Analysis: Tea party movement apparently wasn't over after all
By Mike Tolson
March 4, 2014 | Updated: March 5, 2014 1:09am
Tuesday's primary was supposed to be a measurement of the ongoing influence of the tea party movement in Texas. Or waning influence, if one was to believe recent national news reports.
They described a political insurgency on the wane, with the movement's best days behind it.
Texas Republican voters had other ideas.
While U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions had easy wins over underfunded candidates with tea party connections, Dan Patrick was sailing into a runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. One might quibble whether Patrick bears the official tea party imprimatur, having been on the far right flank before the movement was born, but there is no doubt he comes from the same portion of the political bandwidth.
Other tea party-backed candidates, including Ken Paxton in the attorney general race, were leading races for statewide office and may well be the favorites heading into next month's runoff. Experts also predicted moderate success in picking up seats in the Texas House of Representatives.
That there is no Ted Cruz among them or stunning upset involved is not surprising, experts say, as the tea party movement becomes more central in Texas GOP geography.
"If you think of it as a wave, it has crested," said longtime political observer, lobbyist and blogger Robert Miller. "But it has continued to spread out.
Patrick and Paxton have made the runoff, and those are two races of establishment versus movement. The Tea party is not continuing to swamp the establishment, but is spreading out to where there are more candidates, and more winning candidates."
Unexpected bloc voting
The vote totals received by Patrick and Paxton, the two candidates most identified with the tea party, remained close throughout the evening. To political scientist Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, that shows tea party voters showed up in force.
"How cohesive they would be by the time we got to election day was the question," Henson said. "Looking at the numbers, it seems pretty cohesive to me. There was more bloc voting than early polling showed would be the case."
For Dewhurst, a badly beaten second in the four-man field, the prospect of "Deja Cruz" is looming. Cruz captured national attention and became the tea party standard-bearer when he arose from nowhere to easily defeat Dewhurst and capture an open U.S. Senate seat two years ago. The problem was, Cruz's particular skills and the dynamics surrounding that race were not easy to duplicate.
Cornyn was sufficiently conservative and had so much money in the bank that no credible opposition arose. His most-mentioned opponent, Congressman Steve Stockman, did not come from the tea party movement, nor did he receive their blessing. Some tea party groups openly disavowed him.
Sessions was challenged by a tea party veteran in Katrina Pierson, who landed some of the same national endorsements Cruz received but none of the funding. Political analysts said there was no way for her to sell the notion that Sessions was insufficiently conservative. As one analyst put it, the weak and vulnerable candidates - the "low-hanging fruit" - has already been picked.
"Pierson never got the money to make a strong race against Sessions," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University and experienced political analyst. "She got endorsements, true, but no money. Without money you can't defeat an incumbent who is that strong."
To measure true tea party success, longtime political observers said, one had to look a bit further down the ballot. Patrick, a state senator and longtime conservative talk radio host, largely bypassed discussion of legislative issues such as transportation, education and water to focus his campaign on President Obama and illegal immigration. He emphasized his Christianity, in so doing pushing his opponents to endorse the teaching of creationism in schools. The result was a significant plurality of votes that lead many observers to label him the clear runoff favorite.
Momentum for Patrick
"He's on a good trajectory," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. "He started getting attacked, and when that occurs one of two things happens. It either lowers the enthusiasm people have for him, or the supporters rally and double down. It probably only increased the enthusiasm of your support base. What we have seen among his grass-roots activists, it's clear they are doubling down on him. He clearly does have momentum going for him."
Paxton, the tea party-backed candidate for attorney general, was leading three credible candidates in the GOP race. For anyone doubting his bona fides, the home page on Paxton's website features a photo of him and Cruz.
In the race for agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller leads a five-person race headed for a runoff. His website also made prominent mention of his being "tea party approved."
Likewise, Glenn Hegar was comfortably ahead of two challengers in the comptroller's race. That Hegar also received significant business support may indicate how tea party positions are becoming mainstream in the Texas Republican Party.
'Anything but faltering'
Those who concentrate only on a high-profile race here or there may miss the larger impact of the tea party across the ballot. A Cornyn rout means little in the bigger scheme. The tea party movement has never been about one race or one issue.
"I think there is evidence that the tea party is anything but faltering, and that is contrary to the opinion of the national media," said longtime Austin-based political strategist Bill Miller. "Their candidates will be moving into the runoffs with a head of steam."