Trump's shocking upset emboldens Texas GOP

Donald Trump's presidential victory was the stuff of Texas GOP dreams, and the state's party leaders are moving quickly to capitalize on this once-in-a-century opportunity.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to small crowd at the Harris County Republican Party headquarters election watch party  in Houston, Texas on November 8, 2016
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to small crowd at the Harris County Republican Party headquarters election watch party in Houston, Texas on November 8, 2016  Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Donald Trump's shocking victory in Tuesday's presidential race has further emboldened GOP officials in one of the reddest states in America.

While some Texas Republicans have had their disagreements with Trump, his triumph over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton gave the party faithful an unexpected reason to cheer — and to look forward to life under a Republican-controlled government, from Austin to Washington. It’s the stuff of GOP dreams, and party leaders moved quickly to capitalize on the once-in-a-century opportunity.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chaired Trump’s campaign in Texas, said the businessman's victory allows state Republicans to “move forward with boldness and confidence,” finally free to push conservative legislation without having to worry about Washington undermining it.

“The fact we’re going to have a rock-solid conservative on the Supreme Court, and maybe two or three more before his term ends, and the fact that we’re not going to have the EPA on our back, the Justice Department on our back, all the money and the energy and the time that we spent suing the federal government, Abbott and Paxton — that’s all gone,” Patrick said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

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“And so that allows us to say, 'You know what? We’re willing to make the — whatever it takes to fight to get the votes to pass solid conservative legislation, and we’re going to have a White House that supports it, a Justice Department that supports it.'”

One example? Voter ID. Texas lawmakers are under a court order to fix the state’s tough voter ID law when they meet again in January in Austin. The likelihood that the fix is "not going to be overturned by the Justice Department or the White House is in itself so freeing,” Patrick said, calling it a “brand new day for legislators” not just in Texas but across the country.

Patrick was not alone in hailing Trump’s upset as a mandate as the sun came up Wednesday. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called Tuesday a “change election,” while Gov. Greg Abbott said the outcome made one thing “abundantly clear — millions of Americans feel they have been ignored by a political class in Washington, D.C., that prioritizes protecting an elite establishment before We the People.”

"It was demonstrative of, frankly, the anger and frustration that Americans have had these last eight years," Abbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune on Wednesday. The former Texas attorney general has sued the Obama administration more than 30 times, and he called Trump's victory a "vindication for all of these lawsuits that I've waged." 

Texas Republicans weren't always singing this tune. Some had been less than enthusiastic about Trump as their nominee, and most were bracing for a loss to Clinton, given what the polls had predicted. Trump carried Texas en route to his stunning national win — but by only 9 points, the closest race in the Lone Star State since 1996.

That did not dampen the spirits of Texas Republicans after the votes had been counted; they argued they had once again blocked efforts to turn the state blue. Patrick boasted of receiving a message recently from a Democratic officeholder that said: “If we can’t get close to beating Trump in Texas, we’re never going to beat you guys in a statewide election in ‘18.”

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“I encourage Democrats from all over the country to pour money into Texas because it helps our economy,” Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler told reporters sarcastically as results were coming in Tuesday night.

Asked if he had any concerns about Trump's margin in Texas, Abbott told the Tribune: "None whatsoever. For one, any candidate would be delighted to win with more than 9 percent of the vote."

Despite Texas Republicans’ self-assurance following the Trump victory, some still expressed uncertainty. They expected voting rolls to show high turnout among first-time voters, calling them both a challenge and an opportunity for the party. “Our job is to find out who those people are,” Mechler said.

Two things the party will have to address in future elections are its performance among Latinos — a fast-growing population in the Lone Star State — and its performance in the state's urban centers. Patrick said Wednesday that Republicans must keep reaching out to Hispanic voters, as he lamented that the GOP experienced down-ballot losses in Harris, Bexar and Dallas counties.

One of those defeats in Harris County was of the lieutenant governor’s son, district court judge Ryan Patrick. “The sun rises tomorrow. I’m fine,” the judge tweeted.

Exit polls show Trump received roughly the same share of the Latino vote in Texas as GOP nominee John McCain did in 2008 — roughly a third. There were no exit polls in the state four years ago.

Artemio “Temo” Muniz, a leading Latino Republican activist in Texas, said in order for the GOP to win over Hispanic voters after Tuesday, they will have to show they have “done a 180” on Trump.

“I believe for the Hispanic community and for the future, I think the first thing they’re going to ask is, ‘Did you support Trump’ before I support you?” said Muniz, the Texas chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans.

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But Mechler said he did not accept the premise that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric had turned off minority voters.“Unfortunately, some people have stopped listening to hear his clarification,” Mechler said, insisting the state party remains committed to minority communities.

Intra-family disagreements are bound to be part of the Texas GOP's narrative under a President Trump. One debate that was already simmering before Tuesday: whether Texas Republicans who were not fully supportive of their nominee should face political consequences, especially heading into the 2018 election cycle.

The most obvious subject of that debate is Cruz, who pointedly declined to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention and finally did two months later. Anna Maria Farias, vice chairwoman of the Bexar County GOP, says she was happy to see Cruz come around, but “if we had gone out of the convention united, it would’ve been easier for all of us.”

Farias said Republican women she talks to are still upset with Cruz’s initial decision not to endorse Trump.

“We’re the elephants — we’re the ones that remember and don’t forget,” she said, quoting the women.

Cruz’s hesitation to back Trump has helped fuel an effort to push U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin to challenge the senator in 2018. McCaul, who has not ruled out a run, warned Tuesday — before the polls closed — that blame for a narrow Trump loss could have fallen on “Republicans who sat on the sidelines and did nothing to impact ... this election.”

Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:

  • In Texas, Republican Donald Trump dominated in much of the state, while Hillary Clinton won in major urban areas and along much of the border. Here's a county-by-county look at where they won.
  • U.S. Rep. Will Hurd claimed victory in his re-election bid Tuesday night, becoming the first incumbent to hold onto the Texas 23rd District in eight years.