On the heels of recent wins by Tea Party-backed candidates in Texas’ Republican primary runoffs, the most conservative elements of the party were again on display at the state GOP convention in Fort Worth.
The platform adopted by the 8,000-plus delegates, as well as the rule changes approved for the 2016 presidential primary process, raised questions about whether the conservative core of the Texas GOP has become the party’s new center of gravity, a role historically played mostly by industrial, business and trade groups.
At the very least, the convention illustrated conservatives’ ongoing assertion of influence and a determination to remain relevant past primary season.
As expected, immigration became a banner issue at the convention — not a surprise given the prevalence of that issue and border security among Republican voters’ top concerns as well as unease among party strategists and business constituencies aware of the state’s demographic shifts.
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When we asked about comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship, in the February 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 63 percent of self-identified conservatives expressed opposition, 53 percent of those who identified as “extremely conservative” expressed strong opposition and 73 percent of those who identified with the Tea Party were opposed.
The platform’s endorsement of “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians also reflected the sustained influence of a more familiar socially conservative constituency in the party. While this endorsement might strike some as peculiar (why not just say nothing at all in the face of public opinion trends?), gay marriage might just be the issue where conservative activists’ ability to buck the GOP majority was most apparent.
While only 15 percent of Texas Republicans in the June 2013 UT/TT Poll supported neither gay marriage nor civil unions, 52 percent of “extremely conservative” voters opposed any kind of legal recognition.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s anointment by the convention as the top choice in the 2016 presidential contest punctuated a successful outing for the most conservative elements of the party. Among those who identified as “extremely conservative,” 72 percent have a very favorable impression of Cruz.
In a move that institutionalized power in a way that the final platform only abstractly represents, convention attendees passed an important change in the nomination rules for 2016.
Organized activists will have a much stronger voice in the 2016 GOP nominating contest under the new rules, which will allocate about a quarter of the state’s presidential delegates based on a vote of the 2016 convention delegates.
In conjunction with an effort to move Texas’ primary date to March 1 to give the state more influence in the selection process, this change gives conservatives a much larger chance of influencing the presidential primary.
Jim Henson is The Texas Tribune’s pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project. Joshua Blank is the manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.