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Hooks on Politics

Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton is applauded by GOP bigwigs at his inauguration in January.

A bill that would give Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sweeping power to allow or disallow local initiatives and referenda had its first hearing in the House Committee on State Affairs today. The bill is among several in the Legislature squashing local control—and while it got a cautious reception from the committee, it’s supported by some of the state’s most influential business interests.

In recent years, referenda and ballot initiatives have grown in importance as ways for Texans to enact change and hold local governments accountable. The most notable recent example is a ban on hydraulic fracturing in Denton, which passed a fairly conservative electorate by a wide margin. The Denton ban was the subject of much of today’s debate.

House Bill 540, sponsored by Phil King (R-Weatherford), would require any referendum or ballot initiative in one of Texas’ home-rule charter cities to be reviewed by the attorney general’s office. The attorney general would rule on whether the proposed ballot initiative or referendum would violate “the Texas or federal constitution, a state statute, or a rule adopted as authorized by state statute,” or if it would constitute a “government taking of private property.”

That may sound clear-cut, but it’s not. The normal method for deciding whether a law is constitutional involves months or years of careful scrutiny by the courts. Instead, King would give that power to bureaucrats in the AG’s office. If an initiative is detrimental to a powerful and GOP-allied interest group, would the AG’s office really let it slide?

In laying out the bill, King told the committee that Texas was a republic, run by the Legislature, and not a democracy, run by the people. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch,” he said, misattributing the quote—which might have originated with a 1990 Los Angeles Times op-ed—to Benjamin Franklin. In places like Denton, powerful and monied outside environmental groups had agitated for change, he said, and the rule of law had to be imposed—by Ken Paxton.

He ran through the list of possible ballot initiatives that could come to Texas cities: bans on genetically modified foods, marijuana legalization, property restrictions—and, most frightening of all—increases to the minimum wage and new labor laws.

But it was fracking bans that motivated him to bring the bill. There are “almost 14,000 gas wells” in municipal areas, King said, and if what happened in Denton set off a wave of similar ordinances (it hasn’t, yet) all those wells, and the money they generate for their owners, would be under threat.

The fight over “local control” issues at the Legislature—it was once a concept that Republicans loved, but they seem to be turning against it, from Gov. Abbott on down—is in part due to the fragmented nature of Texas state government these days. State government is dominated by the right, but the state’s cities and urban counties are significantly to the left of state government.

Business interests would prefer a regulatory climate designed and maintained by the Legislature, since it’s a lot friendlier to them. City ordinances are a threat to that regulatory framework. Cities have taken action in a number of areas where they feel the state has failed to act—like ongoing attempts to regulate payday lenders—but their legal right to do so is such cases in constantly under scrutiny.

Today’s hearing heard testimony in favor of the bill from the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TxOGA), represented by former Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, as well as representatives from the powerful Texas Association of Business, the Texas Association of Builders and the Texas Restaurant Association. TxOGA fears restrictions on drilling. The restaurant and construction guys fear minimum wage hikes, among other items, and the Texas Association of Business fears all of the above, plus other local regulations such as the plastic bag bans that have passed in big Texas cities.

“You can’t have economic development if state law doesn’t mean anything,” said a Texas Association of Business representative.

A representative from the Texas Municipal League, which represents local governments, spoke against the bill but he was cautious in his condemnation—referenda and initiatives, he pointed out, are usually trying to override the will of the city council.

Among those who spoke against the bill was Mark Miller, the 2014 Libertarian candidate for a spot on the Railroad Commission. He said he thought the Denton ban was “unwise,” but that the referenda and initiative process should remain sacrosanct. “The good people of Denton were let down by government. So they organized for change,” he said. “What could be more American or more Texan?”

“Interference by the state government over local matters is no more wise or more welcome than interference by the state government in local matters,” Miller continued. “A well-functioning judicial system should never be replaced by the heavy hand of the executive branch.”

Curiously, on the same day this bill came before the committee, an op-ed that carried Ken Paxton’s name appeared in National Review. He blasted Obama’s use of his executive power, his expanding interpretation of his own powers and his arrogant overruling of the desires of other branches of government.

In the United States, no individual may or should have that much unchecked power. It flies in the face of the rule of law, which in any government is all that stands between freedom and tyranny.

Will the Legislature grant Paxton power to approve or disapprove prospective city ordinances? The committee seemed a bit skeptical: Chair Byron Cook asked King whether it was possible to “get a fair ruling” by putting the review process in the office of a statewide elected official. King replied that there was no other real option.

But the business groups that endorsed the measure frequently get what they want at the Lege. A representative of Paxton’s office happily told the committee no additional staff was required to fulfill the bill’s responsibilities. Even if King’s bill doesn’t succeed this session, the winds are changing when it comes to the balance between state and local power.

Dan Patrick’s Inexplicable & Contradictory Budget Proposals

Dan Patrick from last week, meet Dan Patrick from this week.
Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick talk about the Senate budget at a press conference in January

Last week Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did something pretty surprising: He held a press conference with a Democrat and the most moderate Republican left in the Senate, Kevin Eltife of Tyler, to put his stamp of approval on a proposal that would allow the Legislature to use revenue beyond the “spending cap” for tax cuts and debt repayment. The spending cap, a constitutionally enshrined limit on the amount the state budget can grow from biennium to biennium, has been a sacred cow for conservatives for many years. Here was Patrick, elected as a budget hawk, threatening to can the cap while pretending to do the opposite.

This session, budget-writers think there’s about $6 billion in revenue above the spending cap, but unless they take a majority vote to lift the cap, they can’t use it. Patrick wanted to bust the cap so he could get his hands on that $6 billion to pay for his beloved tax cuts, and this was a way of squaring the circle. Senate conservatives were mostly silent on the move, but it was loudly panned by commentators like Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder, who pointed out that Patrick made a name for himself in the Senate in part as a loud opponent of an imaginary legislative spending spree in 2013, but now was looking for a way to bust the spending cap for the sake of political convenience.

But that was last week: Each week of the 84th Legislature brings to us a New Dan, and a New Day for Texas. Today, Patrick took to the same podium with some of the Senate’s most conservative members with a proposal to greatly tighten the spending cap, restricting even further the amount of revenue future legislators will have access to.

What the hell?

In short, the new proposal, consisting of two bills authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), is a version of an idea long championed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and briefly, if only dutifully, mentioned in Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State address. Hancock’s Senate Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Bill 9 would ask voters later this year to redefine the spending cap and tie it to state population growth, plus inflation, instead of growth in Texans’ personal income, which rises faster. It would broaden the spending cap to apply to all of the state’s spending, instead of just certain kinds.

That would bind the hands of future legislatures even tighter, while ensuring that more and more revenue would be untouchable beyond the cap. Legislators could still vote to bust the cap—though few seem to have the political courage to do that now—but Hancock would make that harder, too. Right now, the cap can be lifted by a simple majority of both houses. Hancock would make it a three-fifths vote.

If passed, Patrick’s two budget proposals don’t technically contradict—actually, they’d be weirdly toxic (or synergistic, depending on your perspective) in combination, since more and more money would end up on the wrong side of the spending cap, and that money could only be used for tax cuts and debt—but it’s still a weirdly incomprehensible mess from a policy perspective, and put together seemingly on the fly. It’s the art of government as outlined on the back of a Gadsden Flag cocktail napkin.

What’s worse—it’s straight out of Sacramento. You know how the recent recession calcified a Texas meme about the Golden State being the worst place on earth? California is doing pretty well lately, though you won’t hear about it in Austin. But one of the ways California got itself into a mess over the last few decades was by tying the hands of future legislatures and restricting the state’s ability to raise revenue, all the while kicking tough (and easy) decisions to voters. All three are becoming more and prominent parts of the Texas model—paradoxically, done in the name of targeting “California-style” spending.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation-style budget plan has been around a long time, as was discussed at the press conference this morning. “As I found out today as we were moving to get coauthors and joint sponsors for this legislation, about half the Republicans on the Senate floor have filed a similar bill at some point in time since they’ve been in office,” Hancock said. But it’s long been the kind of thing that legislators and statewide officials pay lip service to but never do much about. Is that changing? Has Patrick’s support for the measure been heightened by the flak he caught for his proposal last week? If so, that’s not a great way to run the Senate.

It’s one of the more mystifying turnarounds in what’s proven to be a fairly sloppy first few months for Patrick. He entered the Session full of energy—he promised to pick his committee chairs early and get to work on legislation quickly, so as to put the House at a disadvantage. He’s put on near-daily press conferences to highlight myriad proposals, some of which have no chance of becoming enacted.

But as other commentators have pointed out, his predicted rush of productivity has not materialized—perhaps in part because of Patrick’s poor treatment of the Democratic minority early on. The 60th day of the Legislature is on Friday, after which things will begin to flow normally (there’s limits to what can be done until then). But Patrick doesn’t have all that much to show yet. And senators—even in the conservative wing of the GOP caucus—can’t be too happy with the slightly bizarre way things have unfurled so far.

How is the House doing, then?

Well, today, members of the House put on their own presser. State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), a conservative Republican, state Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton), a moderate Republican, and state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), a Democrat, held a press conference to announce a plan to make whole the Texas Employees Retirement System, the pension fund for state workers that’s been a mess for years.

Their plan is to raise the state contribution to the fund, and have employees pony up more too—but the state would compensate the employees with a matching pay raise. The pension fund has been underfunded for 19 of the last 20 years, Flynn said. Turner applauded the bill: It was an “important and significant step forward for this state of Texas.” Just two weeks ago, Otto had released a plan to fix the health care plan for retired state teachers, TRS-Care, in a similar way.

So as we slide towards the busier part of the legislative session, the House is emphasizing its work on the bread-and-butter problems of state government, while the Senate has been consumed with weird fumbles, from the leadership on down. (Patrick’s Border Security Subcommittee’s wholly avoidable trip-up among them.) After Friday, the leadership of the two chambers will have only 80 days to learn to work with each other, put together a budget, and advance their agendas—that’s a lot less time than it sounds.

Kory Watkins open carry
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Kory Watkins

When the NRA shifted its focus from supporting hobbyists to political action in the late 1970s, the gun-rights cause fit neatly within a new Republican ethos. The gun came to symbolize something greater than itself; it became the nucleus of a complete worldview. NRA members styled themselves as self-sufficient, tough on crime, pro-police, hawkish on foreign policy, and the keepers of family traditions. By closely associating themselves with the Republican Party, they’ve found great success.

The same cannot be said for the marauding gun activists that have besieged the Texas Capitol in recent weeks. Seeking the right to carry guns openly in public, without a license, they’ve taken a Legislature that’s pretty sympathetic to their cause and pushed it to the breaking point. Before the session started, it seemed certain that open-carry legislation would pass in some form, but as time goes on, the chances seem increasingly slight.

One reason for that is the tactics employed by the gun-rights crew. C.J. Grisham, who leads Open Carry Texas, has sought to win support the right way: building public pressure, then establishing relationships with legislators. But Kory Watkins, the head of the splinter group Open Carry Tarrant County, has soiled Grisham’s nest. State Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass) had to accept a Department of Public Safety security detail after Watkins and friends refused to leave his office following a verbal confrontation on the first day of the session. Lately, Watkins has been keen to warn lawmakers that they’re disregarding the Constitution, and to remind them that the “punishment for treason is death.” But the reason open carry isn’t gaining as much traction as it should goes beyond Watkins’ well-publicized screw-ups. The open-carry guys speak a slightly different language than the last generation of gun nuts, and it’s a language that sounds pretty foreign in the halls of the Capitol. Watkins and many of the open-carry activists are fed not by talk radio but by the conspiracy-libertarian wing typified by Alex Jones, who’s spoken at open-carry rallies in the past. Most of them are young, white and male, and you’d be more likely to see them on Reddit than at a hunting lease.

Some have criminal backgrounds, but many of them just seem like frustrated young men who see the ownership and display of firearms as a kind of empowerment they’re not getting elsewhere. Watkins, who’s almost never seen without a men’s rights-style fedora, is anti-war and anti-police; he got arrested in Fort Worth last year for hassling cops. None of that plays well at the Capitol. Politics is tribal, and many of the open-carry guys are members of the wrong tribe. So it seems increasingly unlikely they’ll get what they most want: unlicensed open carry. Even some of the most conservative new legislators are admitting it’s DOA, as is Joan Huffman, who leads the Senate committee considering the bills. Will the alienated libertarians learn to play with others in time to get a juicy consolation prize?

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.05.21 PM
ltgov.state.tx.us

Statewide officeholders in Texas have their own .gov websites, usually pro-forma affairs that serve as places to push out statements and provide a place for the public to learn about and interact with their elected officials. Here’s Greg Abbott’s very standard website. Here’s what David Dewhurst’s site looked like in February of last year. Complete with flag clip-art and very wide white side margins, it would look at home on the World Wide Web of about 1999.

Dan Patrick took some time to get his official website ready, which left him with only his campaign website and social media to spread the word about his brief tenure as lite guv. That seemed like a bit of an omen: A lot of people wondered if he’d be in perpetual campaign mode when he picked up the Senate gavel.

But Patrick’s officeholder website went live on Thursday. It looks… a lot like his campaign website! It’s a slick, well-produced affair that works great on mobile and tablet platforms. It’s got embedded video and features that string seamlessly together as you scroll down. It puts Abbott’s and Dewhurst’s sites to shame.

In no way has Patrick put the campaign behind him:

Dan Patrick was elected Lt. Governor of Texas in 2014, winning the general election by almost twenty points, including historic levels of support from Hispanic voters and women.

A principled and committed conservative, Lt. Gov. Patrick is leading the fight to secure the border, reduce property and business taxes, and address our state’s infrastructure challenges to assure that Texas continues to flourish economically.

Tell me more about Dan Patrick, shiny website:

He is a successful small businessman and radio host and is a former television anchor, sportscaster, musician, Christian author and movie producer.

Patrick’s press conferences—and video dispatches from his office on bills and Senate happenings—are embedded on the home page.

And there’s a field to suck up visitor e-mail addresses for Patrick’s updates.

It’s hard to begrudge the man a functioning, modern website—albeit one paid for with taxpayer dollars. Still, it’s so showy as to be a bit weird. For example, would you be interested in finding out more about Patrick’s “constituent services?” Just click the tab at the top.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.09.05 PM

Hm.

The Capitol’s IT system appears to continuing its ad-hoc guerrilla campaign against Patrick. As recently as last week, Dewhurst was still listed as a member of the Senate on the Capitol website. (Someone appears to have fixed it.) And if you go looking on Google for Patrick’s new site, here’s what appears:

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Vive la Résistance! Vive le Dewhurst!

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam

The problem with government is that it needs money to run, and that money has to come from somewhere. But people like money more than they like giving it to the government, which is held to be bad by a growing number of people. The social contract in general has taken a bit of a beating recently, thanks in part to successive generations of politicians who have promised the people that the government doesn’t need all that much money after all, and that if they make it to City Hall or the Legislature or Congress, they’ll take a lot less of that money, and schools and roads and fire departments will materialize from fairy dust.

So goes the 84th Legislature. Blessed with a decent surplus this year, legislators and new officeholders, who feel a strong need to reward their bases, are struggling to figure out how much they can offer in tax cuts. The zeal for cutting taxes is so intense that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have been outbidding each other like they’re at an auction—the former said $4 billion, the latter $4.4 billion, and now, thanks to the Senate, we’re at $4.6 billion. Other tax-cutting bills would push the number far above that.

But members of the Lege, including Patrick, are now coming to terms with the fact that they can’t fulfill the promises they’re making without shorting other budget needs or employing trick-budget math. At this point, it seems likelier that they’ll do either—or both—rather than back down on the size of their promised cuts.

This week included three hearings of the Senate Committee on Finance, responsible for most of the tax-cut agitation. The hearings amounted to a sort of tax-cutting roleplay in which Senators got to fulminate against the government’s power to raise revenue while they also expressed indignation and irritation at those, including a few Republicans, who urged the Lege to slow its roll.

Most of the talk centered around the slashing—and perhaps, the eventual abolition—of two taxes responsible for a lot of the state’s revenue, property taxes and franchise taxes. Property tax cuts are perhaps the most significant politically: Texans, and especially the kinds of Texans who voted Patrick and others into office, are mad as hell about their property tax bills.

Though the proposed property tax cuts would put a substantial dent in state government, they might amount to only $100 to $200 year for the average Texan. Still, emphasized state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), that money means something to the “neediest among us.” State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) urged Senators to consider the compounding nature of those savings from year to year.

Democrats on the committee were skeptical of the cuts in general, but some are trying to push the Legislature to make “good” cuts—state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), for example, is pushing a larger homestead exemption. But even some Republicans on the committee expressed unease at the cuts. State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) worried that they would leave the state with too little revenue to make needed investments. But it was state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) who provided the strongest dissenting voice.

“I’m a numbers guy,” Eltife said. “I can’t vote for a tax cut without knowing how we’re going to pay for everything.” Eltife has already been singled out by conservative activists for his unwillingness to go all-in on tax cuts, so his outspoken reticence on Monday was notable. In particular, he worried that the tax cuts would leave too little room under the “spending cap,” the artificial constitutional restraint that limits how much the Lege can grow spending from biennium to biennium.

This year, the state has been promised additional revenue by the comptroller’s office that it can’t touch because of the spending cap—about $6 billion dollars, no small chunk of change. So legislators will either have to vote to violate the spending cap, which would be a very unpopular move with conservative activists, or find themselves constrained in the amount of money they can use this year. The tax cuts would take out a big chunk of that available money.

“My concern is that the money left under the spending cap won’t be enough to fill the needs of the state,” Eltife said. He asked Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), the chair of the finance committee, if she would would consider busting the spending cap for her tax cut package. She’d “consider anything,” she said. It was “ridiculous” that the budget rules treated tax cuts like normal spending, she added, for reasons that weren’t entirely explained.

But Nelson seemed piqued at the criticism, and other senators brusquely dismissed it. The critics were spoiling the party. “We have spent four weeks talking about spending needs,” Nelson said. “I would like three days for tax relief.” Was that so much to ask? Bettencourt warned his colleagues to fall back. “Elections have consequences,” he said. The governor had called for cuts. So grab the hacksaw and get in line. Still, Nelson acknowledged that the budget math was going to be “tight.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was joined by state Sens. Chuy Hinojosa, Kevin Eltife and Jane Nelson at a Wednesday press conference.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was joined by state Sens. Chuy Hinojosa, Kevin Eltife and Jane Nelson at a Wednesday press conference.

So on Wednesday, a gimmick descended. Evidently, Eltife had been talking to the leadership about his spending cap concern. Patrick, Nelson, Eltife and state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) held a press conference with a proposal: They’d ask the voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the Lege to use revenue above the spending cap to cut taxes or pay down debt. No other uses would be allowed.

“We have more money on hand than we believe any Legislature has ever had at one moment,” said Patrick. But “there is no support for exceeding the spending cap.” So they would ask the voters to bust the spending cap for them: “Gosh darn, we know our businesses and taxpayers need tax relief,” he said. “But because of the cap, we are limited in what we can do.”

The proposal makes a certain sense from the Democrats’ point of view—busting the spending cap probably means more money will go to state needs like education, even if Patrick wins his tax cuts. And it makes a certain sense for somebody like Eltife, who won’t have to stand in the way of tax cuts while other fiscal needs get attention, too.

But from Patrick’s POV, it’s a weirdly craven move. For one, he’s proposing to bust the spending cap—a sacred cow among conservatives—while saying loudly that he’s proposing to preserve it. And it contains a certain measure of political cowardice; if legislators wanted to, they could vote to bust the spending cap this session with a simple majority vote. Instead, they’re asking voters to make the hard choice for them, a move that seems eerily reminiscent of the dreaded Sacramento style of governance.

Furthermore, the amendment, if it passed, would privilege tax cuts over other kinds of spending. If the Lege ends up with $6 billion in additional revenue over the spending cap next session, it would virtually assure that that money would produce more tax cuts rather than, say, go back to schools or health care or roads.

Finally, it’s a move that’s emblematic of Patrick’s emerging leadership style—impulsive, seemingly thought-up on the fly and done with little consultation with his legislative partners. House Speaker Joe Straus gave an exceptionally cool statement in response: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”

But Patrick’s proposal points to a reality about the new era in the Lege: Patrick and the generally suburban-oriented senators who represent the new vanguard are not amenable to government spending and value tax cuts above almost all else.

Indeed, the finance committee’s roleplaying session this week didn’t just focus on cutting taxes, but ending them in their current form. The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Talmadge Heflin told the committee that its proposed property tax cuts would do “for now,” until the property tax could be abolished entirely. He would like to see it replaced by a big statewide sales tax, which would shift the state’s tax burden from the middle class to its lower class.

And senators talked a lot about dissolving the franchise tax. Almost everyone hates the franchise tax, including Democrats, but it produces some $4.7 billion in revenue every year. State Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) and others have filed bills that would kill the franchise tax at the end of this year, leaving a $9 billion hole in the state’s budget. Other proposals, including one filed by state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) would kill off the franchise tax by 2020, replacing it with, perhaps, yet more sales taxes.

Another TPPF analyst wowed the committee with his franchise tax talk. His “dynamic econometric model”—“We didn’t have those when I was in school,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville)—showed that money would rain from the sky on Texas businesses if the Lege would just kill it off once and for all. And on Tuesday, senators got to boost their fiscal conservative credentials by talking up bills to kill minor taxes the comptroller’s office no longer wants, including one on sulphur producers. Another would repeal a 2 percent tax on fireworks collected for the benefit of rural fire departments.

These conversations are only possible because the state is experiencing relatively good times. But no economic boom lasts forever. When the “Texas Miracle” slows—an idea that seems inconceivable to many of the people running the state—we’re going to wonder where all of that past revenue went.

State government has underinvested in its basic responsibilities for years. Texas’ public education system is a national joke—the judge who found the school finance system unconstitutional recently warned an audience that the state is actively “dooming a generation of these children” through systematic, intentional and needless skinflintery. The roads are in bad shape, and haven’t kept pace with extraordinary population growth. Pension and health care funds for state employees are weak. Even the buildings that house state agencies are crumbling.

But come next year, Texans may have a little bit more cash in their pockets, which they can spend, perhaps, on cheaper fireworks. Let the good times roll!

Additional reporting by Kelsey Jukam

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address.

Ah, love triangles. Throughout history, they’ve provided rich dramatic material. But they’re no fun to be in, and almost as un-fun to be around. Bruised egos, miscommunication and ill will. Matters of the heart get so messy.

The Legislature is also premised on a three-way relationship, though, one hopes, platonic. There’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. We know where they stand, roughly—Patrick’s a right-winger who goes with his gut, and Straus is a cautious and analytical moderate. Which of them will form a stronger relationship with the governor?

The answer to that question will say a lot about how the 84th Legislature unfolds. Who’s winning?

1) Dan Patrick has so much love to give, man.

There are many different ways to form a bond with a political partner, but Patrick’s is pretty curious. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the lite guv’s strategy for dealing with the governor appeared to be to “hug him to death and hope compliance follows,” but if anything I may have undersold it. Dan’s mash notes for Greg are getting stronger:

—At a Feb. 10 press conference on extending the National Guard border deployment, Patrick emphasized multiple times that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor. They were in close physical proximity to each other. So good so far, I guess. He was tamer in his words for Straus: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.”

—After the State of the State address on Feb. 17, Patrick reported that the two had achieved some sort of mind-meld. “I could have written that speech,” he told a reporter. In a statement, he said that Abbott said “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address.”

—Another week goes by, and the two have become even closer, perhaps dangerously so. On Feb. 24, Patrick holds a press conference to discuss his tax cut proposals. Is Abbott on board? “We’re so close shoulder-to-shoulder you couldn’t put a piece of paper between us.”

That’s abnormally close. Patrick and Abbott, apparently, have entered into a collapsing orbit like two doomed celestial bodies. At any moment—perhaps this has happened already—their masses will merge and become one. Has anyone seen Greg Abbott lately?

2) The one with the fear of commitment

The problem for Patrick is that the governor has shown no signs of reciprocating this love. There are even a few signs that he doesn’t particularly enjoy this level of affection.

When Patrick had that press conference on border security—the one where he emphasized over and over that the governor stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him—the press waited most of the day for a corroborating statement from Abbott’s office. But it didn’t come. This was strange. It fell to Straus to reply to Patrick’s event, which was attended by every member of the GOP Senate caucus. And Straus’ response was very, very cool.

The State of the State—the one Patrick says he could have written himself—contained only cursory plugs for Patrick’s policy agenda. He mentioned school choice, sure, but not in the way Patrick would have done. His plan for border security carefully marks the halfway point in between the House’s proposal and the Senate’s. And several of his emergency items come with a price tag, like his university research initiative, which could prove unpopular in the spending-averse Senate, especially since the senators have their own budget priorities.

Meanwhile Abbott and the Senate seem to be competing with each other to offer the biggest tax cut proposals: The original Senate budget included $4 billion in tax cuts; then, Abbott proposed $4.4 billion; and Patrick answered with $4.6 billion. If the tax cut proposals continue to grow at this rate, state government will have abolished itself by May.

Does Patrick’s Senate respect Abbott? We saw one test of that last week, when the Senate Committee on Nominations met to consider Abbott’s three appointments to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Conservative activists like those associated with Midland oilman Tim Dunn hate Abbott’s nominees.

The hearing was the first public split between Abbott and legislators—Republican senators attempted to tear his nominees to pieces in a five-hour hearing so intense it fell to a Democrat, state Sen. José Rodríguez, to offer Abbott a few sympathetic words.

It may have been the first visible rift between Abbott and his right, but it won’t be the last. There are many issues on which the moderate, responsible governor that Abbott might like to be is at odds with the wingers in his party, Dan Patrick foremost among them.

Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst was weak, but desperate to look strong. He had less and less influence as his tenure in office went along, but he was always sure to make himself visible. Patrick, so far, is doing something approaching the opposite—in his series of policy press conferences, he’s been letting the chairs of the Senate committees take point on their issues, even when the bills they’re offering up are effectively his.

There’s been a lot of talk around Austin that Patrick might make a run for governor in 2018, either because Abbott doesn’t run for re-election or Patrick chooses to primary him. If that’s the game plan, it makes sense for Patrick to offer Abbott his loving support now. There’s no point in showing his ambition this far out—it’s a bad look. But if the divide keeps growing between the Senate right-wing, encouraged by enforcer groups that have always had pretty tame feelings for the guv, and Abbott—who could blame Patrick for that?

3) The strong, silent type

Straus isn’t just ideologically different from Patrick, he’s cognitively and emotionally different: He’s cool and analytical where Patrick is hot and passionate.

In this year’s speaker race, which Straus won easily, there was some speculation that Patrick’s arrival made House Republicans less willing to support a conservative challenger to Straus. Patrick was an unknown quantity, and a lot of Republicans in the Lege were skeptical. They wanted a speaker who would stand up for them and ignore the ideologues if Patrick’s Senate threatened rural schools, for example.

Is it possible Patrick’s leadership style will encourage Straus to be more vocal about his beliefs, too? When pressed on this question at a UT-Austin event recently, Straus was mostly mum. But his statement on Patrick’s border proposal was remarkably terse: “I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.” That’s about as close as you get to seeing one politician tell an ostensible ally to go screw himself in an official statement.

On Monday, a key ally of House leadership, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), appeared alongside what appeared to be three to four dozen reps—including some Democrats—to talk up the House’s border plan. Bonnen laid out a collection of bills that would seek to bolster law enforcement abilities throughout the state while creating a permanent DPS presence along the border. That would allow the National Guard to be sent home quickly and preempt the need for future border “surges,” like the one Patrick wants to maintain.

Those “surges” have always been more about political need rather than practical need, so it’s hard to see how some more state troopers would prevent them. Still, the effort to rally so many representatives to stand alongside Bonnen was a strong visual match to Patrick’s press conference, when he attempted to use the whole Senate GOP caucus as leverage against both the governor and House.

And Patrick is not going out of his way to make himself beloved in Straustown. At a speech Patrick gave to a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, he gave a version of a spiel he’s given at at least two events recently. The gist: Finally, most of the state’s leadership are good Christians.

“I have never seen before in my eight years in the Texas Senate the presence of God in the Capitol like I’ve seen this year,” said Patrick. “Greg Abbott, myself, Comptroller Hegar, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller. I’ve participated in all their swearings-in and inauguration. And I can tell you that every one of them put God first.” They honored Jesus in all they did.

Omitted from Patrick’s list, of course, is Straus, who is Jewish. Those who follow Texas politics know the utility of these kinds of dog-whistles in talking to groups like CWA, though it might seem thin to others—the plausible deniability is precisely why they’re useful.

We’re only a month and a half through the session—this is supposed to be the easy part. And there’s already so much warm feeling! Only 90 days to go.

Robert Nichols
State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) is playing a leading role in transportation funding overhauls this session.

The story of Texas government is, by and large, the story of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then promising to pay Peter back with Polly or Pedro’s money. The Legislature finds it pretty easy to hack money out of the budget in hard times, but balks at restoring funding during flush times.

So, how to pay for urgent needs? In those good times, like now, the Legislature goes looking for Peter to shake down. Today’s hard choice comes in the form of Senate Bill 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5, both authored by state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation. Both passed out of Nichols’ committee 8-1 today.

Nichols’ legislation would take about half of the taxes generated by the sale of motor vehicles and give it to the state highway fund. Normally this money goes into the general revenue fund, which is the giant pot of money the Legislature uses to pay for education, health care and almost anything else that state agencies do. (The highway fund would actually receive a little less than half at first—the tax generates about $4 billion a year, and his proposal would have the first $2.5 billion go to general revenue, the next $2.5 billion go to the highway fund, with both funds taking half of whatever comes after.)

The Texas Department of Transportation badly needs the money—the agency has estimated it requires $10 billion in additional funding each biennium just to handle the current level of congestion in the highway system. And, as Nichols said in his opening remarks, TxDOT needs to know the money will be there. “They need to have reasonable assurances six, eight, 10 years out how much money they’re going to count on, so they can begin the process for these big projects require,” Nichols said,

Nearly every legislator would like TxDOT to be made whole, if for no other reason than almost everyone uses the state’s transportation network—unlike, say, public schools and state health services. And an impressive coalition of movers and shakers has coalesced behind Nichols’ plan. On Wednesday, a press conference with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also featured the kind of panel of besuited white businessmen that convene at the Capitol when something big is about to happen.

But there was also some discomfort at today’s committee hearing, from both the left and the right. State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) said that the new funding for TxDOT amounted to a drop in the bucket—he’d like to see more of the auto sales tax receipts go to road funding.

But others on the committee worried primarily about the opposite—the effect that pulling money from general revenue would have on the rest of the budget. State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), in particular, asked how redirecting billions of dollars from the general revenue fund was complementary with the Legislature’s tax cut ambitions.

“If we take that out, how do we make it up? I know we say, it’s good not to raise taxes,” said Ellis. “How do we pay for this? It’s a very important concept, and something we do need to do. But I saw everybody yesterday feeling real good about giving some of our money back in property tax relief.”

He’d said he’d prefer that his personal property tax rebate be reinvested in infrastructure. “I guess my home might be worth a little bit more than the average cost of a home in my district, but I’d get my $180 and put it back into roads, to be honest with you,” Ellis said. “I’m just wondering how we do it all.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are hell-bent on passing tax cuts large enough that people notice—part of their compact with GOP primary voters. That’s what makes Nichols’ proposals difficult. If the state had plenty of money, connecting TxDOT to a steady revenue stream would be a no-brainer. But the Legislature’s current budget proposals are packed with spending items, and some of the tax cut proposals legislators are floating would restrict the ability of the state to take in revenue in the future.

In a recent editorial calling for the Legislature to fund real needs before cutting taxes, the San Antonio Express-News collected legislators’ competing budget promises and declared that “even a Ginsu knife might not be able to slice this budget fine enough.”

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), no flaming liberal, voted for Nichols’ plan but said he was wary of tying the hands of future legislators, who might need the money for something else.

“I have a huge reservation about the dedication of funds and the lack of the Legislature’s discretionary ability,” says Fraser. Nichols’ SJR 5 would ask voters to enshrine the rerouting of the vehicle sales tax in the Texas Constitution, something that would be  difficult to undo. Fraser said he would “continue to explore whether it’s good public policy to dedicate” funds, he said. “But I’m going to vote for this bill to move this process along.”

Freshman state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) was having none of it. “We’ve had 30 years … to put money into highways and we haven’t done it,” he said. “The only way we’re going to make a forced savings plan is to put it in a constitutional amendment.”

That irked Fraser a bit. With “respect,” he told Huffines, “you’ve only been here about a month. Some of us have been here for a long time.” There’s a “learning curve of institutional knowledge” to be acquired. Huffines laughed amiably.

Transportation has been named one of the governor’s emergency items, meaning the Senate can take up Nichols’ plan immediately. On Wednesday, Patrick said he expected the Senate to pass the bills as early as next week.

Texas Family Values Rally
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriages at a Texas Faith and Freedom Day rally, Feb. 24, 2015.

Hellfire may be licking at Texans’ heels, but bitter cold forced the righteous inside today. For months, groups such as Texas Values and the Texas Eagle Forum had planned to convene for Texas Faith and Family Day and give a mighty rebuke to changing cultural norms on the south steps of the Capitol, a venue that can lend grandeur to even small rallies. Instead, they filled a little more than half of the 350-seat Capitol auditorium.

In Texas, the Christian right did quite well in the 2014 election, but, true to form, social conservatives feel more persecuted than ever. In one respect, their sky really is falling: The state ban on gay marriage looks ready to collapse. There was the one-off marriage of a Travis County couple last week, and there’s a widespread expectation that marriage equality is coming to Texas soon, thanks to either the 5th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

But at the Capitol auditorium today, there was no talk about that elephant in the room. Perhaps that would have been too depressing for the crowd. Instead, like prisoners of war awaiting a dawn execution, event organizers talked about the past. The ringleader was Jonathan Saenz, the anti-gay marriage activist whose ex-wife left him for a woman.

Saenz, who has tirelessly fought against non-discrimination ordinances around the state and who is the most visible face of anti-gay-marriage activism, stood onstage next to two pink-and-white birthday cakes and a facsimile cardboard wedding cake marking the 10th anniversary of the approval—by roughly 13 percent of the state’s voters—of Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Might as well celebrate now, because the ban will likely be dead by the actual anniversary of its passage in November 2005.

In some ways, it was still 2005 in the room. The Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams introduced state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), who opened with a joke. “I always take a picture of the audience,” he told the crowd, pulling out his phone, to prove to his wife that he is where he said he would be. After all, “it’s until death do us part, and it’s me she was talking about killing.” Traditional marriage, you see, is the bond between a man and his nagging wife.

Bell is the author of a bill that would bar government employees that help perform or recognize same-sex marriages from getting paid or receiving benefits—one of a number of weird last-ditch efforts to keep the gays at bay. Polls show Texans are more and more in favor of recognizing same-sex unions of some kind. But Bell had a rejoinder to that. “Public polls are conducted by people who want to skew public opinion one way or another,” he softly reassured the crowd.

The sanctity of marriage wasn’t the only subject on the day’s agenda. State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) rose to speak about his efforts to curb judicial bypass abortions. A slick lawyer could abduct your daughter on her way to school, he told attendees, and help her get an abortion without your knowledge.

It was, he said, the 179th anniversary of William Barret Travis’ famous last letter from the Alamo. Today’s culture wars are similar. “Either we win, or there’s going to be deaths,” Krause said of the fight to end legal abortion. “Victory or death,” he signed off.

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) rose to talk about his anti-Sharia law bill. Was the bill pointless demagoguery? “Read the news,” Leach told the crowd. The menace of Sharia law was becoming more pressing every day. “There’s no judge in Texas that should even think twice about violating the U.S. Constitution,” Leach said.

Quite a few legislators dropped by, but the disparity between representatives and senators who elected to make the walk to the auditorium speaks volumes about the differences between the two chambers. Among reps, Molly White and Scott Turner (he of the failed speaker bid) came by. But neither they nor any of the event’s other speakers hold much sway in the House—they hail from the party’s fringy side. But the senators who showed are influential, including Brian Birdwell, Charles Perry and Donna Campbell, who’s well on her way from freshman wacko-bird to senior stateswoman. (In a few more cycles, one assumes, she’ll be primaried as a RINO.)

Their leader was there as well, and Campbell introduced Dan Patrick to a standing ovation. “He is our leader, he is strong and he has the same values we do,” she said. “He’s known for his hard work ethic, and he’s a strong family man.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks to attendees of the Texas Faith and Family Day rally.

No marriage in Texas is as sacred as the marriage between Patrick and his podium, and he showed his great love for it to the crowd. Relaxed and happy, he spoke with the knowledge that he was among friends, though he mostly avoided any talk about issues. Instead, he spoke about his great love for the Bible and his conviction that his allies share that love. What a shame, he said, that he had to wait to find God’s word until he was middle-aged. He mentioned his modestly titled book about the Bible, The Second Most Important Book You’ll Ever Read, written years ago when he was but a mere talk show host.

“I don’t know if the end days are today, or a thousand years from now,” Patrick told the crowd. “That’s why we have to stand for Christ in all that we do.”

A pastor—one of the so-called Houston Five who’ve been involved in a fight with Houston mayor Annise Parker—delivered a closing prayer: “We declare this state to be the sovereign territory of Jesus Christ,” he said, eliciting “amens” from the crowd. It fell to Bell to cut the banniversary cake, with White and Birdwell at his side.

Earlier, Leach had treated the crowd to his favorite Woodrow Wilson quote: “It’s better to temporarily fail at a cause that will ultimately succeed,” he said, “than to temporarily succeed at a cause that will ultimately fail.” On gay-rights issues, the true believers at the Capitol today are convinced they’re doing the former. What will happen when they come to terms with the fact that it’s really been the latter?

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Here in the Patriotic People’s Republic of Kory (почему вы переводите это), things are actually looking up! True, it’s been a hard few weeks. Though our editorial staffers were forced to marry guns in a group ceremony yesterday, a court order won by our extremely competent Attorney General Ken Paxton annulled them (or at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.)

1) We check in today on GREAT LEADER KORY, who’s developing a personality cult, as all great leaders should. The fear he’s put in the hearts of legislators has won him fans.

One Metroplex writer has been able to put Watkins’ role in the freedom movement in perspective. Read for yourself, on the website of Brett Sanders—the website’s logo renders the B in Brett as a Bitcoin—a feature-length treatment of Watkins: “Patriot Misunderstood, Kory Watkins a Rebel Without a Pause.” (sics throughout.)

There is a man who walks the line in Texas.

Go on…

A Freedom lover, Tarrant County Precinct chair, Radio Show host, Father, Brother, Husband, and Son. Kory Watkins who credits the discovery of Ron Paul for his awakening to the corruption and tyranny in government, and Paul’s strong stance for Freedom and Liberty.

Fair—Watkins is almost indisputably someone’s son. But haven’t a lot of his erstwhile allies denounced his tactics, like shouting at legislators that “treason is punishable by death?”

All the negativity thrown at Mr. Watkins about his choice of methods, have been simply petty and not very relevant. […] Why separate yourself from Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson type of Freedom Fighter?

Kory, the author says, is “fighting for the rights of not only himself but countless others. His aggressiveness and the utilization of his Freedoms to express and engage the battle to have our rights restored are trashed by many within the liberty movement.” This Thomas Jefferson look-a-like, in his period-appropriate MRA trilby, is a critical leader—the critical leader—of the state’s gun rights movement. “Just like a defense on any sports team needs an aggressor, an intimidator, one that goes head first into the melee.”

The bill that facilitates the installation of panic buttons in lege offices after Watkins stormed the office of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez was a #FalseFlag operation, says the author, “a pre determined plan” designed to discredit Kory. They’re scared of him because he’s effective.

“Kory is the modern day symbolism of ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’” Sanders writes. “We have been silent and nice for far to long.”

I’m sold. What will Watkins—son, husband, radio host, Thomas Jefferson, linebacker—do once he’s won his gun rights? Among other items, Watkins says he will fight to end “knife and sword regulations.”

Get excited, legislators. Come next session, these guys are going to be wandering around the capitol with broadswords.

Here’s a video of Kory Watkins rapping.

 

2) Ever since state Sen. Don Huffines won his primary bid last year, I’ve been preoccupied with the feeling that his face is familiar. Recently, with the help of the Observer’s photo-analytics team—unpaid interns we’ve pulled from Casis Elementary’s pre-trial diversion program—we’ve cracked it. Huffines bears a striking similarity to ’70s character actor Henry Gibson, of Nashville and The Blues Brothers fame:

Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Henry Gibson, in The Blues Brothers
Don Huffines, in the Senate
Don Huffines, in the Senate

Could it be a coincidence? Plausible. But eagle-eyed readers will note that “Don Huffines” and “Henry Gibson” share no fewer than seven letters between them, and the keener amongst you will be intrigued to know that Gibson “died” just six years before Huffines made his first bid for elected office. Peek into the dark recesses of this state, and ye know not what ye shall find.

Whatever his real name is, Huffines would like to wish “all the ladies out there” a “happy Valentime’s Day.”

3) Remember Rick Perry? He’s slowly fading from the state’s memory. We find ourselves bathing in the Eternal Sunshine of the Rickless Mind. He has a new video out this week about his great love for a great state. Sing our praises, guv!

“We’re in beautiful New Hampshire, the Granite State,” narrates Yankee Rick, probably slathered in infidel maple syrup and wearing a Patriots jersey. “Granite’s tough and durable, just like the people who live in this fiercely independent state,” Perry says as B-roll of him patting a veteran on the shoulder plays.

Man. Even if you were happy to see him go, it hurts when your one-time lover finds another, doesn’t it? Do all our memories mean nothing, Rick? Just… adios, mofo, like that? In two weeks he’ll be wearing L.L. Bean flannels and bitching about that recent nor’easter. But pancakes are no substitute for brisket, Perry. You’ll regret this. Loyalty, Rick, it used to mean something.

Perry is in New Hampshire because he’s running for president. How is that going? Well, Perry has an easier route to win the Republican nomination than some others, which is not to say that he’ll be successful. It’s actually only a two-step plan:

Step One: Patiently wait until J.E.B. is eaten alive by the Right, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul flame out spectacularly, Scott Walker’s weird fetishes surface and Marco Rubio’s face falls off during a live debate, revealing an intricately machined system of whirring gears.

Step Two: Don’t look like a dolt.

Step One is going OK, inasmuch as Perry is still in the race. Step Two? In New Hampshire, Perry produced a novel historical claim at a county GOP Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner. According to Perry, old Abe “Rebel Annihilator” Lincoln was, it turns out, a vociferous proponent of state’s rights:

“Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it. That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy. […] The Tenth Amendment that the federal government is limited, its powers are limited by the Constitution.”

As historian Josh Zeitz writes in Politico Magazine, GOPers have always had a hard time incorporating Lincoln into their political narratives. They like to boast that he was a Republican, but he was a Republican before the American party system inverted itself several times during the course of the last 150 years. Lincoln was a big-time federalist whose most important domestic policies were quintessentially big-government projects—he championed federal investment in education and became deeply concerned about the trajectory of American capitalism as the war came to a close. His biggest achievement, of course, did have a little something to do with state’s rights. In Perry’s imagining, perhaps we could call it “The War of Northern Aggression for a Limited and Devolved Government with No Handouts.”

The grotesque thing about this, of course, is that Perry flirted with secession as governor.

Here’s the Gettysburg Address, as reimagined by Perry. If you’re on his campaign team, feel free to use this:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new loose federal compact, conceived in joint appreciation for family values and corporate power, and dedicated to the proposition that the states, the laboratories of Democracy, know how to create jobs better than some bureaucrat in D.C., I tell you what.

Now we are engaged in a problematic period in which both sides are at fault, testing whether that loose federal compact, or any loose federal compact so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of this unfortunate mutual dispute. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation may continue to create jobs long into the future.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here to reduce the taxpayer’s burden. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause of limited government—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom from intrusive government mandates and burdensome federal regulation—and that government of the states, by the states, for the states, shall not perish from the earth.

Someday, a spiritual successor to me and my work will rise in a border state, with a handsome head of hair, and he will take the fight to tyranny just as I did. We’re Taxed Enough Already, people. It’s not a miracle, it’s a model. God bless America. Adios, mofos.

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Americans For Prosperity stands strong for new state Sen. José Menéndez

How did Republican mega-donors end up winning a race in which only Democrats were running?

This week’s sad installment in an ongoing saga—the Travails of Texas Democrats—involves a runoff in Senate District 26, which covers much of San Antonio, between two Democratic state reps, José Menéndez and Trey Martinez Fischer. Last night, Menéndez won Leticia Van de Putte’s former seat in the Senate after a bitter and partisan campaign in which much of his support against the liberal Martinez Fischer came from Republicans. It wasn’t exactly an upset, but it ran contrary to the expectations of some statewide observers. (Yours truly included.)

As political scientist Mark P. Jones outlines here, Menéndez was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House last session, and Martinez Fischer was one of the most liberal. Martinez Fischer, or TMF as he’s colloquially known, won almost 44 percent in a special election in early January. Menéndez took 25 percent.

From one angle, it looked like Menéndez had a path to victory. Two other Republican candidates in the five-way race together took almost 28 percent of the vote. If Menéndez could keep his voting base intact and add all of the Republican voters from the first round, he’d win.

But TMF was a formidable opponent. He was a rising star in the party—or at least, he’d appointed himself one. He’d become known in the House for his skill in using the lower chamber’s rules to kill bills. He’s vocal, tough and smart, and he has the ambition to match. He’s the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He’s won plaudits and attention from the media.

TMF poured money into the Texas Democratic Party convention last summer, where he had an unusually high profile for a lowly state representative. His party, featuring the Austin-based Spazmatics, was one of the convention’s headlining events. He gave away loteria cards emblazoned with the faces of Texas politicos, which became popular items—the Abbott card depicted the governor with devil horns. And his speech to the convention was full of the kind of fire that makes Democrats feel competitive again, even if his more pointed barbs—he joked that “GOP” stood for gringos y otros pendejos—drew stern disapproval from some more polite observers, and later became a big focus of anti-TMF attack ads.

In his race, he was supported by all kinds of Democratic heavies. He had the financial support of Houston mega-donor Steve Mostyn’s network, the strong backing of San Antonio bigwigs like the Castro family, and the endorsement of his hometown paper, the San Antonio Express-News.

Menéndez, meanwhile, was a fine rep, but quiet. He served in the House for 14 years. He was on the corporate-minded, conservative wing of his party. He won a committee chairmanship from House Speaker Joe Straus. Last session, he authored bills to raise criminal penalties for petty crimes like graffiti, even though his colleagues, even some Republicans, were generally trying to do the opposite.

Leticia Van de Putte, who held the seat before she resigned to run for mayor of San Antonio, was no great liberal herself, but she regularly ran unopposed. This was a pretty Democratic district, so TMF, with his profile and money and support, would clench it, right? Austin journalists of all stripes were salivating at the notion of Martinez Fischer butting heads with Dan Patrick in the once-comatose Senate.

As it turns out, gringos y otros pendejos vote, and the Democratic base does not. TMF lost the early vote by 20 points, and stayed down all night, ultimately winning just under 41 percent of the vote. A whopping 6 percent of voters made it to the polls. Remarkably, not only did Menéndez expand his vote share to include (presumably) Republican voters, but TMF lost ground, slipping from 44 percent to 41 percent of the vote. In short, it was a drubbing.

Menéndez will probably be a fine senator, and his campaign team did a great job here. But it’s still a missed opportunity for Democrats. The tea party relentlessly primaries GOP senators in safe districts until they get the guys they want; they’ve succeeded in changing the face of the Legislature. Democrats have sometimes been successful at this. In 2013, Democrat Sylvia Garcia, backed by the same people who backed TMF, beat Carol Alvarado, a more conservative candidate who was backed by the same people who backed Menéndez, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

It’s probably safe to say to say that Menéndez won’t be the kind of fighter in the Senate that Democratic die-hards were hoping for. Menendez’s biggest donors include William Greehey, the CEO of Valero Energy, the irascible billionaire Red McCombs, and beer distributor John L. Nau. All have donated oceans of money to Republican candidates at the state and federal level. He was even effectively endorsed by the Texas branch of the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity.

Meanwhile, Democratic base voters can’t seem to get out to the polls in non-presidential years unless someone is standing behind them with a cattle prod. Maybe they’ll try that next.

On Tuesday night, the state Democratic Party—and Battleground Texas—found themselves celebrating the election of a senator whose campaign was funded by Republicans and cheered by the political machine of the Koch brothers. Blue Texas is coming any day now.