AUSTIN – Welcome to the RINO hunt. In the years I’ve been covering the Texas Legislature, I believe this is the 9th biennial version. You know, the circular firing squad from which we can’t avert our gaze. RINOs of course are Republicans in Name Only. And God help the hapless GOP legislative candidate who faces real competition in a primary and who is, not necessarily credibly, but effectively, tagged with that label. Often fatal, that.
- The widening divide in the state GOP is between pro-business conservatives and populist conservatives who increasingly distrust and challenge corporations and CEOs, especially on the party’s third-rail issue, immigration. Over the past fortnight, we saw a good example.
- On Jan. 21, two pro-Republican groups associated with the billionaire mega donors and brothers Charles and David Koch – Americans for Prosperity Action (AFP Action) and The LIBRE Initiative Action (LIBRE Action) – announced they would spend up to $1 million to help elect seven “policy champions” running for Texas House and Senate seats. Democrats have viewed LIBRE Initiative as an elaborate attempt to deceive Latinos into becoming Republicans. On the GOP side, immigration hardliners mistrust it because the Kochs have supported more open immigration policies – such as some form of legal status for “Dreamers” and a revised visa lottery system. For many populist Republicans, the Koch brothers and their groups’ opposition to Obamacare and Build Back Better and their support for tea partiers, lower taxes and deregulation offer no absolution for their deviant views on immigration. No absolution.
- “LIBRE Initiative and Americans for Prosperity for a long time have held immigration views that are completely antithetical to conservative orthodoxy,” Austin-based GOP political consultant Luke Macias explained on his podcast Tuesday. Macias is closely associated with Texas Scorecard publisher Michael Quinn Sullivan, whose online publication immediately branded LIBRE Initiative as “pro-amnesty.”
- We should add a warning here: When it comes to “amnesty,” people mean different things. Some are talking about paths to citizenship, where someone, after jumping through various hoops and even paying a fine, eventually could vote. Others, though, mean types of “legal status” that remove the threat of deportation but do not confer citizenship. Once last week’s controversy blew up, and three of the seven legislative candidates repudiated the joint endorsement by AFP Action and LIBRE Action, the two groups issued a joint statement. It made clear they’re supporting – mind you, now, just for people brought here illegally as children – some version of the latter, a non-citizenship, non-deportation type deal. LIBRE Action, they said, is for “an earned pathway to legal status for Dreamers who pass a background check, register with the government and are either employed and/or in school.”
- In Tuesday’s podcast, Macias and his guest, Texas Scorecard editor Brandon Waltens, both called that a “doubling down” on the group’s “pro-amnesty position.” They were echoing a Sullivan tweet from Jan. 24, which celebrated that day’s statements by the three Senate candidates among the seven endorsed by LIBRE Action and AFP Action that they’re rejecting the support because of the groups’ immigration views. All three have been endorsed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose top strategist Allen Blakemore is consultant for two of them: Rep. Tan Parker, who’s seeking the seat vacated by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; and former Sen. Pete Flores of Pleasanton, who’s trying to return in a different Senate district. Rep. Mayes Middleton of Wallisville, who’s seeking the seat being yielded by Galveston County Sen. Larry Taylor, is the third Senate hopeful to repudiate the two groups’ endorsement. Early voting begins Feb. 14.
- Four House candidates, three of them from North Texas, made no initial statement about being endorsed by LIBRE Action and AFP Action. But after The Dallas Morning News inquired Wednesday, all four through their campaign consultants issued statements making it clear they’ll stand pat and accept the help. They include former Lewisville school trustee Kronda Thimesch, who’s seeking the open Denton County House seat now held by Rep. Michelle Beckley, House District 65; Plano parks board member Hayden Padgett, a Republican running in the redrawn open Texas House seat in Collin County that Democrats hope to flip, HD 70; former Southlake Mayor Laura Hill, who’s seeking the HD 93 seat being given up by Fort Worth Rep. Matt Krause; and businessman Adam Blanchard, who’s seeking a Bexar County seat being vacated by centrist Republican maverick Rep Lyle Larson. From what Waltens said on the podcast, he’s a top target of Texas Scorecard – backed by not only the Texas Association of Business and Texans for Lawsuit Reform but by Larson himself.
- “Thimesch, Hill and Blanchard are staunch conservatives that support a secure border, low taxes and reasonable regulations so the Texas economy continues to lead the nation in job creation,” said their consultant Drew Lawson. “Americans for Prosperity and LIBRE have long advocated for those conservative principles, so it is natural that they would support them.”
- Added consultant Robert Flanagan for Padgett, the Collin County House hopeful: “Hayden believes that fixing our immigration system starts with enforcing the laws we have and securing the border. He welcomes the support of all conservative organizations, like Americans for Prosperity and the LIBRE Initiative, who want to help him accomplish those goals.”
- Though the Republican Party of Texas long has been dominated by staunch conservatives who don’t necessarily reflect the views of average, GOP-leaning voters, Macias and Waltens said only candidates who pledge fidelity to the state party’s platform should be elected to the Legislature. Plank No. 294 of the 2020 Republican Party of Texas platform reads, “Any form of amnesty with regard to immigration policy should not be granted, including the granting of legal status to persons in the country illegally. Illegal aliens shall be deported.” That’s in spite of the fact that according to a recent poll by The News and the University of Texas at Tyler, Texans by 51%-28% support granting permanent legal status to immigrants who entered the country without authorization when they were children. Three-quarters of Democrats, 54% of independents and even 31% of Republicans hold that position, the poll found. But it’s the 47% of Republicans who either oppose or strongly oppose the idea who hold sway in Republican primaries.
- Former Dallas GOP congressional candidate Genevieve Collins, who is AFP Action Texas’ senior advisor, indicated Wednesday she laments the “acidity” demonstrated by the recent flap, and wishes conservatives would focus on areas of agreement. “AFP has never been for amnesty. We’ve been actively advocating for securing the border,” she said. As for the four House candidates who haven’t rejected her group and LIBRE Action, Collins said, “We believe that they are going to ensure that we reduce the burden on taxpayers, ensure that the Texas economy continues to remain strong, be a leader for health care choice … and ensure that students and parents are able to have the education that they believe that their children need.”
- Some Republican strategists told me they suspect Sullivan, Texas Scorecard and Macias raised a stink because the “Koch folks” have been trying to up their presence in Texas, and the old Empower Texans crowd doesn’t want competition on the libertarian side of the Texas GOP street. When I asked Macias about that speculation, he bristled. “The Kochs aren’t libertarians,” he said. “It’s a term they use to try to excuse their liberal position on immigration and their opposition to President Trump. I don’t think LIBRE or AFP are any type of competition with a conservative media outlet like Scorecard. They honestly aren’t in competition.”
- Asked if she senses motives of turf protection by the Sullivan crowd, Collins replied, “I’m not getting involved in all of that. No comment.”
Robert T. Garrett, Austin Bureau Chief. Bob has covered state government and politics for The Dallas Morning News since 2002. Earlier, he was a statehouse reporter for three newspapers, including the Dallas Times Herald. A fifth-generation Texan, Bob earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. He covers Gov. Greg Abbott, the state budget and CPS and foster care.