Texas can sometimes feel like Tea Party heaven – the land of Ted Cruz, where the Legislature is packed with hard-right devotees and the governor himself heeds fringe fears about possible federal plots to seize the state.
But with so much power comes pressure, and the Legislature’s Tea Party leaders are struggling to deliver on their most conservative promises. After the legislative session that ended this month, movement activists were openly unhappy with the results and have targeted a few onetime favorite lawmakers for possible retaliation.
“It’s a truth in advertising issue,” said JoAnn Fleming, a state Tea Party leader who heads Grassroots America – We the People. “There are some that will likely pay a political price for caving on what they said they would do.”
The Texas Tea Party network is the nation’s strongest, with four dozen major conservative groups representing thousands of active members. Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and the state Senate is run by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former, often fire-breathing conservative talk radio host. About a third of the 31 senators are strong Tea Party voices, while nearly 25 of the Texas House’s 150 members are conservative grass-roots favorites.
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But except for limiting government and slashing state spending, the groups often don’t agree on much. And their agendas sometimes compete with each other.
While some Tea Party leaders focus on strengthening Texas’ ban on gay marriage, tightening immigration policies or fending off the potential imposition of Sharia law, others see a greater threat in mandatory vaccines, red-light cameras or smart electrical meters. Still others place a high priority on gun and private property rights.
“Everyone always likes to think that we’re top-down, but we’re not,” said Robin Lennon, president of the Kingwood TEA Party in suburban Houston.
During the nearly five-month legislative session, Tea Party members had some victories. Lawmakers legalized concealed handguns on college campuses and approved allowing handguns to be openly carried virtually everywhere else.
But unhappiness grew after other measures fizzled.
Rep. Dan Flynn’s bill exempting Texas from daylight-saving time was sidelined amid concerns that refusing to roll back the clocks could leave Texans choosing between church and watching Dallas Cowboys games on fall Sundays. Also dropped was Sen. Donna Campbell’s proposal banning the Alamo from falling under the control of the United Nations.
The backlash was greatest over lawmakers’ failure to repeal Texas’ 2001 law offering in-state tuition to some college students in the country illegally, to pass school vouchers or block an expansion of pre-kindergarten programs.
‘Excuses rather than results’
“We’re making our voices very clearly heard,” said Cathie Adams, a former Texas Republican Party chairwoman who now heads the influential Texas Eagle Forum conservative grassroots group. “But they’re ignoring us.”
Patrick, one of the most powerful Tea Party politicians in elective office was a target of a scathing letter signed by 28 conservative activists decrying “excuses rather than results” on too many issues. The letter also singled out Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus
Patrick countered that sometimes the legislative process can be slow-moving. Also, Democrats and skeptical Republicans teamed up to thwart some proposals, such as the tuition repeal.
“It’s hard to make everyone happy all the time,” Patrick said. Considering the many issues, he said, “if you took a list of 25 or 30, we did very well. Some 100 percent, some 80 percent.”
At one point, top staff members in Patrick’s office had to meet with alarmed gun rights activists after he suggested that “open carry” might not have the votes to pass. Later, one of them posted an online video reminding state lawmakers that “treason is punishable by death.” Open carry of handguns was eventually approved.
Katrina Pierson, who mounted an unsuccessful Tea Party bid for Congress last year, said group members will settle for “90-10 or 80-20” percent ideological purity in lawmakers they support. But she said that now “it’s barely 50-50.”
Abbott works to keep good Tea Party relations. He punctuates his tweets with Tea Party hashtags and even ordered the Texas State Guard to be on alert amid warnings from far-right corners of the Internet that a planned U.S. military exercise in Texas could be an excuse for a federally imposed martial law.
But some former Tea Party darlings face repercussions for straying from the party line.
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a longtime Tea Party organizer in suburban Dallas, voted to re-elect as House Speaker Straus, a San Antonio Republican whom conservative activists consider too moderate.
“He slapped us in the face,” said Julie McCarty, president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, which is recruiting a primary challenger to run against Capriglione.
Then there’s Rep. David Simpson, owner of an East Texas timber company and religious publishing house, who became a Tea Party hero in 2011 for his attempts to criminalize “excessive touching” during airport security pat-downs. He’s now running for state Senate but acknowledges he risked a challenge by arguing for legalizing marijuana, saying it’s God’s creation.
“I think there’s some who will never vote for me again,” Simpson said.