Deep in the Heart of Texas

George P. Bush
From 9/11 deniers to George W.’s nephew, the state’s primary season has it all Lee Celano/Reuters

Texas voters are heading to the polls to cap off a most unusual primary election season.

"We haven't had Republican primaries like this, ever" said Democratic strategist Jason Stanford of Austin.

Texas is, of course, the deeply conservative state where longshot Democrat gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, famous for her 13-hour filibuster of anti-abortion legislation last summer, is hoping to speed up her state's transformation to from red to purple by this November.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party in Texas is in the throes of the Tea Party v. Establishment civil war that the GOP is experiencing nationally. Like everything else in Texas, the politics is bigger, more colorful and more dramatic than elsewhere.

Two events in Texas over the past two years have turned what used to be a sleepy primary season into a series of all-out contests to see which Republican candidate is the most conservative.

The first was the decision by Republican Governor Rick Perry not to run for re-election.

Since becoming governor in December 2000, Perry has reigned over Texas politics. His presence at the top of the ticket year after year created a bottleneck in the Republican ranks, making it hard for ambitious young Republicans to move up the ladder.

Now, Perry's absence has had a ripple effect over the whole election.

It opened up the top of the ballot to attorney general Greg Abbott, which in turn opened up the attorney general spot. Meanwhile, the state comptroller decided to retire, opening up that spot, too. The land and agricultural commissioners, seeing their opportunity to move up, are vacating their seats and running for higher office. State lawmakers as well as outsiders are getting in the mix.

"What you're seeing here is something rather unusual. Something broke loose this pent up demand," said Sherri Greenberg, director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. "The Republican side of the ballot is just chock-full of primary candidates."

Then there's the second event that changed Republican politics in Texas: Ted Cruz.

In 2012, Cruz led an insurgent Tea Party campaign for the state's open U.S. Senate seat, eventually prevailing over the establishment favorite, lieutenant governor David Dewhurst. According to Stanford, Cruz's success sent a message to the Tea Party: “You don't have to wait your turn. You can jump the line and win.” So now everyone’s running.

David Dewhurst Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst speaks during an anti-abortion rally at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, July 8, 2013. Mike Stone/Reuters

"Back in the day, before Rick Perry ran for president [in 2012], he enforced this discipline and there were no Republican primaries to speak of. They decided who would be the nominee" Stanford explained. "We had Rick Perry uber alles."

But Perry's own disastrous and embarrassing presidential bid, followed by Cruz's vertiginous rise, broke down the GOP establishment's ability to keep its troops in order.

"I think that there's been a lot more activity in recruiting of candidates than I've seen in recent times. And a lot of that is -- at the local level and working their way up -- the Tea Party," said Cathie Adams, a conservative activist and president of the Texas division of the conservative group the Eagle Forum.

Tea Party activists looked at their lawmakers' records and asked, "Does this guy need a challenge or not?"

Greenberg sees a second lesson Republicans took from Cruz's battle against Dewhurst: In a GOP primary, go as far to the right as possible. "They have seen from him that in a statewide Republican primary right now, you can't go too far right," said Greenberg, who served as a Democrat in the state House in the 1990s but stresses that her work is nonpartisan.

"He's forced them further and further to the right, by his example and also the drum he constantly beats [in Washington DC]," she said.

The combination of all these factors means a packed primary field, from the top of the ballot to the very bottom, that will ultimately determine what post-Perry Texas looks like. Since Republicans dominate state politics, it's the primary -- a contest of the Tea Party versus the establishment -- rather than the general election that is key.

When it comes to federal candidates, the Tea Party dropped the ball this year in Texas. Senator John Cornyn, running for his third term, is expected to win big after the Tea Party failed to put up a serious challenger. (Representative Steve Stockman, who did challenge Cornyn, has run such a bad campaign that even Tea Party groups won't get behind him.) "Sen. Cornyn has said his goal is to avoid a run-off, and we feel that goal is achievable," a Cornyn campaign aide said Monday.

Same goes for Texas Representative Pete Sessions, who is expected to trounce his primary challenger, Dallas Tea Party leader Katrina Pierson.

But the state level is a whole other ballgame.

The prime example is state Senator Dan Patrick, who is trying to unseat incumbent lieutenant governor David Dewhurst in the most heated race this year. Patrick is a nightmare to establishment Republicans -- and a dream come true for Texas Democrats.

"Dan Patrick is the key. He is Texas's Pete Wilson," said Stanford, likening him to a former California governor whose support for anti-immigrant policies cost California Republicans support from the state's large and growing Latino population. Patrick has called undocumented immigrants entering Texas an "illegal invasion."

"He's a talk show host who thinks he's a political creature and he's going on about illegal invasions in a way that is going to unmask who Texas Republicans really are to Hispanics," Stanford said.

Patrick started out as a talk radio host where he claims he "discovered a little known national host, Rush Limbaugh." He was elected to the state Senate seat in 2006, where he founded the Tea Party Caucus. The Texas Monthly named him one of the worst politicians in 2013, for being a bully and an ideologue who ran his education committee in Austin like he does his hectoring radio show in Houston.

With the backing of much of the Tea Party movement, Patrick is promising to secure the border and end in-state tuition for “DREAMERS”, the undocumented immigrants brought here illegally as children. As one of three Republicans challenging the incumbent, it's a race that, from talk of impeaching Obama to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has shown just how far right the base of the Texas Republican Party is.

Patrick, who trailed Dewhurst by just six points in a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll last week, is expected to force Dewhurst into his first run-off in his 11 years on the job. But it's not an entirely new position for Dewhurst; he was in a run-off two years ago against Ted Cruz. We know how that ended.

"While we expect some Tea Party candidates to not do that well, others will," said Mike Baselice, a Republican strategist in Austin. "But then there are some conservative candidates like Dan Patrick for Lt. Governor that will do quite well."

If Dewhurst ultimately loses his bid for re-election, the New York Times recently noted, it will be the first time in over a century that all six statewide offices will have new occupants.

Dan Patrick isn't the only character on the ballot. Tea Party favorite Debra Medina, a former activist for Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, could upset three other Republicans candidates in the race for state comptroller. A nurse and health care consultant, Medina made a strong run for governor in 2010 but her campaign slumped when she initially declined to rule out the possibility that the U.S. government was behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. According to the same University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, Medina has the lead.

The comptroller's race, as well as a contentious three-way race for the open attorney general position, could head to a run-off, which because of the expected low turnout, helps the Tea Party candidate with the most fervent, dedicated followers.

"I think you're going to see a lot of Tea Party candidates sneak into the run-offs," said Stanford, who is working for the Democrat in the comptroller's race. "And I think they're going to clean up in the run-offs."

The Tea Party versus establishment debate goes all the way down to the state House and Senate races, where the House Speaker, establishment Republican Joe Straus, is using his leadership PAC to financially back incumbents against Tea Party challenges.

And speaking of establishment candidates, one of them is expected to win: George P. Bush, the nephew of former President George W. Bush, who is running for land commissioner. "He certainly has quite a Rolodex," Greenberg said.

No matter what happens today -- and then after the May 27 run-offs -- it's clear the Republican Party in Texas today is not the party it was for a decade under Perry, or before Cruz came along.

Take immigration, for example.

"For a long time Texas Republicans have been pretty pro-immigration. Rick Perry, he signed the DREAM Act out here, and he was continuing a tradition of George W. Bush," Stanford said. "That's gone. The last couple of years that is completely gone."