Texas Elections 2018More in this series
Editor's note: Some language in this story may not be appropriate for the faint of heart. Consider yourself warned.
Once upon a time, nervous candidates would scatter and disown a party leader talking about “shithole” countries.
Candidates run to the things that help them, run away from the things that hurt them and leave the rest alone. Democrats in conservative districts tried to uncouple their campaigns from President Barack Obama after the 2010 Tea Party elections showed them the strength of the conservative backlash in Texas.
When U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi was found to have used $84,000 in taxpayer money to pay sexual harassment claims against him, did you see his fellow Texas congressional Republicans scurry to his defense? Here’s a hint: He’s not on the 2018 ballot.
But Texas Republicans appear to be more afraid of peeling away from President Donald Trump than of sticking with him — an early and strong indication of how they assess his political appeal in the coming Republican primaries.
On Thursday, the president questioned lawmakers about protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, according to The Washington Post. Some of those lawmakers passed along the president’s question: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump and at least one Republican senator who was there have denied he used that language.
Few Republicans endorsed Trump’s remarks, but only a few — a group that included House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and former Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who has also served on the Texas Railroad Commission — scolded him for it. Others winced at his choice of words but agreed with the sentiment.
But most Republican candidates took a knee, letting another awkward moment pass without comment.
That’s the interesting part.
It helps some that Trump isn’t at the top of the Republican ticket this year. It’s not like people are going to turn up their noses in the first race and then punish everyone they associate with the stinker.
But it’s also the president’s first mid-term election, and presidents before him — Bill Clinton in 1994 and Obama in 2010 come to mind — often watched their parties suffer at the polls the year after they moved into the White House.
If Republicans in Texas were seriously worried about Trump, they’d drop him faster than Hollywood dropped Kevin Spacey. They’d make a point of their disapproval, just to make sure voters knew where they stood.
But Republican voters in Texas have stayed with Trump. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in October, 79 percent of self-identified Republicans approved of the job Trump was doing as president. Democrats were fiercely against him, with 92 percent saying they disapproved. Fifty-five percent of independents were on the president’s side, too.
Asked about whether Trump has a presidential temperament, 62 percent of Republicans said he does.
With early voting only five weeks away (it begins on Feb. 20), it seems that Republican candidates haven’t seen anything in their polling or in their face-to-face visits with voters that tells them the president’s words and actions since October have spoiled his support in Texas.
You’d know, because they’d be telling you — like some Democrats did in the 2014 elections under a different president — why they were different from their own party’s standard-bearer.
Instead, you get assessments like this one, delivered by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in an interview with radio host Mark Davis before the “shithole” remarks: “He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in politics, period. That comes from his business background, his media savvy.” Patrick, who was Trump’s Texas campaign chairman during the 2016 race, also said Trump and Ronald Reagan were the best presidents of his lifetime.
Consider the source. Patrick is a star in the Texas GOP, particularly with social and movement conservatives who have dominated the party’s primary electorate. Like dozens of other Republican incumbents, he has a primary opponent and, if he gets the nomination, a Democratic opponent next November.
And like those other Republicans, he’s still embracing the volatile standard-bearer in the White House.
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