Analysis: Whose Texas GOP Is It, Anyway?

The Republican Party of Texas’ convention in Dallas gives the heart of the state’s GOP electorate a chance to see their heroes and stars and to figure out — if possible — where the various conservative tribes are going to come together.

Republicans posing with the elephant at the Fort Worth Convention Center on June 5, 2014.

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The Republican Party of Texas’ biennial convention in Dallas gives the heart of the state’s GOP electorate a chance to see their heroes and stars, to assess the current state of the party at the end of a rambunctious primary season and to figure out — if possible — where the various conservative tribes are going to come together.

They’re not going to answer all of those questions this weekend, and they probably won’t fully answer any of them. But it’s a start.

This state convention initially looked like a battlefield over delegates — specifically, over the political inclinations of the Texans selected to represent Republican voters at the national convention later this year. Ted Cruz’s campaign wanted to be sure, for instance, that delegates pledged to Donald Trump during initial ballots would turn to their guy once they were unbound. Other campaigns were working the same angle.

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The nominating process is over now, practically speaking. But when there were still questions over who would be the party’s presidential nominee, the delegate rustling was important.

The convention is also an element of another, slower process already underway in Texas. The Republican order was shaken in the last election cycle, when one generation of the party’s statewide officeholders moved up or out and another moved in.

That transition from the Rick Perry-David Dewhurst-Greg Abbott years is still underway. The conventioneers will gather in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, named for the former U.S. senator, state treasurer and state legislator who was a key establishment figure in Texas Republican politics for more than two decades.

The changing of the guard isn’t exactly a headline-grabbing story, but it’s a key to finding out where the party in Texas is going. Perry, as governor, was the party’s top attraction for years. Going into this first party convention since he left the Governor’s Mansion, it’s a little less clear.

Here are the contestants in this political edition of The Dating Game:

  • Now the governor, Abbott cruises into Dallas in a tour bus emblazoned with a picture of him, the cover of his new book, and the title — "Broken but Unbowed" — in huge letters on the side.
  • Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gets to Dallas after a publicity stop in Fort Worth, where he demanded the resignation of a school superintendent whose new rules for transgender students and restrooms do not suit the lieutenant governor. Conservatives have rallied around similar “Game of Thrones” debates in Houston and North Carolina. Patrick’s Tuesday appearance in Fort Worth gives him a fresh example for the delegates he’ll speak to on Thursday.
  • U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is the highest-ranking Republican in Texas, the No. 2 in Republican leadership in a GOP-led Senate and also a regular foil to the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz. Cornyn speaks on Friday at the convention, hoping — like his Republican colleagues in Washington — to build coalitions that will keep the party in power.
  • Cruz, a presidential candidate until last week and a favorite of the state’s Republican most active partisans, in what might be his first speaking appearance before a non-media crowd since he dropped out of the race and left Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee.

One question for Republicans and their different factions is which of those — or other figures — best represents them. Who can unite them? Which ideas bind them to one another, especially when the biggest race of the year has forced them to choose between candidates they agree with on ideological issues, like Cruz or Marco Rubio or even Jeb Bush, and charismatic candidates who don’t toe the line, like Trump.

If it’s about ideas, which ideas is it about? The governor proposes a set of nine changes to the U.S. Constitution that would restrain the federal government and bulk up the strength of state governments. The lieutenant governor is more of an activist, pushing limits on property taxes, restraints on tuition at state colleges and universities, and cultural wars over bathrooms. One U.S. senator is a poster child for the Republican establishment, the other a warrior against establishment politics.

The Republican Party of Texas’ convention falls in just the right place on the political calendar to get a read on those cross-currents and a real look at how rank-and-file Republicans feel about the 2016 elections.