CAPITOL RINGSIDE: 2012 Republican Primary and Runoff campaigns changed Texas

By CHARLEY WILKISON

It’s true that if you’re looking at something every single day it’s hard to know if it’s changing. Kids get taller, dogs get older and things even happen to our own bodies that we don’t even notice because we’re too close to the subject. But, I can vouch that the Texas Republican Party is changing right in front of our eyes.

Democrats may object to this thesis by saying their party has also changed, grown, is about to re-sprout, etc., but if that’s so, it must be changing even more slowly because it seems as though the D’s platform, agenda and candidates have remained relatively close to where they were philosophically several years back.

But the Republican Party, on the other hand is experiencing a whirlwind of change. We can say that with assuredness because even those of us who are accustomed to the often colorful and even sometimes rowdy political candidates in Texas haven’t seen anything like the Republican Primary Campaign of 2012.

Scores of brand new, unknown Republicans filed in legislative seats all over the state. Many candidates moved into the districts from others. Some districts had five candidates. The primaries were hotly contested with candidates brawling toward the final bell with claims and counter claims flying all over the ring. There was an immediate tone change that differed from Republican campaigns of the past. The direct mail pieces, the television commercials and the debates were extremely confrontational and in many cases downright hostile. The tone of the overall campaign was very different.

The best example of this GOP weather change is to look no farther than the battle for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat.

I was invited to attend the first debate of the season where all of the Republican hopefuls laid out their vision, their goals for the country and attempted to out-maneuver their opponents and of course portray themselves as the real conservative. Remember, back at that time there were at least a few big-time political consultants and party aficionados who believed that Craig James of ESPN would ride a huge male sports surge and win the race without a runoff. The candidates were barely on the stage before former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz slammed into Lt. Governor David Dewhurst accusing him of being a closet liberal or at least a sleeper cell moderate.

Having worked closely with the Lt. Governor and his staff for nine years, I grinned, leaned forward in my seat and wondered how in the heck you could make an argument like that stick. Dewhurst seemed to those of us in the daily grind of workaday politics like a real conservative, a poster Republican. A well-known Texas business builder, veteran of the military and an overseas CIA agent, Dewhurst seemed like what Texas always looked for in its Republicans.

Well, fast forward from early spring to mid-summer and everything has changed. Next week, early voting begins in the primary runoff elections. Most polling shows Cruz leading Dewhurst. And for the first time in the campaign, Cruz has raised more campaign cash than the Lt. Governor.

The fight has been brutal. The fight inside the Republican Party has been over government and philosophy. The very issues that caused David Dewhurst to leave his corporate success and seek to find solutions inside government have been hung neatly around his neck as part of the problem.

The Tea Party influences have never been seen louder or clearer than in this campaign where it has become wrong to look for common ground, seek common sense solutions to issues or even to listen to people with whom you disagree. The Republican Party of socially conservative values combined with the traditional connection to low taxes, pro-business, and lawsuit reform has been ranked as moderate. And even the hint of being moderate or believing in the process is now seen as conflicted. Also Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment of not speaking evil of fellow Republicans has been thrown in the garbage.

The followers of Reagan, John Tower and even Bill Clements would naturally be very confused as Texas Republican politics looks more like primaries in New York or California. The idea of disagreeing in a civil discourse, of politics being a ladies and gentlemen’s game of ideas seems to have been replaced by a new game heavily influenced by political consultants and pollsters. In this brave new world of smash-mouth Republican politics, Texas has become just another place. Just another campaign to win.

It’s clear to see that the Republican Party has changed. We may not be able to get all the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak. This is the Republican primary and runoff where we unofficially outlawed independent thinking and rational decision making. The political climate, the anti-government discourse, the personal attacks all come at a price and they set a precedent.

Texas has been a solid Republican state for a generation now. Before that, we were a conservative Democratic state. From Sam Houston to Lyndon Johnson to Rick Perry, we have held fast to an independent view that the candidate and their ideas mattered more than party affiliation. We have remained stubbornly Texan in our world view. We were the last state in the union to allow second mortgages on homes because the folks that formed this state didn’t trust banks and out-of-state big corporations.

This primary seems to have put an end to all of that old-fashioned provincial thinking and moved us toward something new. Is it better? Were we way overdue to begin behaving like they do in the beltway? Or did we lose something, something important?

How Texans have voted in the past 100 years of Presidential Elections

1908, William Jennings Bryan, Democrat (William Howard Taft, Republican, won the election)

1912, Woodrow Wilson, Democrat

1916, Woodrow Wilson, Democrat

1920, James Cox, Democrat (Warren G. Harding, Republican, won the election)

1924, John W. Davis, Democrat (Calvin Coolidge, Republican, won the election)

1928, Herbert Hoover, Republican

1932, Franklin Roosevelt, Democrat

1936, Franklin Roosevelt, Democrat

1940, Franklin Roosevelt, Democrat

1948, Harry S. Truman, Democrat

1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican

1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican

1960, John F. Kennedy, Democrat

1964, Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat

1968, Hubert Humphrey, Democrat (Richard M. Nixon, Republican, won the election)

1972, Richard M. Nixon, Republican

1976, Jimmy Carter, Democrat

1980, Ronald Reagan, Republican

1984, Ronald Reagan, Republican

1988, George Bush, Republican

1992, George Bush, Republican (William J. Clinton, Democrat, won the election)

1996, Bob Dole, Republican (William J. Clinton, Democrat, won the election)

2000, George W. Bush, Republican

2004, George W. Bush, Republican

2008, John McCain, Republican (Barrack Obama, Democrat, won the election)

Charley Wilkison is Public Affairs Director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and co-owner of The Independent.