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Analysis: Firing the opening shots in the 2018 GOP primaries

The differences between the state's top legislative leaders will inform the coming Republican primaries, because Dan Patrick and Joe Straus represent different wings of the Texas GOP.

House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick at a Texas Legislative Budget Board meeting on December 1, 2016.

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The guns of August are blazing.

Whatever Gov. Greg Abbott decides to do with his nice and naughty lists of which legislators were with him and against him this year, it’s clear that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants voters to connect the legislative results to next year’s elections.

In a radio interview this week, Patrick went right at his House counterpart and foil, Speaker Joe Straus: "You do need to ask the question, ‘Are you going to vote for the speaker next session who is undermining the political party in our conservative state?'"

In a Tuesday email to political supporters, Patrick, who doesn't yet have an opponent, listed Straus as his rival: "Re-elect me as your Lt. Governor so I can continue to stand up to the Speaker and keep pressure on those who do not support the Texas conservative majority."

Ignore the personalities for a moment. This is a fight for the control of the Republican Party that in turn controls state government. It’s like the GOP family finally got all of the relatives to a big reunion, only to find out that one branch doesn’t like the cousins from another branch.

Texas is a two-party state, and both parties are Republican.

The lieutenant governor was notably quiet during the special session — compared to his usual outspoken combativeness. He flared at the end, when the House decided to cut off negotiations on property taxes and to gavel out a day earlier than the law requires.

That left Patrick and the Senate in a take-it-or-leave it position on legislation limiting the size of local property tax increases. It seemed like fair play to the House, which was left with a take-it-or-leave-it Senate offer on its own school finance bill.

The lieutenant governor reared in Maryland took a Texas-sized swing at the speaker from San Antonio that night: “Thank goodness Travis didn't have the speaker at the Alamo. He would've been the first one over the wall.”

The truth is, Patrick is carping at Straus for standing his ground on the bathroom bill the lieutenant governor wanted so badly, and on the House’s version of the property tax bill that the Senate has been working on for more than a year.

But when the House and the Senate go to the suburbs of Fist City over a relatively small difference on major legislation — the Senate wanted voters to approve any property tax increases of more than 4 percent, while the House voted strongly against 4 percent and in favor of 6 percent — you know you’re not watching a policy fight.

This is about politics.

Texas is a two-party state, and both parties are Republican.

Sure, two percentage points could be important. But they were on the same philosophical page, unable to settle because of overweening institutional differences. As was the case at the end of the regular session, the House took one position, the Senate another, and the governor in the middle couldn’t negotiate the always-treacherous waters between those two bodies.

Now Patrick — who is selling himself and Abbott as a team united in opposition to Straus, at least rhetorically — is asking voters to step in. He hopes to change the composition of Straus’ electorate — the other 149 members of the House. His hope, and that of a dozen or so social conservatives in the House who are riding as the Freedom Caucus, is that the elections will send a more conservative Republican contingent to the House, which would then elect a speaker whose politics are more in line with Patrick’s.

Several items on the governor’s special session agenda withered in the House, including the union dues bill and several proposed constraints on local governments. The governor got almost half of what he wanted — pretty good, for a guy working with an effectively divided Republican Legislature.

The governor has been able to get as far as he has — a district judgeship, a spot on the Texas Supreme Court, attorney general and now governor — without declaring sides in the GOP’s intramural fights. He’s more often aligned with Patrick than with Straus, but has much stronger ties to establishment Republicans than his lieutenant governor.

He has threatened to take sides in the coming primaries, however, in an election year that could be subject to stormy presidential midterm politics. Trump might have no effect on the primaries here; whether a candidate stands with the president is probably a general election question.

And who knows? Maybe a year from now, the president will have the Texas Republicans united again, turning next August’s guns to the state’s third political party — the Democrats. 

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Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Joe Straus