Have Republicans Lost the Fire?

Republicans hold every statewide elected office. But is the party about to implode?

The last time Republicans in Texas had it this good, the Freedmen’s Bureau was running the state and the Democrats were under martial law. Not one single statewide office is held by a Democrat. The Senate is controlled by Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats are clinging to a four-member majority in the House, where this year’s much-anticipated redistricting process is all but certain to produce Republican gains.

So why is there so much consternation among the Republican party faithful? Why is David Guenthner, editor of the conservative Lone Star Report and spokesman for the party’s right wing, already labeling the Perry administration a failure and openly calling for the head of the party’s state chairperson, Susan Weddington? In a widely distributed broadside (originally delivered as a thirty-minute speech to the Brazos Valley Republican Club in early February), Guenthner lambasted Weddington and party vice-chair David Barton for leading the party into a “a severe state of atrophy,” and predicted that Texas was “well on its way toward electing a Democratic governor, a Democratic lieutenant governor, and re-electing a Democratic speaker of the House.” Does David Guenthner know something that nobody else does?

Guenthner told the Observer that he was merely repeating what he had been hearing in party circles since the 2000 elections, in which the R’s did not gain any House or Senate seats, despite having W. at the top of the ticket. But other party-watchers say it’s not the number of seats that’s bothering conservatives–it’s what the people holding them are doing. According to former Republican party political director Royal Masset and fundraising guru Milton Rister, activists in the party, including Guenthner himself, have begun to grumble openly that Governor Perry and Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff are not sufficiently conservative. In his speech, Guenthner noted that Perry’s State of the State address–which featured minority scholarships, teacher health care, and immunizations–could have been delivered by Ann Richards, and he went on to accuse Perry and Ratliff of allowing Senate Democrats to set the agenda for the session. He has a point. Ratliff’s first act upon ascending to the Lt. Governorship was to make Rodney Ellis, one of the Senate’s few liberals, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, arguably the third most powerful position in the legislature. With Rob Junell in charge of House Appropriations, Democrats control the purse strings in both chambers this session. Ratliff also gave committee chairs to several other liberal Democrats, and assigned a moderate Republican, Jeff Wentworth, to the redistricting committee. Ratliff gave the committee a four to four partisan split, severely hampering the R’s chances of a big win when the new political districts are drawn.

But this is all to be expected, according to Royal Masset. “The reality is that it’s always a basically moderate legislature…. You aren’t going to see Arlene Wohlgemuth in the leadership,” he said. Therein lies the rub for the Republicans: large elements of the party’s base–the activists out in the precincts and within the party structure–are much more conservative than the average Republican elected official. That fundamental fact has meant that along with the public success of the party has come some vicious behind-the-scenes fighting, and not a little dirty laundry. Guenthner’s screed is the latest broadside in a war that has been going on within the party for years.

The story goes that George W. Bush started running for President about two years into his first term as governor. Yet before he could deal with John McCain, much less take on Al Gore, he had to put down an insurgency in his own state party. When Bush reached the governor’s office, Christian conservatives in Texas were resurgent–and still smarting from his father’s term in the White House, during which the elder Bush’s supporters at the precinct level had forced out many of the activists of the old Reagan coalition. By 1994, they were back in force, led by the Christian Coalition, the Eagle Forum, and a loose affiliation of home-schooling activists. By 1996, according to Rister, fully 1,500 of the 12,000 authorized delegates and alternates to the state convention were home-schoolers, making them the single largest faction. Dallas attorney Tom Pauken rode the rising tide of Christian conservatives to the chairmanship in 1994, sweeping out the old guard and consolidating Christian right control over the party.

Their attack on “establishment Republicans” started off well. The buzz word was “party discipline.” Moderate republican legislators, such as Travis County Republican Jeff Wentworth, found themselves targeted for “censure” by the party. Party leaders drafted platform questionnaires designed to ferret out the insufficiently conservative or those who wouldn’t toe the party line on hot-button issues, especially abortion, homosexual rights, and school vouchers. The old country club Republicans had lost control of the party.

Then Pauken crossed the line. When then-governor Bush made his first major misstep–proposing an ill-conceived tax reform plan (which actually raised some types of taxes) without consulting the legislative leadership–Pauken pounced. He attacked Bush openly for kowtowing to the tax and spend Democrats. Top Republican strategist and Bush ally Karl Rove responded by going directly to the major donors and cutting off funding for the Republican party. Through Rove and his own considerable business and family contacts, Bush had already been building his own machine, independent of the party.

But it didn’t stop there. Rove, together with Milton Rister and other consultants, essentially privatized fundraising and candidate selection throughout the state, through the formation of PACs like 76 in 96 and 8 in 98, which targeted select House races in a bid to gain the majority and unseat Democratic speaker Pete Laney. Other major Republican PACs, like Associated Republicans of Texas, began performing many of the functions the state party once performed, such as message development and get-out-the-vote campaigns. The idea was to keep the flow of money going to candidates of Rove’s choosing, while starving out Pauken and his people in the party. It worked. When Pauken finally resigned to run for attorney general in 1997, he left a party deeply in debt. He also found himself a pariah in big money circles, where his victorious primary opponent, John Cornyn, did quite well.

Pauken was replaced by his former second-in-command, Susan Weddington. Like current vice-chair David Barton, Weddington comes from the Christian conservative camp. (Barton runs a fundamentalist ministry in Aledo.) What many party activists didn’t know about Weddington was that she wouldn’t see things the way Pauken did. “Don’t mistake everybody who is pro-life as being part of that Pauken crowd,” Rister explains. Weddington may be just as conservative as Pauken, but she is not interested in party purity so much as she is in expanding the party and electing Republicans.

During the 1998 state party convention, Weddington drew a line in the sand over a plan endorsed by Republican National Committeeman Tim Lambert, the de facto heir to the Pauken faction, to move candidate selection from the Republican party primary to a caucus system. In a caucus system (such as the one practiced in Iowa), candidates are chosen by delegates at the convention, rather than through primaries open to all voters. This greatly enhances the power of party activists. It has been the ability of Rove and the major donors to dump money into primary campaigns of their choosing that has thwarted the right-wing time and again. “It’s a tactical split. They [Lambert] want to close the party up, and Susan wants to reach out, and grow the party,” Rister said. Weddington organized delegates and mid-level leadership against the plan, and she prevailed. “A lot of people see that as a sort of watershed change,” for the party leadership, Rister said. Guenthner’s accusations notwithstanding, the result has been that the party is attracting the confidence of donors and is back in the black.

But the fight within the party is far from over. The most recent battleground has been the State Board of Education, long a stronghold of the party’s right wing. One of the leading heroes of the revolution was martyred to the cause last spring, when outspoken Board conservative Bob Offutt was targeted by Bill Ratliff and Karl Rove, who recruited and financed a more moderate primary opponent. Offutt had actually campaigned against Bush during the presidential campaign. Even prior to that affront, the board had become a major embarrassment for the Bush administration and for the party. In addition to their usual obstructionist tactics and railings against the “Austin education establishment,” the Permanent School Fund had been mismanaged. Early in his tenure, Governor Perry snubbed board conservatives by naming a moderate Republican board chairperson.

Though their influence may have peaked under Pauken, Christian conservatives still compose 70 to 80 percent of the delegates and alternates to the convention, Rister estimates. They aren’t likely to take Perry and Ratliff’s heavy hand well. Add to that the departure of the Bush camp, especially top consultant Karl Rove, and there is a power vacuum in the party. Some aren’t sorry to see Bush go. “I think a lot of what has happened in terms of the lack of identity of the party right now is directly related to Bush,” Guenthner told the Observer. “I mean from day one, the m.o. of the Bush folks was let’s play nice with the Dems, let them have their way on the stuff that we can let them get away with, and declare victory,” he said. For some in the party that’s politics. But for others, like Guenthner, it’s anathema. And it can’t last. “The party has to figure out again what it is about and who it is.” Among Texas Republicans, those are fighting words.

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Published at 12:00 am CST