Texas Elections 2018

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Growing political parties must remain ready to catch undecided voters, the turncoats leaving other parties, the misfits who either haven’t found or can’t decide on a permanent ideological home.

They’re like places of worship in that way, open to converts.

It’s hard to do when the regulars are yelling about the differences between true believers and newbies. The latest case involves Andrew White, a Democratic candidate for governor who, as it turns out, contributed to Kentucky Republicans several years ago “as a business owner.”

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That was Tessio’s big line in The Godfather, right? “Tell Mike it was only business.”

White gave $2,500 to the Kentucky Republican Party in 2005, an exception in a list of political contributions that went to Democratic candidates.

He’s one of nine people running for the Democratic nomination, though, and the slightest difference between candidates could determine who gets the nomination on March 6 — or, more likely, one of two spots in a May runoff. One of White’s opponents, Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne, pounced.

“I understand the ins and outs of business, but to donate to a party that consistently opposes equal rights, a woman's right to choose, discrimination masked as ‘religious liberty’ and lifting of clean air standards, it would be impossible for me,” Payne said in a statement.

White has already been knocked around for his position on abortion rights; he says he is personally pro-life, but would block any attempt to change Texas laws that allow women to decide whether to end their pregnancies.

White isn’t a party-flipper, but the noise around his candidacy, paired with factional ideological skirmishes in the state’s Republican Party, raises some age-old questions about which kind of people belong in a given political party.

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Minority parties become majority parties with a combination of natural growth and conversions. The Texas GOP has welcomed a parade of party-flippers over the last three decades, a list that includes former Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, former state Reps. Aaron Peña, Allan Ritter and dozens of others.

They weren’t holding their noses when those folks came in. They were holding welcoming press conferences. They ignored the Democratic voting records of the proselytes.

Some switches are quieter than those. “I was a Republican, but not an activist,” said Mike Collier, a Democrat who is seeking his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. “I never contributed money or worked on any campaign.”

He said he compared former Houston Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, to Perry in the 2010 race for governor and “decided I must be a Democrat.” He joined the Kingwood Democrats in 2011 and ran as a Democrat for comptroller in 2014.

Nobody in the party made a peep. In fact, he said, the party encouraged him to run for office again in this cycle.

Ronald Reagan, once a New Deal Democrat, used to say he didn’t leave the Democrats, but that they left him. When he was president, luring Texas Democrats like Gramm and then-U.S. Rep. Kent Hance to his party, some of the Democratic Party’s liberals scored the losses as good riddance. A decade later, Republicans were putting the finishing touches on a partisan takeover of solidly Democratic Texas.

Perry flipped to the GOP less than two years after chairing Al Gore’s 1988 Texas campaign for president. Like Gramm and Hance before him, Perry jumped from the conservative end of the Democratic Party to the conservative end of the GOP; it turns out that flippers sometimes have to prove themselves sincere before they can get into their new club’s leadership.

Texas remains solidly Republican today. And Texas Democrats aren’t attracting prominent Republicans to their party in significant numbers — not like the Republicans were doing in the 1980s and 1990s. Texas GOP primaries attract twice as many voters as Democratic primaries. Average statewide Republican candidates outran their Democratic opponents by 18 percentage points over the last two cycles. The Democrats need people, either from the ranks of non-voting Texans, from the more liberal edges of the GOP, or both.

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The GOP is where the competition is, politically speaking, and that competition is exposing and driving differences between the party’s ideological factions. Take a look at the split in support for outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus as an example. The Republican majority in the Texas House reelected him four times in a row. The State Republican Executive Committee censured him last weekend.

That’s how Texas Democrats handled things, too, when they were in charge.