On a summer night in Houston in 1993, Jenny Ertman and Elizabeth Pena, aged 14 and 16, respectively, left a pool party. They were worried about getting home late, so they decided to take a shortcut.
Cutting through a park, they came across six men drinking beer. The men had recently finished a gang initiation ceremony and decided to celebrate by having “fun,” as one of them would later put it. But after raping and beating the girls for about an hour, the men started to worry that the girls might recognize them. So they strangled the girls to death. They used a belt. Then the belt broke, so they used shoelaces. Then they started stomping on the girls’ necks, to make sure.
All of the men were arrested several days later. The three who were older than 18 at the time would eventually be executed. But one of them, Jose Medellin, challenged the sentence all the way to the Supreme Court. The issue was that he was a Mexican national, having only moved to the United States when he was three, and none of the Houston police had bothered to notify the Mexican Consulate when he was arrested.
This was, of course, a blatant violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Or that was what the United Nations thought, anyway, prompting George W. Bush, then the president, to order Texas to review the case. You can guess how well that went over. In March 2008’s Medellin v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Texas in a rebuke to the federal government, the United Nations, and the pieties of international law. “Amazingly, however, three justices did not agree,” Rick Perry would later write, “perhaps believing instead that international law should trump the laws of Texas.”
Feeling the same way was Randy Ertman. His daughter had initially managed to run away from the group and probably would have been fine if she hadn’t gone back to try to help her friend. “This business belongs in the state of Texas,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 2008. “The people of the state of Texas support the execution. We thank them. The rest of them can go to hell.”
The state solicitor general who argued the case before the Supreme Court was named Ted Cruz. He is a second-generation Cuban American whose father came to the United States as a teenager with $100 sewn into his underwear. After graduating from Harvard Law, Cruz quickly made a name for himself as a rising star in legal circles. The American Lawyer, the National Law Journal, Texas Lawyer — they all bigged him. He would eventually argue nine cases before the Supreme Court during the course of that job, and he won six of them.
In 2011 when Cruz announced that he would run for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate seat, national conservatives were on him like flies on pie. The National Review put him on the cover. The long-suffering liberals at the Texas Observer warned that he could be the next Ronald Reagan. He was endorsed by Rand Paul and Ron Paul and Sarah Palin. It’s easy to see why all these people have hearts shooting out of their eyes. Cruz looks like a perfect mix of Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Rand Paul: a smart young Hispanic who is beloved by the Tea Party and doesn’t pull his punches.
In Texas, however, Cruz was slower to catch on. When he entered the race, he could muster only a few points in the polls. The heavyweight in the race was David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor since 2003, a former rodeo champion who made a fortune in the oil and gas industry.
After years in office, Dewhurst still has an oddly low profile; he tends to eschew public appearances, preferring to ensconce himself in his inner chambers, where classical music plays quietly and guests are offered cold cuts on a silver tray. He gives the impression, actually, of mild social anxiety; when compelled to give a speech, his delivery is careful, sometimes halting, and he doesn’t seek out the public. Still, Dewhurst was unquestionably favored to win. At the outset he had a commanding lead in the polls, the support of the party establishment, and, of course, his personal fortune to fall back on in the event that campaigning would be necessary.
Cruz’s argument was that Dewhurst isn’t a real conservative. It was a good year for ideological purification in general — after the Tea Party surge in 2010, the Republican base was emboldened. At a 2012 Tea Party rally in Dallas, Ken Emanuelson, an attorney from Dallas, had told me that even if the Tea Party were risking a short-term backlash, it was worth it to help drive the conversation. “Without entitlement reform,” he argued, “you can get rid of all the fish hatcheries or teapot museums you want.”
On the merits, Cruz’s should have been a hard case to make, because Dewhurst is clearly conservative. He was an incumbent officeholder, but in Texas rather than Washington. He had never voted for any bailouts, and because the lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate, Dewhurst had had a big role in setting the state’s legislative agenda.
Still, Cruz’s conviction carried the day. The campaign was heated. Toward the end, Dewhurst brought out an ad accusing Cruz of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants. “That is the act of a desperate man clinging to power,” said Cruz, and it did elicit a backlash. Among his defenders was George P. Bush: “When I first heard this false attack ad, I was offended not only as a Hispanic but as a Republican.” Cruz’s rise in the polls was inexorable. By May, he had enough support to force Dewhurst into a runoff. When the runoff rolled around in July, Cruz won by a 12-point margin.
And with that, the election was effectively decided, although Cruz did, for form’s sake, win the general election in November. He will be one of the most ideological national politicians Texas has ever had — and in that sense, he represents a new kind of Texas Republican. Despite their intemperate rhetoric, and occasional red-meat gesture, the state’s contemporary Republican leaders have been pragmatic enough in practice. Conservative, sure, but hardly lunatic. Recall that when George W. Bush was running for president, he was considered a moderate. He had occasionally worked with Democrats as governor of Texas. We forget this now because Bush became quite far right as president, but several million Americans, mostly from the more progressive end of the spectrum, were so underwhelmed by the putative difference between Bush and his opponent, Al Gore, that they cast protest votes for Ralph Nader.
Even Perry has been more of an opportunist than an ideologue. On the social issues, for example, he had always struck me as someone who at a fundamental level could not care less. You can practically see him glazing over, in real time, during the televised interview where Evan Smith asked him about abstinence. The words dribble out; the “for rent” sign goes up in his eyes. A small-government conservative could see that as a feature rather than a bug.
Between 2000 and 2012, the Republicans captured more offices, but their agenda didn’t really go further to the right than it had been. There are still plenty of traditional Republicans in Texas. Dewhurst wasn’t the only high-profile Republican incumbent to face a backlash from the right, and some of the others who were targeted by the Tea Party types won. For that matter, if the moderate Hutchison hadn’t decided to retire, it’s not certain that Cruz would have beat her. She did lose the 2010 gubernatorial primary to Perry, but she had waged such a halfhearted campaign that it might as well have been run by the Democrats.
On the other hand, some things have changed since 2010.
* * *
The day after Texas’ 2012 primary election, Joe Straus met with reporters in his office. “Welcome,” he said, smiling indulgently and adjusting his cuffs. All the reporters were fiddling with their recorders and muttering among themselves. “You’re supposed to say ‘thank you,’” he said, still smiling.
Straus, a moderate Republican from a prominent Jewish family in San Antonio, was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2004. Prior to that, he had a respectable but low-key career in business and politics. “Respectable” and “low-key,” of course, have never been among that legislative body’s aspirational ideals. That’s one of the reasons people were surprised in 2009 when he announced he had enough votes to become the Speaker of the House.
He did, though — the majority of his supporters, it turned out, were Democrats, who had reasoned that Straus was the most temperate speaker they were going to get. Speaker Straus took the dais, and the legislative session that followed, in 2009, was markedly less dysfunctional than the one that had preceded it. That made some conservatives uneasy, and Straus’ tenure as speaker has been dogged by accusations of moderation. At one particularly grotesque moment John Cook, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, sent a couple of emails arguing that Texas needs a Christian conservative as a speaker. Questioned, he explained that he doesn’t have a problem with Jews; he just prefers Christians.
On the May afternoon in question, Straus had just shrugged off a primary challenge, which was officially from a Tea Party candidate named Matt Beebe but was effectively from Michael Quinn Sullivan, an Eagle Scout, a self-described fitness nut, and the president and CEO of a PAC called Empower Texas. The PAC had bankrolled a number of primary challenges to moderate Republicans that year, including Beebe’s.
The speaker seemed to be in a slightly punchy mood. He professed that it hadn’t bothered him to be challenged in the primary: “Hey, look, it’s a free country; it’s a free Texas House of Representatives.” With that said, he observed that Sullivan’s effort to unseat him had been “spectacularly unsuccessful.” If Sullivan were so keen to participate in the political process, Straus mused, he should really run for office himself, although such an effort “would be spectacularly unsuccessful too.”
I asked him why there had been so many contested primaries this time around, if that was a cyclical phenomenon or a structural one. “I think it’s probably down to the success and the growth of the Republican majority,” he said. “If you want to be an elected official, the path to it is as a Republican.”
Political opportunism has, in the past, been part of the explanation for the Republican Party’s growth in Texas — that was clear in the 1980s, when Democrats such as Perry were simply switching sides. But in 2010 and 2012, the people who challenged incumbent Republicans in the primaries weren’t coming from the center. They were coming from the right. And the Republican majority in the legislature isn’t just getting bigger. It’s getting redder. That had been clear in the 2011 session, when the Republicans finally succeeded in passing their voter ID bill.
More illuminating, perhaps, were two other bills from the 2011 session, both of which probably would have failed in 2009, and both of which were backed by Republicans affiliated with the Tea Party. One of them meant to restrict unauthorized immigration; the other meant to restrict access to abortion. The latter passed; the former didn’t. Looking at them side by side suggests there’s a fault line within the state Republican Party over how socially conservative the state should be.
The first of the bills in question was a measure that would have outlawed sanctuary policies for unauthorized immigrants. It wasn’t a very strong bill — the state would have had no ways to force cities to comply — but it nonetheless met with opposition from Democrats and, more importantly, from the business-minded Republicans, who are not zealous bout unauthorized migration. The sanctuary cities bill died quietly, of neglect.
The other was the sonogram bill, the one that requires women seeking an abortion to receive a sonogram first. It had an economic dimension, insofar as a working woman who is planning an abortion would now need to take two days off rather than one. But there aren’t many people lobbying on behalf of working-class women, so there was little opposition from within the Republican Party. The sonogram bill, accordingly, passed without much trouble.
It didn’t even elicit that much surprise given the state’s casual lack of interest in health care in general, and women’s health in particular. Texas is heaven for men and dogs, hell on women and oxen, the old saw goes. In 1977, film critic Mary Mackey offered a feminist critique of the state. The text at hand was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” “Texas itself, the location of the film, is the land of male violence par excellence. In U.S. folk mythology, Texas more than any other state embodies the cowboy ideal of the lone male who carves out a place for himself with his trusty Colt 45,” she wrote. “Women have never counted for very much in Texas, and in the lives of the slaughterhouse family they don’t count at all.”
Texans have historically been happy enough for women to have economic rights. The Republic of Texas allowed women to retain ownership of any property they had before marriage, a right inherited from Spanish law and one that most other states lacked. A number of women went into business for themselves as teachers, innkeepers — “inn” often being a euphemism for “brothel” — and even, occasionally, ranchers.
Texas was, relatedly, an early adopter of public education for the second sex. In New England, the civilization of women had long been considered a private affair; if genteel parents wanted elegant daughters, they could make their own arrangements. Texas, lacking the genteel parents, needed to intervene, for everyone’s sake. “The girls, we will not say young ladies, will grow up like mere parrots,” wrote Dr. Francis Moore Jr. in 1841. “What a contrast will there be between these dull, shiftless, stupid females and the intelligent, refined, active, and accomplished ladies who adorn the first society of the United States.”
On the other hand, Texas politicians never took much interest in women’s civil rights. Pa Ferguson, the populist but crooked governor from the 1910s who later put his wife up for governor in his stead, was against women’s suffrage. It was Texas’s restrictive abortion laws that triggered the lawsuit that led to Roe v. Wade. (At the same time, it was a Texas woman, Norma McCorvey, who brought the lawsuit, and a Texas woman, Sarah Weddington, who won the case at the Supreme Court.)
The right to vote, the right to reproductive freedom, the right to be seen as equals — no. The right to work, the right to an education (education always being seen as an economic issue in Texas) — suit yourself, little lady.
So the passage of the sonogram bill wasn’t a surprise, per se. Voters also weren’t surprised when the state announced that it would stop providing any funds for Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit reproductive health care organization that provides access to abortion — never mind that abortion is a tiny part of Planned Parenthood’s activities. But the latter, in particular, will probably come to look like an example of the Texas Republicans taking things too far.
The sonogram bill inspired an angry backlash from liberals, but polling found that a majority of voters approved it, and in any case, the details of the process of getting an abortion probably weren’t directly visible to enough voters, male or female, to inspire a widespread movement. The attack on Planned Parenthood, however, was different. The majority of Americans, in Texas and elsewhere, support access to contraception in general and Planned Parenthood in particular. It’s been around for more than a century and has, over that time, been the reproductive health care provider of first and last resort for millions of women. It elicits some loyalty around the country.
That had become apparent in 2012 when the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for the fight against breast cancer, announced that it was going to stop contributing money for Planned Parenthood to provide breast cancer screenings, also because Planned Parenthood’s offerings include abortions. The move got way more attention than Komen could have intended and turned into a massive windfall for Planned Parenthood, as people around the country, realizing that America was suddenly having a gilded-era-style war on contraception, opened their checkbooks.
Surveys corroborate the point. In 2012, Public Policy Polling did a national poll for Planned Parenthood and found that 56 percent of likely voters supported the idea that employer-sponsored health plans should cover birth control. A separate survey, also by Public Policy Polling, found that 58 percent of Texans thought Planned Parenthood should continue to receive funding from the state’s Women’s Health Program. It has a higher approval rating in Texas than Rick Perry. (As an aside, the national head of Planned Parenthood is Cecile Richards, who is the daughter of Ann Richards and the founder of the Texas Freedom Network.)
Defunding Planned Parenthood, in other words, was exactly the kind of move that could backfire on Texas Republicans. On social issues, Texans are generally in line with national norms — which is to say, moderate. In a May 2012 Gallup Poll, 38 percent of Americans described themselves as social conservatives. That sounds like accurate self-reporting. There’s some variation depending on the particular issue at hand, but as a rule of thumb social conservatives make up a plurality of voters, but not a majority, in both Texas and the United States.
In 2011, for example, according to a national survey from the First Amendment Center, 67 percent of Americans agreed that the First Amendment requires the separation of church and state. In 2010, a Texas survey found 68 percent of likely voters agreeing that separation of church and state is a key constitutional principle. So in 2012, when Rick Perry blamed Satan for the separation of church and state — “Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you” — he was well outside the mainstream of both Texan and American opinion.
Texas’s political leadership is socially conservative for the same reason that the United States sometimes gets socially conservative leaders: social conservatives are more likely to organize around social issues than moderates or liberals are. We can refer back to that Gallup survey that put the percentage of social conservatives at 38 percent. They’re not the majority; they are on the back foot, and some of them know it. “We are in a crisis and so far most of the church fails to recognize we are in a battle,” said the demonization PowerPoint that day at Cornerstone.
Social conservatives are, however, the biggest bloc; 31 percent and 28 percent of Americans described themselves as moderate and liberal, respectively. When moderates and liberals agree, they win. That’s why abortion is legal, contraception is widely available, and gay marriage — which as recently as 10 years ago was barely considered a serious suggestion — is making progress throughout the states as moderates come around to the idea. The social conservatives win, however, when moderates agree with them, which is why gay marriage isn’t legal in all the states yet. They also win when they make an effort and moderates and liberals aren’t paying much attention.
That’s what’s happened in Texas. For so many years, the state’s Republican majority has been a party driven by business issues. Its sideline in Bible-thumping has mostly been confined to the rhetorical level and has therefore been easy for moderates to ignore, given that in practice Texas isn’t noticeably more repressive than any other state. “The questions were always there between the social conservatives and the business conservatives,” says Aaron Wheat of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog organization.“The all-or-nothing approach of the Tea Partiers is sort of bringing it to a head.”
Social conservatives, emboldened as they are, may be at risk of going too far. In 2012, John Carona, a Republican state senator from Dallas, told the Dallas Voice that he supported several gay rights measures, including offering partner benefits to employees at state universities. He was even, he allowed, thinking about gay marriage. It was, as the Voice put it, “a rare if not unprecedented move for a Republican state legislator,” and the response from the religious right was predictably outraged. But while Carona had clearly gone out on a limb, he wasn’t out of step with public opinion.
There are other trouble spots looming for Texas’s Republican coalition. Immigration is one; while the state party has been more moderate than its national counterparts. As the sanctuary cities bill suggested, some of the newer legislators might want to revive the issue. The budget is going to be another contentious issue between the moderates and the far right. The severe budget cuts of 2011 didn’t elicit that much anger among voters at the time. Everyone had heard about the downturn. But in January 2013, the comptroller projected that the state would have $101.4 billion for general purpose spending in the 2014–2015 biennium — including almost $9 billion left over from the previous cycle, because revenues had been higher than projected. If the Tea Party–type Republicans seek further cuts, moderates might balk.
In 2011, the fact that the sanctuary cities bill failed in the legislature showed that the moderate Republicans still had the upper hand. But the fact that the sonogram bill succeeded suggested that the moderate Republicans were choosing their battles. It’s not clear which wing of the Republican Party will have the upper hand in 2013. An interesting detail from the 2012 elections, however, was that, although Ted Cruz won his Senate race by a whopping margin, and despite all the attention paid to his candidacy, he got fewer votes in Texas (about 100,000 fewer) than Mitt Romney. The fact that the Republican coalition has gotten so big might, in other words, be a good thing for Democrats over the medium term. If the Republicans keep fighting among themselves, it could create an opportunity for Democrats to make a pitch for moderates. Obama was right, then, to say that Texas is becoming a battleground. In the short term, however, the battle will be within the Republican Party.
From “Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas” by Erica Grieder. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.