At the Texas Republican Party Convention last week, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick did what so many conquerors ultimately do: He declared peace. The GOP civil war that has done so much to define political life in Texas during the last decade was over. “We won,” he told reporters on Friday. He’s right, and you can think of the convention as a sort of ceremonial end to the conflict.
Patrick’s faction, with its heavy focus on Christian and white identity politics, doesn’t control everything, and it hasn’t eradicated the other faction, a loose confederation of traditional conservatives, moderates, socially liberal Republicans and business interests. But Patrick & co. don’t need to wipe out their enemies. To torture the civil war metaphor, the old guard — let’s call them the White Army — has been reduced to strongholds: some state House seats, which they can easily defend, but that aren’t really essential. Their influential leader, House Speaker Joe Straus, is leaving. He helped keep the coalition together, and there’s no obvious replacement. The Red Army, meanwhile, runs almost everything else.
The Texas GOP has reached a kind of equilibrium, which means there’s little left to fight over. One of the more contentious platform issues this year involved abortion “abolitionism” — the notion that Texas should ban abortion in violation of Supreme Court directives and get ready for Fort Sumter, or something. It’s play-acting, in other words, a way to signal that you’re extra, extra anti-abortion and therefore morally superior to the people who are merely anti-abortion, similar to the play-acting that makes left politics so toxic. On the last day of the convention, one of the abolitionists, having offered an utterly meaningless change to an irrelevant portion of the platform, spoke his piece and concluded with the words of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
The most striking indicator of the mood this year was the Texas GOP’s leadership election, in which incumbent James Dickey beat a challenge from a party activist named Cindy Asche. In the past, party chairs have tried to remain somewhat ecumenical regarding factions, but when Dickey became chair, he signaled his appreciation for the Red Army faction by appointing one of its lawyers, Trey Trainor, to be assistant general counsel. There have been other signs. In February, moderate state Representative Sarah Davis of Houston told me the first time she ever had contact with Dickey was when the party filed information act requests for her emails — in an effort to find dirt. That’s not normal.
When the state GOP executive committee debated the Straus censure earlier this year, Dickey, who was overseeing the proceedings, did something extraordinary: He joined in the vote, out of a desire to foster “party unity,” he said.
Asche criticized the censure at a debate in May with Dickey, and the mere mention of the censure caused a portion of the audience to break into applause — for Dickey.
Asche’s other main line against Dickey was that he had been a partner at a hedge fund that lost the Art Institute of Chicago $20 million in 2001. The Securities and Exchange Commission charged that the fund’s actions were tantamount to fraud — a shady episode that ended with Dickey paying a fine to the SEC without admitting guilt. Could Dickey be trusted with the party’s finances?
Dickey’s flabbergasting rejoinder came during a May 24 debate, flagged by the Austin American-Statesman: “It’s ironic that we’ve got a candidate for Republican Party chair who is trying to claim that government claims against one of us are all valid. Has anyone paid attention to, I don’t know, the FBI lately, or what’s happening to the attorney general, or what’s happening to our president?” It’s the “one of us” that sells it: The Deep State, in other words, had tried to target Dickey — just 16 years before he became party chair. The Deep State is very good.
Then, at the convention, things got weirder. The party’s accounting director, Jennifer Stoner, told the crowd that she was resigning, while accusing Dickey — through Asche — of being “untrustworthy.” Stoner charged that Dickey had started asking for information on party finances in an Excel file, which is editable, rather than the traditional PDF. Dickey had lied to the party’s executive committee about other matters, she claimed, and she feared what else was going on.
The episode didn’t seem to change many minds — Asche got crushed in the final vote. And then the next day, for good measure, the party delegates voted to censure Representative Byron Cook, a Straus ally, by a tally of almost 5 to 1. (Senator John Cornyn escaped a censure vote of his own.) Rather than closing a chapter in party history by helping to censure Straus, as Dickey had pledged, he had instead opened the possibility of using the party apparatus to punish other apostate Republicans — which was, of course, the idea.
Imagine if any of this were to happen at the Democratic Party’s convention this week. Imagine if news emerged that Democratic Chair Gilberto Hinojosa had been implicated in major fraud some years ago, and, on the floor during his re-election vote, the party’s accountant charged Hinojosa with dishonesty and potentially more fraud and resigned. Imagine too that the party attacked faithful outgoing lawmakers for impurity — that the party spent three days, say, debating a motion to condemn former state Representative Elliott Naishtat for being insufficiently supportive of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Democrats would look insane, and the media would make fun of them for weeks. It would be seen as final proof that the party had run its course and probably ought to be kept away from sharp-edged craft tools and toxic glue, if not shut down altogether, for mercy’s sake. The reason why they haven’t earned that kind of derision here, of course, is because the Republican Party wins elections, and that’s the only thing that matters in politics.
So several things are true at once. The civil war is over, and for the moment the GOP seems united and strong. And also, the GOP is dysfunctional and out of ideas and in very stupid shape. As former state Representative Jim Keffer, a colonel in the old White Army, put it on Twitter while watching the convention from afar, “The only thing keeping [the state GOP] from implosion is the ineptitude of the Democratic Party,” and their inability to “seize the moment.”
At the end of the convention, as the room was emptying out, a friend introduced me to a longtime party activist who he described as “not one of the crazies.” The woman laughed. “Well,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s anyone normal left here anymore.”