Tea Party Influence Uncertain After Texas Primary Races

Mar 5, 2014
Originally published on March 5, 2014 3:02 pm

The first primary in what Republicans hope is a triumphant election year sent a message that U.S. Sen Ted Cruz and the tea party still wield considerable influence in one of the nation’s most conservative states.

But to find out exactly how much, Texans will have to wait.

In a primary where an extraordinary number of statewide positions were up for grabs following Gov. Rick Perry’s decision not to seek another term, some incumbent candidates successfully fought to beat back tea party challengers Tuesday.

But several candidates who forced runoffs in May were either praised by the outspoken freshman senator, Cruz, or who ran with his no-compromising swagger.

Ben Philpott, senior political reporter for KUT in Austin, Texas, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss yesterday’s primary election.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

And all eyes were on Texas last night after that state's party primaries. Would Tea Party candidates ride a wave launched by the state's junior and very conservative U.S. Senator Ted Cruz? Or would mainstream Republicans hold on? Well, incumbent Republican leaders did largely hold off the challenges, though there will be a runoff in the race for lieutenant governor. Joining us from the HERE AND NOW contributing station KUT in Austin for a roundup is senior political reporter, Ben Philpott. Ben, hi.


YOUNG: And start with the Tea Party near-win. Tea Party activists backed GOP State Senator Dan Patrick. He forced longtime Lieutenant Governor Dave Dewhurst into that runoff. It was Dewhurst who lost the Senate primary battle to Ted Cruz back in 2012. So how are you reading this runoff? Is it a reflection of how, you know, Dewhurst is popular now? Or is the Tea Party slightly weaker now? How are you reading these tea leaves?

PHILPOTT: No. I think last night, the Tea Party showed that they were very much alive and well in backing State Senator Dan Patrick. And not just Senator Patrick, but if you looked at almost every single statewide race, the candidate, the Republican candidate who was able to get to the right of everyone else, who was, you know, more pro-gun, more anti-abortion, more close to Ted Cruz, those candidates all won last night, or were leading heading into runoff.

YOUNG: So you - the fact that there's a runoff, you're not seeing that as a loss. That's a win.

PHILPOTT: Oh, no. Absolutely because, I mean, all these Republican, you know, real conservative running Republicans were winning by double digits heading into the runoff.

YOUNG: OK. So, take a look at some of those Republicans. The politically powerful name of Bush is back in Texas. Tell us about George P. Bush. What did he run for? How did he do?

PHILPOTT: Well, you know, he did just fine. And actually, he did it without running to the hard right. He's running for land commissioner in the state, which is one of the lower statewide positions. He talked about, you know, things that you need to do to be a good land commissioner. He talked about veterans' benefits, which the Land Office handles. He talks about education, which the Land Office also helps fund.

And he stayed away from things like, you know, hating Obamacare or shutting down the border. But he easily won. I think a lot of people are just kind of interested in seeing what that next Bush - the next character in the Bush dynasty is like.

YOUNG: Does anyone think - and by the way, he's the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, nephew of former President George W. Bush. Anybody think he's going to stay land commissioner?

PHILPOTT: Well, you know, the people that I've talked to say that, at this moment, he is absolutely only focused on land commissioner. And, you know, he's got - if he's going to move up, if the Republican Party in Texas stays as conservative as it is, he may have some trouble moving up. He is seen by party leaders, though, as, you know, a good link to the Hispanic outreach that the Republicans are trying to do in the state. He is Hispanic. And, you know, so they obviously want him to do well.

But, you know, right now, in these other Republican primaries, you saw a lot of real harsh - we're seeing some - some of them, you saw some harsh anti-immigration language and, you know, that has soured some Hispanic leaders in the state on the Republican Party.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, meanwhile, Republican Greg Abbott is going to meet Democrat Wendy Davis there, officially heading to a showdown in November for the governorship. Wendy Davis, a lot of press around her recently about her story, her biography, things she said about her life coming up. She also obviously won fame with her filibuster as a state senator. Just a couple of seconds, that's got to have people talking, that race.

PHILPOTT: Yeah. It's going to be, you know, it'll be a fairly good race. The big thing for Davis now is that she needs to raise about $20 million between now and Election Day. Greg Abbott has plenty of money in the bank and is a Republican, which is, you know, the advantage that you naturally get in Texas.

YOUNG: And he's the guy campaigning with Ted Nugent. Ben Philpott...

PHILPOTT: He did for a couple of stops, yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah. Ben Philpott - always interesting there in Texas - senior political reporter for KUT in Austin, thanks so much.

PHILPOTT: Thank you.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.