Why Does the National Media Get Texas So Wrong?

Tuesday, as Texas primary voters headed to the polls, Politico published an article titled, “The Texas tea party’s best days may be behind it.” Below the headline were photographs of Governor Rick Perry, the state’s junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, and Congressman Steve Stockman, who had decided to wage a last-minute, barely visible campaign again Texas’s senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn. The article focused on the Cornyn-Stockman race, and it mentioned a congressional primary in which incumbent Pete Sessions faced a Tea Party challenge from Katrina Pierson.

To anyone familiar with Texas politics, the article was baffling. It made no mention of the state’s most-watched (and most important) GOP primary, the race for the lieutenant governor nomination, and it made only a passing reference to the attorney general race, even though both contests featured bloody fights between so-called “establishment” and Tea Party candidates. The state’s hardest-right election force, the Empower Texans political action committee, also didn’t figure anywhere in the story.

Even after results poured in showing that for the most part Texas remains a dangerous place to skate too near the center, The New York Times headlined its recap with “Texas GOP beats back challengers from the right.” The Times reported that “conservatives inspired by Senator Ted Cruz largely failed to topple mainstream incumbents”—largely because Stockman and Pierson lost.  

From these write-ups, you would never guess the significance of incumbent Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s poor showing. Dewhurst, whose U.S. Senate dreams were toppled by Ted Cruz in 2012, managed only 28 percent, while his challenger, the pro-life, pro-Tea Party state Senator Dan Patrick, hit 44 percent. The two will run off May 27 but things don’t look great for Dewhurst. The lieutenant governor, who occupies the state's most powerful office, has personal wealth that can provide whatever funds he needs, but Patrick’s fan base is larger—in addition to being a state senator, he’s a talk-radio personality in the state.

Results shook out similarly in the attorney general’s race, where Tea Party-backed state Senator Ken Paxton got the most votes and will run off against state Representative Dan Branch. You’d also have no idea that veteran state Senator John Carona, one of only a few moderates left in the Texas senate, had fallen to a Tea Party challenger, as did a handful of state representatives. Stockman may have garnered the most national attention, but he was never a serious contender. He ran a haphazard campaign that received little support from the state’s strong Tea Party network, despite his extreme rhetoric.

So how did Politico and the Times miss the big picture? Texas is complicated because there’s no binary opposition between “establishment” candidates and those affiliated with the Tea Party. Should we define “establishment” as Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who has himself a relatively moderate record but has presided over one of the state’s most conservative legislatures? Outside Tea Party groups have tried to topple Straus, yet he also commands support from Tea Party-backed state representatives. Or is the “establishment” closer to Governor Rick Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, who gave one of the first major speeches at a Tea Party rally in 2009? Or is it David Dewhurst, who hung tight to Perry’s message, passed extreme measures, but then watched his political dreams crumble as Cruz rose to power by accusing Dewhurst of being a moderate?

There’s no clear leader of the Texas right. Cruz may be the current face of the Tea Party movement, but he’s busy gumming up the gears in Washington; when it comes to state politics, particularly in a dominant party with several different factions, there’s a lot more to consider than just Cruz’s endorsement. Ever since his “oops” moment while running for president, Perry’s iron fist has been slackening back home. And Empower Texans, the state PAC that frequently bullied elected officials with threats of a primary challenge, managed to annoy too many incumbents and is now facing ethical charges.

Incumbency is the least helpful method for judging whether someone is Tea Party or establishment. This is the Tea Party’s third election cycle. The candidates of 2010 are now veteran lawmakers, and many moderate Republicans have peeled off over the last four years. Plus, a number of prominent party members currently affiliated with the Tea Party predated the movement anyway. Arguing that the right is getting beat back because incumbents largely escaped unscathed misses the whole point. Many incumbents are Tea Party already.

In the attorney general’s race, for instance, three candidates ran. Ken Paxton, a state senator who, as a House member, challenged Straus for the speakership and earned plenty of Tea Party accolades, got the most votes and will run off against Dan Branch. Branch is a state representative from Dallas’s wealthiest suburb, and he’s been a loyal Straus lieutenant. That’s relatively straightforward until you throw Barry Smitherman in the mix. Smitherman came in last, but during the campaign he may have won the award for most extreme comments, including his promise for a “conservative crusade.” So is his loss a loss for the Tea Party? Don’t tell that to Paxton.

The Tea Party isn’t monolithic and it sure as hell isn’t represented solely by national fundraising groups like FreedomWorks or figures like Ted Cruz. There are rural Tea Partiers and suburban ones who are bound to have different views on issues like public schools or water policy. There are stylistic differences and substantive differences, from those who are more libertarian to those who are more business-oriented, and of course the social conservatives. They all hate President Obama, but that doesn’t mean they’re all going to look just like Ted Cruz.

The “movement” may no longer be the powerhouse it was in 2010, and certainly its splintering means there’s no central “Tea Party voice.” But Tuesday night’s results don’t show the ultra-conservative candidates fading away. Maybe by the May runoffs, the national media will see that too.

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