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Texas GOP Convention Finds Unity on Trump, but Intraparty Tensions Still Flare

SAN ANTONIO — Texas Republicans may love Donald Trump, but they are still working out their differences with one another.

That was evident during here at the state GOP’s convention, a three-day marathon of presidential bear-hugging and flashes of intraparty resentments ahead of a November election where nearly every statewide official —as well as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — is on the ballot again. The biennial gathering, which brought close to 10,000 delegates to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, was headlined by a race for chairman that culminated in a long, bitter battle on the floor Friday afternoon.

At one point in the stormy session, delegate Terry Holcomb appeared to give voice to the mounting frustrations that Cindy Asche, who was challenging Chairman James Dickey, and her supporters were damaging the party by forging forward despite the numbers being clearly stacked against them.

“This sounds like something Hillary Clinton would do,” Holcomb said, earning loud cheers. “We hear speech after speech about unity, and here we are doing the most divisive thing possible. We’re gonna burn down the party so she can be queen of the ashes.”

The convention’s final day of speeches Saturday was highlighted by Cruz, R-Texas, no stranger to intraparty warring. But he referenced the chair race — as well as the March primaries — while pleading with Republicans to set aside their differences for November.

“As passionate as you may be — maybe your candidate won, maybe your candidate lost — but at this point, I don’t care,” Cruz said. “We need unity.”

Texas Republicans at least found common ground in their embrace of the president — a less unifying figure at the last convention, which came days after Cruz ended his bruising battle against Trump for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. The 2018 gathering, by contrast, was overflowing with odes to the president.

“Is he awesome or what?” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked delegates Friday in his speech, which he briefly paused to record a video for Trump of the crowd wishing him a happy belated birthday. Patrick, who chaired Trump’s campaign in Texas after Cruz withdrew, also used his speech to hail Trump as the Babe Ruth of presidents, “knocking it out of the park every single day.”

Virtually any elected official who has been praised on camera by Trump showed it off in videos that played before they spoke. That included U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who presented delegates with an updated version of his infamous “Big John” ad from 2008 that played up his closeness to “Big Don.”

And while Cruz kept his speech focused on GOP accomplishments under Trump more than the man himself, he nonetheless put the stakes of his own re-election bid in a dire context for presidential diehards. If Democrats take back Congress, Cruz warned, the day Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as House speaker “is the day impeachment proceedings begin.”

Loyalty to the president factored prominently into the chair race between Asche and Dickey, who had been a leader in Texas of the “Free the Delegates” effort to deny Trump the nomination at the 2016 national convention. Asche argued that was an impediment to growing the party to include the new voters that Trump turned out in 2016.

Yet Asche came up short in the race, losing to Dickey 35 percent to 65 percent Friday on the floor after a protracted battle that the party likely will not be able to swiftly put behind itself. In her final speech to delegates, Asche revealed that the party’s longtime accounting staffer had just resigned because, in Asche’s telling, she could not trust Dickey.

Yet it was not just the chair race where lingering intraparty resentments were on display. In at least a couple of appearances at the convention, Patrick declared victory on the “bathroom bill” that he championed last year. He argued that while the measure didn’t pass through the Legislature, an overwhelming majority of GOP primary voters voted for a ballot item asking if they supported protecting the privacy of women and children when they go to the bathroom.

That drew a rebuke from the legislation’s biggest opponent: retiring GOP House Speaker Joe Straus.

“If ‘victory’ on the bathroom bill means that it’s not coming back and there will be more focus on fixing school finance and promoting private-sector growth, that’s great news,” the San Antonio lawmaker said in a statement.

The intraparty tensions also flared around another statewide official, Land Commissioner George P. Bush. He weathered a few rounds of boos during his remarks Friday — apparently from delegates still upset with his management of the Alamo, a key issue in the four-way primary he won this year.

Then there was the debate over censuring Republicans in office, which began this year when the State Republican Executive Committee censured Straus.

That debate intensified this week at committee hearings during the convention. Members considered proposals censuring retiring state Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana, a top Straus ally. They also weighed similar action against several members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Cornyn, over their support for omnibus spending legislation this year. Members handily rejected resolutions against the delegation members, though the censure of Cook advanced through the committee and will be the subject of a floor vote.

Texas Democrats, who are staging their own convention next weekend in Fort Worth, relished the infighting at the rival party’s gathering, sending reporters daily recaps of the drama.

“The divisions in the Republican Party are clear,” the state Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, said in a statement Friday. “While the Republican Party tries to figure out where it stands and where it’s heading, Texas Democrats are united, organized and ready to deliver on the issues that matter most to Texans.”

Cassi Pollock contributed to this report.

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: Why Texas Republicans Hope 2018 Won’t be Like 1990

Unpopular presidents regularly get their parties clobbered in mid-term elections, but Texas Republicans have a couple of layers of political insulation. Donald Trump is still popular with the party’s voters, and Texas Democrats would have to have an unusually strong year to win big even if there’s a Trump slump in 2018.

When Texas Republicans won the last round of state elections in 2014, the margins of victory were almost as important as the victories themselves.

In contested statewide races, the average Republican candidate finished 13 percentage points ahead of the average Democrat.

To win in an environment like that, a Democrat would have to outperform the rest of his or her ticket by a huge margin.

Of course, some Democrats won, but not statewide and not in districts that performed like the rest of the state. Those who won did so in districts drawn to favor Democrats, or more accurately, in districts where Republicans couldn’t legally configure the maps to favor their own candidates.

There are a number of congressional and legislative districts in Texas where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016. National apparatchiks from both parties have their eyes on U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston, Will Hurd of Helotes and Pete Sessions of Dallas — Republicans seeking reelection where Trump was weak.

That’s interesting, but so is this: In Culberson’s district in 2014, Republican Greg Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis by 21.8 percentage points. The spread in Hurd’s district was 13.8 percent; below the state average of 20.4 percentage points, but still formidable. In Sessions’ district, Abbott beat the Democrat by 15.8 percent.

Texas Democrats and their candidates weren’t completely responsible for that performance; they were running against the political winds in a mid-term election during the Obama administration. If you flip the logic, lots of Democrats are hoping Trump will do for Republican contestants what Obama did for his.

In that sense, 2018 potentially provides a clean test of where the parties stand. Texas voted against Obama twice, and thumped his side in both of his midterm elections. And Texas was relatively kind to George W. Bush, the Texas president who preceded him.

Trump’s a break from all of that. Still, Texas Democrats have a lot to overcome, and doing that will require locating a standard-bearer to run well enough against the Republicans to attract voters to the polls.

What they’re hoping for is something like the 1990 election, which was a big break for Republicans, who pinned their hopes that year on Midland oilman Clayton Williams Jr. He lost, famously, to Democrat Ann Richards. But U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm won reelection and the Williams-Richards race was close enough to get a couple of down-ballot Republicans — Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry— past their Democratic rivals.

Those two wins — Hutchison as state treasurer and Perry as agriculture commissioner — were key to the eventual Republican takeover of Texas state government.

The loudest part of the election was the governor’s race, but the wins came elsewhere on the ballot.

Texas Democrats haven’t been able to put that formula together. They’ve certainly tried, running South Texas oilman Tony Sanchez Jr. against Perry in 2002, former Houston Mayor Bill White against him in 2010 (the year Perry beat Hutchison in a GOP primary) and Davis in 2014. The odd year out was noisy enough, with Perry facing Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman in 2006.

None of those races got any other statewide Democrats close enough to snag a victory. But this kind of thinking is what has so many eyes on the race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, a congressman from El Paso. It’s the statewide race getting the most attention to date, both inside and outside of Texas. Cruz, after an unsuccessful run for president and an attention-seeking first term in the Senate, is a national figure. He remains popular with Texas Republicans and unpopular with the state’s Democrats — a perfect figurehead for a big political race.

O’Rourke has never run statewide, but has put together a voter-charming road-trip candidacy that has generated a lot of attention, news coverage and small donations to his campaign. It’s got a lot in common with the campaign Cruz ran as an upstart candidate in 2012.

It’ll be interesting and, perhaps, competitive. Maybe the president’s ratings will have an effect. And the rest of the people on this year’s ballot — no matter their party — will have something more than a sporting interest in the outcome.

The other Republicans on the ticket don’t want to end up like Jim Hightower or Nikki Van Hightower, the losers in those two 1990 upsets.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

On First Day of Early Voting in Texas Primaries, Turnout Looks Up – Especially Among Democrats

On Tuesday, more Democrats cast primary ballots than Republicans on the first day of early voting in the 15 Texas counties with the most registered voters. That hasn’t happened since 2008.

Fifty-four percent of the day’s 51,249 in-person votes in those counties Tuesday were cast in the Democratic primaries, according to the Texas secretary of state. In 2014, that number was slightly less than half, and in 2010, Democrats represented just 45 percent of first-day voters.

Meanwhile, the total combined first-day turnout in those counties was up by more than 10,000 compared to the last two mid-term elections.

It’s hard to know what is responsible for those numbers — or whether the trends will continue through primary election day. The growth in first-day turnout comes during a time of high motivation among Democrats across the country. But there aren’t high-profile Republican primaries for governor or U.S. Senate in Texas this year.

Also, the state’s urban centers tend to lean more Democratic, so it’s unclear whether the numbers are similar in more rural counties.

Strong primary turnout for one party doesn’t necessarily replicate itself in a general election. The last time Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans on first-day voting in primaries was 2008 during a heated presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Republicans still swept the state that year.

Still, some of Tuesday’s numbers have Democrats excited.

In 2010, 15,523 Democrats in the top 15 counties voted on the primary’s first day of early voting. This year, that figure has nearly doubled, to 28,475. Republican first-day turnout increased over the same period, but only by about 4,000 voters.

In Harris County, home of Houston, Democratic turnout was up 200 percent from 2014, while Republican turnout increased by 25 percent. And in Dallas County, Democratic first-day turnout grew 56 percent from 2014 to 2018, while Republican first-day turnout shrunk 19 percent.

Texas provides for nearly two full weeks of early voting before the state’s official primary election day March 6. In 2014, nearly 600,000 total votes were cast in early voting.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: EMMA PLATOFF – The Texas Tribune

Cruz Braces Texas GOP for Volatile Election Season Amid Democratic Enthusiasm

NEW BRAUNFELS — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is preparing Texas Republicans for a turbulent election year amid super-charged Democratic enthusiasm — including in his own re-election campaign.

Traveling the state for GOP events this weekend, Cruz portrayed an uncertain midterm environment that could go down as disastrous for Republicans if they don’t work to counteract Democratic energy throughout the country.

Cruz has spent previous election cycles airing similar warnings against GOP complacency in ruby-red Texas, but this time it hits much closer to home for him — he is facing a well-funded re-election challenge from U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso.

Addressing the Fort Bend County GOP on Friday night, Cruz warned of an “incredible volatility in politics right now,” calling Democrats “stark-raving nuts” in their opposition to Trump. He pointed to Trump’s recent State of the Union address and Democrats’ reluctance to applaud, saying the scene “underscores the political risk in November.”

“Let me tell you right now: The left is going to show up,” Cruz said, delivering the keynote address at the party’s Lincoln Reagan Dinner. “They will crawl over broken glass in November to vote.”

Cruz is feeling the heat in his own bid for a second term. O’Rourke, who has sworn off money from political action committees, outraised Cruz in the last three months of 2017, $2.4 million to $1.9 million. It was the second quarter in which O’Rourke’s haul was bigger than that of Cruz, who still maintains a healthy cash-on-hand advantage.

Speaking with reporters here Saturday afternoon, Cruz said he was “absolutely” prepared for his re-election campaign but also acknowledged O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess.

“It’s true my Democratic opponent is raising a lot of money,” Cruz said. “We’re not going to take it for granted. That’s a manifestation of the energy on the extreme left.”

Cruz spoke with reporters after headlining a rally for his former chief of staff, Chip Roy, who is running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio. Roy — one of 18 GOP candidates in that race — started off his remarks at the rally not by discussing his congressional bid but by issuing his own warning about the Democratic push to flip red seats this year, saying it’s “real — it’s a real effort.”

“I want to talk about my election in just a minute — but we’ve got to send Sen. Cruz back with a mandate,” Roy said. “There’s nothing more than the left and frankly the establishment — on both side of the aisle in Washington, D.C. — would like more than to try to bloody up Sen. Cruz after what he has done over the last six years.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

UT/TT Poll: A new President, Popular with Texas Republicans

Texas Republicans have rallied strongly around President Donald Trump in the first weeks of his administration. Texas Democrats had just as strong a reaction — in the other direction.

In his second month in office, President Donald Trump is getting overwhelmingly good grades on his job performance from the state’s Republicans, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Trump is popular enough to cast positive light on Russian President Vladimir Putin, a world figure who turns out to be markedly more unpopular with Texas Democrats than with Texas Republicans.

Overall, 46 percent of Texans approve of the job Trump been doing and 44 percent disapprove. But Republicans are crazy about him: 81 percent approve of Trump’s work so far, and only 10 percent disapprove. Moreover, 60 percent of Republicans said they “strongly” approve; another 21 percent approve “somewhat” of the president.

Emily Albracht | The Texas Tribune
Emily Albracht | The Texas Tribune

“He looks good,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “Republicans as a group were tentative in their embrace of Donald Trump during the election campaign. They are hugging him now. His favorability rating among Texas Republicans increased 21 points between October and February.”

Likewise, 81 percent of Texas Republicans have a favorable opinion of Trump, while 12 percent have an unfavorable impression of the president.

As you might expect, Texas Democrats fiercely disagree in what amounts to an almost equal but opposite reaction to the Republicans: 83 percent of Texas Democrats disapprove of the job Trump has done as president, 76 percent of them “strongly.” And 85 percent of Democrats said they have an unfavorable opinion of the new chief executive.

“If you’re a Republican, even if you don’t like the guy, well, there’s the Supreme Court and the repudiation of a bunch of smug ideologues [on the left]; this isn’t the worst thing in the world,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a professor at UT-Austin. “The reaction of the left — the resistance — probably reinforces that.”

Independents were split almost evenly on both questions in the poll, with 39 percent approving and 36 disapproving of the job Trump is doing; 42 percent saying they have a favorable impression of the president, while 45 percent have an unfavorable one.

Overall, 45 percent of Texans have a favorable impression of Trump and 46 percent have an unfavorable one.

TT-RossChart-poll.004
Emily Albracht | The Texas Tribune

Putin seems to be benefiting from Trump’s attention and from the American president’s popularity.

“On the surface, the topline number looks like you would expect: Vladimir Putin is not a popular figure with Texans,” Henson said. “But the details testify to the powerful influence of presidential signaling on his partisans. The president of Russia’s negatives are 28 points higher among Democrats than they are among Republicans, full stop.”

Overall, Putin is clearly unpopular, but while only 10 percent of Texans have a favorable impression of the Russian president and 62 percent have an unfavorable view of him, the disdain is much stronger among Democrats than Republicans. While 79 percent of Democrats have unfavorable opinions of Putin, 51 percent of Republicans do — a 28-percentage-point difference of opinion. Few Texans have favorable opinions of Putin — 7 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of Republicans — but while 7 percent of Democrats had neutral view of the Russian, more than a quarter of Republicans said they had neither positive nor negative opinions of him.

“It’s not like they’re loving Putin,” Shaw said. “You’re basically getting 50 percent of Republicans saying, ‘No, the guy is a thug.’ Which means 50 percent are saying he’s not a thug.

“This speaks to the Trump halo effect,” he added. “Putin seems to prefer Trump, and I prefer Trump, therefore Putin can’t be all bad. But the notion that there’s an openness to cozy up to Russia, I don’t think so.”

Emily Albracht | The Texas Tribune
Emily Albracht | The Texas Tribune

Texans’ views of Vice President Mike Pence more or less mirror their opinions of Trump: 42 percent view him favorably, 40 percent unfavorably. Among Republicans, 79 percent have favorable views of Pence. Among Democrats, 74 percent have unfavorable views of him. Independents were more negative than positive about the Veep: 29 percent have favorable views, while 44 percent said their opinions were negative.

About half of the respondents said Donald Trump does not have the temperament to be president and do not think he is honest and trustworthy. That’s an improvement over what they said in the October 2016 UT/TT Poll, when only a third of Texans said he was honest, trustworthy and had the temperament to be the country’s top elected official.

“I don’t think that people’s impression of Donald Trump has changed all that much,” Henson said. “But these numbers are a testament to the role of the president as a figurehead and the power of partisanship.”

Emily Albracht | The Texas Tribune
Emily Albracht | The Texas Tribune

Again, the Republicans and Democrats among the respondents acted as political reciprocals: 68 percent of Republicans think Trump’s got the temperament for the job and 84 percent of Democrats think he does not. Among Republicans, 70 percent said Trump is honest and trustworthy; only 6 percent of Democrats agree.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from Feb. 3 to Feb. 10 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

This is one of several stories on the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Also today: Texans on the economy and the direction of the country and state. Coming Tuesday: Texans’ views on immigration, cultural issues and health care.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

REFERENCE MATERIAL

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

Texas GOP Readies for Closely Watched Electoral College Vote

Texas Republicans are preparing for a closely watched Electoral College vote Monday in what is normally an afterthought to a presidential election.

Texas Republicans are preparing for an unusually closely watched Electoral College vote, normally an afterthought in a presidential election that has been transformed into a flashpoint by this year’s extraordinary race.

With one elector planning not to vote for Donald Trump and another resigning, the proceedings will likely draw national attention once they get underway at 2 p.m. Monday in the Texas House chamber. It’s a less-than-ideal situation for the state GOP, which is making a push to ensure there are no further defections as the state’s 38 electors are inundated with last-ditch pleas to revolt against Trump.

“Our electors signed an oath to support the nominee when it was obvious that Mr. Trump would be our nominee,” Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler said in a statement Wednesday, one of two that day that had sharp words for potentially anti-Trump electors. “We expect that our electors will honor their pledge. To cast a ballot against the will of the voters after signing an affidavit promising to do so, is to refuse to accept the outcome of an election.”

Heading into the weekend, the Texas GOP was not expecting any so-called “faithless electors” besides Chris Suprun, a Dallas paramedic who announced earlier this month he will not vote for Trump. He said Thursday he was still undecided on who he would instead cast his ballot for and may not announce the name until the day of the vote.

As for the Texas GOP’s saber rattling, Suprun made clear he was not fazed.

“I thought Mr. Mechler understood the idea we have a constitutional republic and representatives don’t always vote the way the public likes,” said Suprun, who so far is the only elector to commit to not voting for Trump.

Suprun’s decision is only one piece of the drama expected Monday. Another elector, Art Sisneros of Dayton, has said he will resign at the meeting, and while he is likely to be replaced by a Trump supporter, the process of getting there is wrought with uncertainty.

Anyone who is present in the chamber Monday and meets a few requirements under the election code can be nominated to replace Sisneros. The gallery will be open to the public, and electors are allowed to bring a number of guests — in other words, there could be many possibilities to replace Sisneros but as of Friday there appeared to be no consensus choice.

At a recent meeting of the state Republican Executive Committee, member Chris McDonald put forward a motion to try to get the party to coalesce around state Rep. Dennis Paul of Houston as Sisneros’ replacement. The effort was unsuccessful.

Taken together, the moves by Suprun and Sisneros have created something of an unprecedented situation heading into Monday. At least when it comes to faithless electors — electors who do not support the winner of the statewide popular vote — Texas election experts said Thursday they could not recall the state having one in modern history.

Then again, the presidential election was anything but normal. Trump’s shocking victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who still leads in the popular vote, has left many Democrats pushing for the Electoral College to deny Trump’s win, which would require 37 electors to flip against Trump and throw the election to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

“Generally, it’s one [faithless elector] or two max — in many elections, none — so this is unusual when there’s an organized effort to encourage electors to be faithless,” said George Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University who studies the Electoral College. 

The latest twist came Monday, when a group of electors including Suprun, requested an intelligence briefing on foreign interference in the election prior to the Electoral College vote. Clinton’s campaign quickly endorsed the idea, and the Texas Democratic Party also supports it, party spokesman Tariq Thowfeek said Thursday.

Mechler, in one of the statements Wednesday, said an intelligence briefing for electors would amount to a compromise of national security. “To openly suggest that people without a security clearance should receive high-level classified information is incomprehensible,” Mechler said.

Suprun was the only Republican elector to lend his name to the push for an intelligence briefing. He has become more and more of a lightning rod in the lead-up to the vote, especially after a WFAA report Thursday that cast doubt on his claim, made in his op-ed announcing he will not vote for Trump, that he was a first responder on 9/11. Suprun disputed part of the story Friday, saying he had worked for a different fire department than the one listed on a resume that WFAA reviewed.

Suprun has already drawn the ire of some of the state’s top Republicans, who are now pushing to make Texas the 30th state where electors must support the winner of the statewide popular vote. Shortly after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick raised the prospect of such a requirement earlier this month, state Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, filed legislation proposing it.

“I just got to thinking about it after we were hearing about folks that may not follow their pledge,” said Raney, whose bill would fine faithless electors $5,000. “I thought, ‘You know? If you make a pledge to support somebody, you need to follow the pledge.”

The pledge being referred to by Raney and Mechler is one electors signed earlier this year at the state GOP convention promising to vote for their party’s nominee. The document is not legally binding.

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Party Leaders’ Rhetoric leaves Texas Republican Women Reeling

Interviews with Texas Republican female consultants, lobbyists, activists and aspiring politicians reveal a common sentiment: They no longer feel welcome in their own party.

For many female Texans working in Republican politics, last month’s release of a video showing GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump boasting about groping women was bad enough. They have since watched in astonishment as male elected officials from their own state have engaged in coarse rhetoric of their own. 

The simmer turned into a full rolling boil on Tuesday, when someone using state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s Twitter account used a four-letter word that is frequently described as “the worst word in the English language.” 

“When I heard about the tweet, I was stunned,” said Jennifer Waisath Harris, an Austin-based public relations consultant with a long history with the GOP. “I have not been surprised with some of the words that came of the commissioner’s mouth … but it’s one of those words you just don’t utter.”  

The consequences of what Miller’s camp describes as an accidental tweet, juxtaposed with both Trump’s tone and recent comments from two Texas congressmen, has the potential to run off an entire generation of the party’s female talent pool, according to several women with strong ties to the party in Texas. They’ve spent their careers fighting for hallmark conservative values including school choice, opposition to abortion, limited government and a strong national defense.

“I can’t believe he even employs anybody who would post such a thing if he didn’t do it himself,” wrote Elizabeth Ames Coleman, a former Texas Railroad Commission chairwoman who also served in the Texas House, in an email. “Is everybody just so desensitized by the barrage of gutter-level talk that they don’t recognize it anymore? How embarrassing to have any Texas elected official perpetuate this kind of discourse.” 

Miller’s camp immediately deleted the tweet, first claiming the account was hacked but then blaming it on a staffer carelessly copy-and-pasting other’s tweets. A spokesman said that Miller shared others’ horror around that term, never uses it and avoids objectionable language altogether. 

“People make mistakes,” said Miller’s consultant, Todd M. Smith, in an interview. “There are errors that happen in campaigns, especially in this fast-paced world of social media.”

“The minute that Commissioner Miller and his campaign became aware of the offensive tweet, it was removed instantaneously, and he issued an apology within five minutes and the centerpiece of that apology was that that term was vile and offensive and had no place in the discourse,” Smith said.  

“Everybody makes mistakes,” he added. “It’s how people respond to mistakes.” 

But in interviews with a dozen female consultants, lobbyists, officials and aspiring politicians, the refrain was clear: These conservative Texas women no longer feel welcome in the party they have spent decades helping build.

Harris, for instance, fashioned herself as a female “Alex P. Keaton,” the iconic teenaged conservative character from the 1980s sitcom Family Ties. But these days, while she does not see herself switching parties, she considers herself “more and more independent.” 

She and these other women fit the ideological profile of traditional conservatism. But their alienation has culminated into votes this year for Evan McMullin, an independent presidential candidate with a GOP pedigree; writing in other names on the ballot; or even casting ballots for Hillary Clinton, a woman they grew up reviling.  

“There’s a common thought process right now with young Republican women, and that is, ‘Is this the party for us?’” asked Randan Steinhauser, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, the governing body of the Republican Party of Texas, and a prominent school choice activist in Austin.

In recent weeks, the most outspoken Republican woman in Texas politics has been Jenifer Sarver, a fixture in both Washington and Austin Republican circles dating back to her time serving in the George W. Bush administration and a Republican staffer in the U.S. Senate.

She pinned the blame for the current change in tone on the Republican primary voters who nominated him.

“He’s a disgrace and an embarrassment and has easily coasted into office,” she wrote of Miller in an email. “His use of the ‘c’ word says more about the GOP primary voters in Texas than it does about him.” 

“He is vulgar and offensive and revels in being so,” she added. “I’ve always felt pride in being from a state that supports and nurtures strong women, but this new wave of openly sexist attitudes perpetrated by Texas GOP leaders is disheartening and shameful, and I worry about the message it sends to the little girls in my life.”

The Democratic party is not where most of these women see their futures. But many hope their values will win out in an intensive party civil war that they see as inevitable. Otherwise, they expect to work on third-party efforts or leave politics altogether. 

Several of the women interviewed similarly described the sadness of sheltering their children from their lifelong passions for politics. 

The anger right now is concentrated mostly on Miller and Trump, but even more frustrating to the women interviewed for this story was the broader pattern that’s emerged.

Early this month, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, brushed off Trump’s vulgar comments as “locker room talk” and suggested he would consider continuing to support Trump even if the nominee bragged about raping a woman. Farenthold quickly walked back the comment, saying he was thrown off by a hypothetical question and would never have “condoned rape or violence against women.” 

A couple of weeks later, U.S. Rep. Brian Babin of Woodville, took a cue from Trump in the final debate and said Clinton “has done some nasty things” and “I think sometimes a lady needs to be told when she’s being nasty.” 

“I was asked twelve times in the course of two minutes whether Hillary Clinton was a nasty woman,” Babin said in a statement for this story. “I responded persistently that Hillary has done some nasty things and I stand by that. That was the point I made. My comments were related specifically to Hillary Clinton and to suggest otherwise is taking quotes out of context and dishonest.” 

Tying all of the commentary together minutes after Miller’s now-infamous tweet Tuesday, a female GOP operative not authorized to speak on the record on political matters quipped: “To be fair, maybe a gentleman needs to be told when he’s being nasty.”

For many of these women, the deafening silence from most of the party leaders from their state has been almost as disturbing as the handful of sexist remarks. While Gov. Greg Abbott rushed out criticism of Miller’s tweet, most of the party’s leadership — which is now mostly men — kept quiet.

“They have not done a good enough job denouncing Donald Trump and Sid Miller, and it’s just a shame,” said Steinhauser. 

A question emerging among these women is: Which came first? Did Donald Trump normalize this way of speaking, or is this representative of an escalation in tone over several years? 

Some wonder if Trump forever shattered unwritten rules on political comity. 

“I worry if we get a mainstream candidate, will the temperament be the same?” asked a female Texas GOP consultant who declined to speak on the record for fear of losing clients. “I hope not.” 

But most of the women noted that the number of GOP women running for office in Texas has been falling off for years, and the male officeholders currently drawing outrage have few professional female equals to challenge their worldviews. 

One of the women contacted for this story pointed to Democrat Wendy Davis’s 2014 unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign as the turning point, saying the rhetoric toward her was markedly rougher than what the late Ann Richards and Kay Bailey Hutchison encountered in their day. 

Whatever the root, they say it’s not helping their ideological cause. 

“They’re not good at what they do if they think that’s good politics,” said Sarah Flores, a Houston native who was deputy campaign manager on Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign. 

For Flores, the frustration goes back to 2012, when Democrats effectively accused the GOP of waging “a war on women.” She described how in the 2014 cycle, Republican women went to bat across the country to defend their party, only to see the undermining of those efforts this year.  

Coleman, the former statewide official, agreed that beyond being tactically dubious, it was counterproductive to attack Clinton in this way.

“Guess what guys, and gals too, they are called ‘adjectives’ and there are a myriad of acceptable ones that you can use to describe the problems with Hillary’s agenda without having to resort to intellectually-arrested vocabulary,” said Coleman in an email. “Silly gutter talk is not the way to ‘win friends and influence people,’ two goals to which the Republican Party should aspire.” 

Evangelical women are similarly distressed, questioning what happened to the “compassionate conservatism” brand that helped George W. Bush move Texas firmly toward the Republican party. 

But straying from the top of the ticket is not a universal worldview among Texas Republican women. Red State Women, an Austin-based Republican group, released a video Wednesday making the case that Clinton is a uniquely problematic candidate and the stakes surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court were too high to vote against Trump.

Some in the Miller camp are frustrated, saying that a number of GOP women privately offered him their moral support. His supporters further wondered if some of this commentary had less to do with what they view as a human error and more to do with Miller’s strong endorsement of Trump — a candidate many of the women interviewed publicly denounced long before Miller’s tweet. 

All the while, several women in the state’s political class confessed to re-evaluating their future in the GOP. One of the women said the toxicity made her put aside lifelong ambitions to run for public office.  

That is the nightmare of Steinhauser, the State Republican Executive Committee member, fears.

“I’ve tried to get involved in the party and tried to broaden the tent and to get other young women involved, but it makes my job harder when you have folks like Sid Miller and Donald Trump using this type of language,” she said. 

None of the women interviewed said they are considering joining the Democratic party. Several suggested they would follow the lead of the McMullin campaign and explore building a new party.

Steinhauser suggested that with Miller, at least, women would have the final word. 

“We are political consultants by trade,” she said. “We’re conservatives, and as a strong conservative woman, I open the door to a strong conservative woman challenging Sid Miller.” 

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Disclosure: Jennifer Waisath Harris has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Author: ABBY LIVINGSTON – The Texas Tribune

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