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Texas Elections 2018

Analysis: Who’s the establishment, anyway?

The most conservative Republicans have made a strong run for the "establishment" flag, and they’re trying to strengthen their position in this year’s elections.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (left) and House Speaker Joe Straus, Gov. Greg Abbott gives the State of the State speech in the House chamber of the state Capitol on Jan. 31, 2017. 

Texas Elections 2018

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The “establishment,” in political shorthand, often refers to the boring elders — and the people carrying their ideas forward — who have traditionally run big institutions and long-lasting political factions.

But it’s a sloppy label. Look at Texas Republicans, split into factions like the Democrats who dominated state government 40 years ago, and the names that have been tagged to them: movement conservatives, mainline or mainstream Republicans, social conservatives, establishment Republicans, moderates, the Tea Party, RINOs (Republicans in name only) and so on.

Those groups are distinct, but the labels overlap considerably. In particular, the establishment is arguably not the group you think it is. It’s certainly not what it was.

A reader noticed this in a recent column that pointed to “contests between social conservatives and establishment Republicans, or some variations of that GOP duality.”

Mea culpa. The Republicans who made up the establishment in Texas in the first part of this century aren’t in most of the highest offices today.

Consider the case of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who won office four years ago by positioning himself as the most conservative Republican in a field of four conservative Republicans. He ignored the venerable tradition of easing back toward the middle for the general election, zipping past Democrat Leticia Van de Putte without shifting his emphasis to ease the discomforts of moderate general election voters.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won a special election in 2005 in a House district that has sent a steady stream of mainline Republicans to the state Capitol. His family was involved in Republican politics for decades and fit comfortably in any definition of “the establishment.”

Straus’ power is waning, now that he has said he won’t seek another term as a state representative, much less as speaker. Patrick’s power is waxing; he steered Gov. Greg Abbott from the middle of the road to his side of the biggest cultural/political issue of last year’s legislative session — which restrooms and other facilities transgender Texans should use. He’s running for re-election against a field of Democrats and Republicans who have never campaigned statewide. And he heads a Texas Senate whose members are, on average, objectively more conservative than the Texas senators who preceded them.

The governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, comptroller and other statewides, along with most of those senators and a big bloc of state representatives, ran as Republicans appealing to the most conservative voters who dominate their party’s primaries.

The moderates — Republicans hate being called moderates, by the way — used to be the establishment, back in the day of Gov. George W. Bush. Straus, who ultimately won the credit and blame for killing that bathroom bill last year, has been their champion, though he contends he’s presided over a historically conservative Texas House.

The more conservative Republicans have made a strong run for that establishment flag, and they’re trying to strengthen their position in this year’s elections.

Abbott started the week by endorsing Mayes Middleton, a conservative who until last year served on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, over state Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, who irked the governor’s circle by supporting a ban on “pay for play” gubernatorial appointments of big political donors.

That was the second Abbott endorsement against a sitting Republican legislator; he’s also backing a former employee, attorney Susanna Dokupil, over state Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place. Davis and Abbott also clashed over ethics legislation last year.

Patrick’s consultants have assisted the campaigns of conservative Republicans Victor Leal of Amarillo, another former TPPF board member, and state Rep. Pat Fallon of Frisco, in their races against two sitting Republican senators who sometimes side against the conservative majority, Kel Seliger of Amarillo and Craig Estes of Wichita Falls.

Given the GOP’s domination of state politics, some of that party’s primary elections will be more consequential than the general election in November.

If you go with one dictionary definition of the establishment — “a group of social, economic and political leaders who form a ruling class,” according to Merriam Webster’s — you have to at least give the social and movement conservatives their due.

Whatever you call them, they’re no longer fighting for a seat at the table. In many of the state’s top offices, the establishment table is theirs.

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

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2018 elections Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Senate