At a breakfast in Washington’s St. Regis Hotel in June, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, took a moment to gather his thoughts before he was ready to answer a question about how junior Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had changed his home state.
“Texas is pretty big and pretty diverse,” Perry said peering intently through his black horn-rimmed glasses. “I’m not sure one person has the ability to change all of that.”
A few seconds later, he clarified exactly where he think Cruz stands: “We all get our 15 seconds of fame.”
But two years after Cruz defeated Perry protege Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff for the U.S. Senate, the freshman lawmaker’s resonance may stretch beyond what can be classified as initial buzz or beginner’s luck. Cruz has emerged as the symbol for the tea party, eclipsing darlings like Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., on the stump. Cruz’s Cinderella-style victory in Texas in 2012 redefined what was possible in a state where big money and well-connected names traditionally win races.
“Cruz proved that if you have sufficient resources to be credible, and you have authentic conservative credentials, you can win races that 10 years or more ago in Texas no one thought you could win,” says GOP state strategist Matt Mackowiak. “He has provided the playbook for how you win as an outsider.”
In Texas, George W. Bush was plugged into an elite base of donors who had supported his father as a congressman and for president. They were happy to write checks for the former president's son. Then, when Bush stepped aside to pursue his own presidential ambitions, Perry, the lieutenant governor, was anointed by the circumstance as the GOP's new frontman. But Perry continued to loom large until he decided his run was through. Cruz had no interest, however, in waiting his turn. And as he proved, no one in Texas has to stand in line for their chance to run.
This year, Cruz allies lined up in races across the state. Whether it was Sid Miller beating out moderate Tommy Merritt for agriculture commissioner or state Sen. Dan Patrick ousting Cruz's old rival Dewhurst from his own seat, numerous conservatives jockeyed to be the party's next rising star. But in their wake, they are leaving behind a more conservative Lone Star State. Come 2015, the Texas Senate is expected to be filled with more hard-liners promising to steer the state further to the right. There has even been considerable talk about a rules change that would limit the minority’s voice in the state’s Senate and give the majority Republican Party unchecked power in the state body.
“We’re supposed to be this very conservative state, and the people in Texas are, yet our legislature doesn’t always reflect that,” Republican Konni Burton, a tea party candidate from Fort Worth, told The Associated Press in May. Burton is running to replace state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, who is running for governor. “We are going in a different direction than many states, but I don’t think we are the only ones.”
Some more moderate Republicans in the state, however, say that far-right turn could have unintended consequences.
After all, Texas is growing, and fast. Between July 2012 and June 2013, the state’s population ballooned by more than 1,000 people per day. The rapid growth has put a strain on the state’s public services, social safety net and already dwindling water resources.
“The explosive growth we have in Texas is creating real challenges. We have huge drought. We need more highways. Our education system is nowhere near what it should be,” Mackowiak says.
If the state’s Republican leaders and legislators hold the tea party line on spending, some worry it could create a scenario where the state’s population could outpace its infrastructure. Crowded schools, water shortages and crumbling roads and bridges all create a scenario ripe for Democrats to seize upon. Democratic operatives are already laying the groundwork in Texas.
Jeremy Bird, the Obama re-election campaign's top field organizer, founded Battleground Texas in 2013 with one clear cut goal: turn Texas blue. The strategy was to take advantage of two factors. One, Democrats had to use the GOP’s inner party squabbles to their advantage (something the Republicans did in the late 1980s to get their message out when Texas was still reliably blue.) Second, Bird insisted Democrats needed to invest in awakening a sleeping giant – the minority vote in the state. Bird says there are currently 2.2 million unregistered voters in Texas who are Hispanic, black or Asian. In elections, if those voters came out to the polls and cast ballots at rates similar to the 2012 presidential election, Bird says it would be enough to turn Texas blue in 2014.
“Once they believe their votes can make a difference, we can actually turn things around,” Bird says. “If we could get the electorate looking like the population, it could be a different state today.”
Of course, mobilizing millions does not happen overnight. Battleground Texas has 17 field offices across the state and 20,000 volunteers who have not only signed up, but have worked signing up voters or making calls on a candidate’s behalf. It’s not just mobilizing voters, however. Democrats need to still make their case for why their party’s principles are more aligned with the unregistered voters.
Republicans in Texas, almost look to be making their job easier.
Instead of softening the rhetoric on immigrants, this year the party moved backward and drew a more contentious line in the sand. The party revised its platform so it no longer included the “Texas solution,” an immigration policy that was seen as a middle ground and had been hailed as a guide for the national GOP. Now, the party’s official stance is no longer to support in-state tuition for immigrants who entered the country illegally as kids. The new party platform voted on in June also does away with support for a national guest-worker program. The vote is not binding and doesn’t change current state law, but it is a reflection of which direction the GOP is moving in the state and it makes some pundits nervous to say the least.
“If Republicans overplay their hands on the issue of immigration, if we become intolerant or spiteful in our rhetoric, and if that rhetoric were codified, you would motivate a sleeping giant in the Hispanic vote,” says Jim McGrath, a Republican strategist who still serves as a spokesman for former President George H.W. Bush.
Cruz has continued to win the approval, however, of the tea party contingent in the state’s party that he helped ignite. At the GOP’s state convention in June, he overwhelmingly won the presidential straw poll and he attracted long lines of supporters who wanted their chance to talk with the senator they so admired.
But could all this banter and posturing come to an end?
“He is a comet streaking across the national skies, but comets either burn out or they fall to earth and kill all the dinosaurs. One or the other will happen to Ted Cruz,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
As for Perry, he’s just not sure one man could reverse the state he served for more than 20 years so dramatically.
“The idea that a personality, in the political arena can change Texas may be a little bit outside the realm of reality,” Perry said. “Ask me in eight years if Sen. Cruz, has made an impact in the state. At this point in time, it is a little bit early to say that a junior senator would have substantively changed the state.”