Thousands of Republicans will descend on downtown today for the start of their biennial political convention.
The goal of the three-day gathering is to energize delegates as the party gears up to present a unified front in the November elections and to ward off Democratic threats to turn Texas blue.
As that happens, some big names in Republican circles — Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott, Rand Paul, George P. Bush and John Cornyn — will be among those speaking to the GOP faithful this week.
“We are trying to build enthusiasm and unity,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party.
Up to 11,000 delegates and alternates could attend the convention — the largest political gathering in the nation — which runs through Saturday at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
Besides approving party rules and a platform, they will weigh in on the 2016 presidential race, hoping that the results of a straw poll will influence voters nationwide.
But the convention has already drawn national attention for issues such as the denial of information booths for gay-rights groups, a move to review and possibly change an immigration plank in the party platform, and plans to openly carry guns in and around the convention center.
Leaders hope that this week lights a fire under party activists who could make a difference in November.
“We want them to be inspired and ready to help the ticket,” Munisteri said.
Top officials hope that the straw poll will garner the most attention. Several potential candidates with Texas ties — such as Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul — plan to speak to the thousands gathered here.
But complaints by the Metroplex Republicans and the Log Cabin Republicans, who were denied booth space because they support gay rights, drew the spotlight last week. The groups have asked that they be given booths and that anti-gay wording be removed from the party platform.
Then, some open-carry supporters’ plans to tote long guns and black powder pistols at the convention center drew attention, partly because of a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission license for the building.
Signs have been posted warning the public that the unlicensed possession of a weapon is against the law. Officials say concealed-handgun license holders and peace officers may carry their concealed handguns inside.
Pre-1899 black powder pistols, which are not regulated by state law, have been allowed in the building this week. And long guns may be legally carried outside the convention center.
At the same time, a National Rifle Association executive said a recent statement chastising open-carry enthusiasts in Texas was a “mistake” and was the personal opinion of one NRA staff member.
“Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners,” Chris Cox, in charge of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said in an interview. “Our job is to effectuate policy changes that expand and protect our members’ right of self-defense.”
And moves to revamp the party’s position on immigration, possibly reversing a softer approach adopted two years ago, have drawn attention as well.
Some say they are not satisfied with the approval of a “Texas Solution” to immigration, which includes a guest worker program, and fear it could open the door to amnesty.
Others say that plank is crucial to the party’s future and the ability to attract the fastest-growing population group in the state: Hispanics.
But some say the biggest challenge over the next three days isn’t making sure that the party’s candidates are elected in November.
“The biggest challenge for the GOP is to mend the growing rift in the party — the conservative wing seems to be taking over and growing in electoral influence, often to the chagrin of the mainstream, business Republican crowd,” said Brandon J. Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist.
“If these archconservative interests push for radical changes to education funding, [abolition] of property taxes, limiting transportation funding or dramatic immigration reform, they may run afoul of the more moderate, business-oriented Republicans who want to keep the state’s economy humming.
“Ideology may trump business interests here again.”
The first general session kicks off at 11 a.m. today and is scheduled to include a tribute to — and remarks from — Perry, who will leave the governor’s office in January after more than a dozen years.
Also on tap is a speech by land commissioner nominee George P. Bush of Fort Worth, who is the son of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and a potential presidential candidate; the nephew of former President George W. Bush; and the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush.
On Friday, as delegates debate the rules that govern their party, they will hear from Cruz and Sen. John Cornyn, as well as Paul and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a gubernatorial candidate.
A key issue expected to come up Friday is the way Republicans divvy up votes in the next presidential election.
Delegates could choose a winner-take-all approach, giving all the state’s delegates to a candidate who wins at least 51 percent of the vote. They could opt to allocate votes proportionally.
Or they could continue as they have, with a hybrid approach — allocating three delegates from each of the state’s three dozen congressional districts to the candidate with the most votes in each respective district and divvying up the rest statewide based on the votes cast.
And on Saturday, delegates will debate and adopt the party platform, hear speeches from candidates for statewide office and learn the results of the straw poll.