistricting maps are drawn — poorly or excellently, depending on your preference — so that they are nearly invulnerable to candidates outside of a particular party.

The numbers are familiar to candidates, consultants and political mavens of all stripes: Of the 36 congressional seats, only one — the 23rd — can and has been won by candidates of both parties under the current maps. Of the other 35, 24 are safe Republican seats and 11 are safe Democratic seats. In the Texas Senate, you’ll see a few new faces after the elections, but it’s entirely safe to say that no matter how the names change, that body will have 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats in it. The House has more uncertainty, if you can call nine seats out of 150 uncertain. The rest are firmly Republican or Democratic.

The point: Texas elections are decided in the primaries, where the intra-party factions do battle and party officials don’t play. They’re rarely decided in the general elections in which the state parties would ordinarily be most important.

A race for state party chair puts someone in the position to comment on the events of the day (usually as criticism of people in the other party), in charge of fundraising, and in place to maintain the operational machinery of politics — like the voter files that contain everything from who voted and who gives money to how to contact them.

Normal humans have no real reason to worry about who runs the state’s political parties. This is not the sort of office that registers as important in the span of an average Texan’s day — or life, for that matter.

It is, however, the sort of post that makes a small part of the political machinery work. A state party is one of the zillion things that together form the organizations underlying this democracy. The position at the top is boring but important. The candidates running are unknown even to many of the other political players. You don’t know their names unless they are flamethrowers — people who use their positions to excoriate their enemies.

Mechler is the big-tent candidate, trying to make room for new constituencies within the Texas GOP. Woodfill wants the party to emphasize the fundamentals, pressing candidates and officeholders to toe the party line.

It’s a fight between a candidate who says he would welcome those who don’t agree on every single thing in the platform and a candidate who finds real fault with a series of the most conservative legislative sessions in Texas history.

It mirrors some of the debates in last month’s Republican primaries — and last year’s legislative session.