Bud Kennedy

Surprise in Rice study: Tarrant an R county, but not a deep shade of red

Besides “seal the border,” a common line this election year calls Tarrant the state’s “reddest” or “most conservative” county.

The libertarian-minded Ron Paul candidates say it to claim they’re not really so extreme. Other Republicans just like the sound.

Turns out it’s not true.

Not even close.

Tarrant County residents see ourselves as moderates, not even as conservative as voters in Bexar County (San Antonio) or Hidalgo County near the border, according to a new study from the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

Tarrant County residents scored ourselves at 4.4 on a 1-4-7 scale of liberal-to-conservative, according to data from a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in Rice professor Mark P. Jones’ study “Texas Most Liberal and Conservative Counties.”

No surprise: Travis County (Austin) has the most granola liberals and Paul’s home, Brazoria County, the purest-red conservatives.

Tarrant ranks between Harris and Bexar counties.

Of the state’s 20 largest counties — all but Travis are “conservative” — Tarrant is the seventh most liberal.

Tarrant County “has large numbers of moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats,” Jones said.

“There are more Republicans. But they’re not intensely conservative. And there’s a very liberal voting bloc that’s a counterweight to the Tea Party.”

If you think those factions are new, they’re as old as the days when U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright of Fort Worth debated Tea-Party-before-its-time U.S. Rep. Dick Armey.

But most Tarrant County elections are won in the big, moderate Republican middle, where voters send business leaders to Congress and like presidential candidates Mitt Romney, John McCain and Bob Dole over Paul, Mike Huckabee and Patrick Buchanan.

Those centrist voters are also targets for business Democrats like Libby Willis in state Senate District 10 and Cole Ballweg in state House District 94.

But lately, Tarrant Republicans have been trending the other direction. Church-backed candidates, first U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and then state Sen. Dan Patrick, easily defeated establishment Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

“What’s interesting in Tarrant County is that the residents aren’t changing — but the ideology of those Republicans actually voting in the primary might be,” Jones said.

“Residents there don’t view themselves as all that conservative. But the social conservatives and Tea Party voters are mobilizing their voters better to get out the primary vote.”

That’s how four-term Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, once a floor leader for conservative-icon Speaker Tom Craddick, wound up losing a primary to retired Army Maj. Tony Tinderholt.

And that’s how Fort Worth Republican Mark Shelton, 6,000 votes from the Senate in 2012, lost this nomination to Cruz disciple Konni Burton.

“There is this viewpoint among movement and Tea Party conservatives that even if you have an incumbent in a safe Republican district, you go ahead and try to replace them with the most conservative candidate you can possibly find,” Jones said.

No matter how far they range off center, the Republicans typically win “because the Republican brand is viewed more favorably,” Jones said.

It’s only fitting that Tarrant County would be a purple shade of red.

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