While Republicans around the country are licking their wounds and advocacy groups are bombarding us all with press releases about how they have the secret formula for bringing the Republican Party back from the brink of the abyss, politicians in Texas are quietly making changes which may define the future of the GOP.
What appears to be happening in Texas is a substantial political shift away from the religious right and towards increased influence within the Republican Party for social moderates and libertarian-leaning Republicans, a shift which is taking place despite the outraged cries of extreme right groups like the psychotic biddies at Texas Eagle Forum.
The first really big sign of this change comes in the results of the just-concluded election of a new Speaker of the House to replace the iron-fisted Tom Craddick (R-Midland). Passing over more than a dozen other candidates, House Republicans selected relative newcomer Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) as their final choice for Speaker, and on Tuesday he officially won the office with unanimous support from both parties in the legislature.
What makes the selection of Straus remarkable is that he was the choice of a group of moderate and libertarian-leaning legislators which the press had dubbed the "gang of 11" and described as "dissident" and "insurgent" Republicans, and among that group he was one of the least experienced with only two terms in office. Extreme conservatives attacked him viciously claiming that he would sell out the party to liberals and Democrats. Cathie Adam of Texas Eagle Forum declared that, "He's not a conservative. He's out of step with the Republican Party and its platform," which may explain why he won so much support since the Texas Republican Party Platform is one of the most ridiculous expressions of pure extremist craziness ever put in print. Straus was even condemned by five members of the GOP state Executive Committee in a public letter. All of which suggests that Straus may be out of touch with the party leadership and conservative interest groups, but that may mean that he's representative of the dissatisfied grass roots of the party which they have been ignoring for years.
Straus' voting record and issue positions are intriguing. He belongs to a reformed Jewish synagogue in San Antonio which enthusiastically performs gay marriages. He has voted in favor of abortion rights several times and is one of very few Republican lawmakers with a 100 rating from NARAL. He also has a history as an advocate for legalized gambling which has to irk anti-gambling fanatic Governor Rick Perry. His issue ratings from various advocacy groups suggest that he is genuinely socially libertarian and fiscally conservative. Economic conservative groups give him high numbers, like a 90 from Americans for Prosperity and 71.43 from Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. He gets similarly positive ratings from civil liberty oriented groups like an A rating from the NRA and endorsements from gambling advocacy groups. He opposed a ban on gay foster parenting and his candidacy has gotten a very positive response from gay and lesbian groups.
That Straus can take the Speaker's seat with overwhelming bipartisan support and with the religious right screaming, ignored on the sidelines, is a very positive sign, but it's not the only sign of sanity returning to the Republican Party of Texas. Earlier this month Governor Rick Perry finally publicly acknowledged that his pet boondoggle, the Trans-Texas Corridor, was a dead issue, a sign that his reign of fiscal insanity and conservative extremism may be coming to an end. A more telling sign may be that moderate Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is clearly planning to challenge him for the governorship and has been drawing away a lot of his financial support. Hutchinson is more of a soft conservative than a libertarian and hardly as appealing as Straus, but she's also no darling of the religious right and would be a marked improvement over Perry.
When Hutchison runs for Governor she will have to give up her Senate seat, which would be filled in a special election. Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams has already declared his intent to run for her seat. Rumors suggest that he is in the libertarian-leaning camp of other prominent black Republicans like Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell.
All of these things suggest a substantial shift in the orientation of the Texas Republican Party. It's not like Ron Paul is taking over and leading us to an amazing libertarian paradise, but it does seem like there's a resurgence of more traditional republicanism and a rejection of the policies of the theocratic element of the party. Pressure from the libertarian grassroots from below and more moderate elected leaders from above might be just what it takes to break up the cabal of religious conservatives who have held onto positions of power within the state party for too long. With them gone, Texas might lead the way to a nationwide re-dedication of the GOP to the principles of individual liberty and fiscal responsibility on which it was founded.