As Trump Sputters, Texas Republicans Stand by Their Man

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has had a tough couple weeks, but many of Texas' top Republicans are sticking by him, with Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller vying to lead the parade.

From left: Texas Agriculture Sid Miller, 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

Over the past few weeks, Donald Trump has been battered by some of the most serious controversies to rock his presidential campaign yet. He's seen his poll numbers slouch nationwide and in most battleground states. And his campaign has gone through more than one high-level shakeup, including the resignation Friday of chairman Paul Manafort.

Yet, Republicans in Texas — where Trump, who defeated U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the primaries, already has a somewhat fragile coalition — have largely stuck with their nominee. There have been no notable defections, and few have publicly criticized the candidate as Republicans elsewhere have turned on him. In some cases, Texas Republicans have even stepped up their involvement in Trump's campaign, seeking to influence the nominee even if they do not always agree with him. 

"This is a Trump party now," Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler said earlier this month at a party meeting. "We have got to win. There is no path to victory for Donald Trump that does not go through Texas. He cannot win the White House without us."

That determination will likely be on display when Trump visits Texas on Tuesday for fundraisers in Fort Worth and Austin, as well as a rally in Texas' capital city. It will be Trump's first trip to the Lone Star State since officially winning the GOP nomination last month at the Republican National Convention, where Cruz caused an uproar by not endorsing his former bitter primary rival.

Since then, however, Texas Republicans have only grown closer to Trump. His campaign is more enmeshed than ever with the state party, which met with senior Trump officials earlier this month in Austin. More Texas Republicans have come out in support of him, perhaps most notably Land Commissioner George P. Bush. And they have taken advisory roles with his campaign, offering up their expertise on agricultural, economic and national security issues.

One Texas official with apparently growing influence in Trump's campaign is Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who estimates he helped recruit 15 to 20 of the 64 people who were named Tuesday to Trump's Agricultural Advisory Committee. Now Miller is working to assemble similar panels for border and law enforcement officials in Texas, which he expects to be announced next week.

In an interview Thursday, Miller disputed the idea the past few weeks have been tough for Trump, calling it "something that the liberal media is projecting." Instead, Miller said he thinks Trump has had "a great two weeks," citing the nominee's policy-oriented speeches and unflattering developments for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, including the widening scrutiny of her family foundation. 

"I think Trump is gaining momentum," Miller said. "He’s getting his legs under him. He had a little trouble, but nothing major."

As Miller recruits Trump backers in Texas, he added, "I haven’t found anybody that’s not going to support him."

Trump's visit is nonetheless coming as polls show him with narrower leads over Clinton in Texas than past Republican presidential victory margins, fueling GOP concerns about down-ballot races — concerns that Miller called "a bunch of baloney" — and energizing Democrats desperate to make the state more competitive. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the most vocal statewide official backing Trump, has suggested Trump needs to win Texas by 8 to 10 points to send a message to Democrats that the state will stay red for a long time. 

If the Trump campaign is worried about Texas, a top aide was not showing it as he addressed party activists earlier this month in Austin, telling them the campaign is now "working hand-in-glove" with the state party. 

“We think we’re going to do pretty well here in Texas," national field coordinator Matt Mowers said. "Heck, if we don’t win Texas, we’ve got a lot of other problems.”

Also among those now giving advice to Trump is Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin. Rollins, who was named last week to Trump's Economic Advisory Council, said she is happy to contribute "any time I have the opportunity to influence or be a part of the conversation on what the right economic policies look like." 

"There’s no question that Donald Trump does align with the current Texas thinking and the way we approach government," Rollins said. "Any candidate that wants to call me on any day and ask my advice" — whether it is Trump, Clinton or anyone else — "I will talk until I'm blue in my face."

Rollins suggested there are areas where she does not entirely agree with Trump and hopes to have sway over the nominee. On trade, for example, Rollins acknowledged not every trade agreement may be in the United States' best interest — a point hammered by Trump — but said she still believes the "best trade is free trade." 

Trump's staunchest advocates in Texas GOP politics remain Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry, who on Tuesday defended Trump's war of words with a fallen soldier's father who had harshly criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention. It was an episode that severely hobbled Trump's campaign earlier this month and brought him bipartisan criticism — including an implicit rebuke from Gov. Greg Abbott, who said the "service and devotion of Gold Star families to America cannot be questioned." 

Patrick has kept a relatively low profile since the Republican National Convention, when the candidate he previously supported, Cruz, declined to offer any kind of support for Trump — apparently against Patrick's wishes for Texas GOP unity. Since then, Patrick has continued to tout Trump in a smattering of media appearances and public events, and he is expected to attend all three of Trump's stops Tuesday in Texas.

Other Texas Republicans have been less than enthusiastic in their support for Trump since the convention. Abbott was already cool on Trump before his skirmish with the Gold Star family, while U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a more visible Trump supporter, urged him to be more disciplined in recent weeks.

"Obviously this has not been a good few weeks for the Trump campaign, mainly because of self-inflicted injuries," Cornyn said last week in an interview on Austin radio. "Whether or not the Trump campaign can turn itself around, I still think there's time to do it, but it's going to require some different, more disciplined behavior."

Then there is U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a national security adviser to Trump. Shortly before participating Wednesday afternoon in a roundtable with Trump's national security team, McCaul told reporters he felt a patriotic duty to help his party's nominee. 

"It's my responsibility to ... help the nominee and advise him on national security as best I can for the sake of the country," McCaul said, speaking with reporters at a book signing in Austin. "One of these two candidates will be the next commander in chief. I think it's important that they have advice, that our nominee has the right advice and the right advisers around him in the event he does become president of the United States."

There are still some prominent holdouts, including Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio and Cruz. The junior senator has been largely mum about the presidential race since the convention, only briefly alluding to it during a speech earlier this month in San Antonio where he said he did does not "know what's going to happen nationally in the political season." 

"I still think it could be wise for Cruz to come on board and support the nominee," Miller said, adding that he believes Cruz has politically hurt himself by not backing Trump. "I think he's guaranteed himself an opponent" in 2018. (Miller volunteered that he does not plan to challenge Cruz.)

Hurd, who is in a tough rematch against Democrat Pete Gallego, held firm in his opposition to Trump during a series of town halls last week across Texas' 23rd congressional district. At a stop Aug. 9 in Crystal City, Hurd was specifically asked if he currently supports Trump and, when he said he does not, if he plans to in the future. 

"I have not endorsed Donald Trump, and I will withhold my endorsement until he proves he has a real national security plan and shows that he respects minorities and women," Hurd responded, echoing the statement he issued on Trump within days of him becoming the presumptive nominee. "There's a lot of his programs that I completely disagree with, like building a wall from sea to shining sea. It's the most-expensive and least-effective way to do border security." 

More on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign:

• Donald Trump is holding a rally Tuesday in Austin, his first public event in Texas as the Republican presidential nominee.

• Arizona. Georgia. Utah. Indiana. As Donald Trump's poll numbers collapse across the country, could he actually lose Texas to Hillary Clinton? No, say a raft of state and national Democrats.

• Donald Trump has tapped half a dozen well-known Texans — including the state's former governor — to advise him on agriculture policy in his campaign for the White House.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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