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Five Takeaways From Tea Party’s Strong Showing In Texas Runoff Elections

LM Otero
Associated Press

Nationally, many tea party-backed candidates have been losing primary elections. But in Texas, tea party candidates are doing well – and they continued their winning streak during Tuesday’s runoff elections.

In the Republican lieutenant governor runoff, state Sen. Dan Patrick, who had strong tea party backing, easily beat longtime incumbent David Dewhurst. In the GOP attorney general runoff, state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, also with significant tea party support, beat longtime state Rep. Dan Branch in a landslide.

In North Texas, in the GOP runoff for State Senate District 10 in Tarrant County, tea party organizer Konni Burton easily defeated Mark Shelton, a former state representative. Also, tea party-backed John Ratcliffe beat Ralph Hall, America’s oldest Congress member. “I just got whipped,” Hall said.

In his victory speech, Patrick said: "If you love America, the Constitution, Texas, free markets, the Second Amendment and the liberty that comes from God, welcome to the grassroots of the Republican party.”

Here’s a look at how the tea party is doing in Texas and why they’re doing well – and what’s ahead as they face Democratic candidates in the November elections.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
A couple wearing shirts in support of a tea party challenger attended the "Life, Liberty and Property" rally in Greenville earlier this month.

Tea party groups are organized: A “Life, Liberty and Property” rally this month in Greenville featured top honchos from conservative groups including Texas Eagle Forum, Empower Texans, the Texas Home School Coalition and Grassroots America. They urged North Texas voters to retire sitting Republicans during Tuesday’s runoff, saying they aren't conservative enough. Separately, the groups use direct mail, election scorecards and extensive social media networks to promote their political endorsements and legislative goals. Combined, they might be the most potent conservative machine in the state, Texas Right to Life executive director Jim Graham said. “We have demonstrated in the last election cycle we can remove very powerful, entrenched incumbents when we work together for a common goal,” Graham said. 

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Konni Burton, center, celebrated her GOP runoff victory this week.

Their message is resonating with certain voters: “We have got to fire the fake conservatives in Austin," said JoAnn Fleming, who runs Grassroots America. She added: “The one thing that scares the daylights out of the establishment ruling class in Austin, Texas, is the Texas liberty movement and they have everything to be scared of.” Voter Ben Davis, who showed up at the tea party rally, wants to see less spending in government. “I would like to see them become a little more efficient in their spending of money. Not playing games about balancing the budget." Voter Ray Myers wants more border control. “They’re not all coming over here to work. ... We don’t know who they are. Terrorism is a very, very vital issue we must address. That scares me for my grandchildren.” Burton told KERA grassroots conservatives helped her to win her race for the Tarrant County state senate seat. "People are concerned about the same things I am, and that's being fiscally responsible with the tax dollars, and less government because more government takes more of our liberties," Burton said.

Credit Texas Senate
Texas Senate
Leticia Van de Putte, a Democratic state senator, is running for lieutenant governor this fall.

Republicans vs. Democrats: Since the tea party candidates have won the Republican primaries, Democrats say it’ll be easier to differentiate themselves during the November election. “You really can’t have a competitive election that voters pay attention to unless you have a clear contrast between the nominees,” Texas Democratic consultant Harold Cook told The Texas Tribune. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democrat facing the newly-nominated Republican Dan Patrick in the lieutenant governor race, told KERA this week she looks forward to contrasting those differences. The Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey told KERA: “She’s going to have a sharp contrast with Dan Patrick. You have a white Anglo male from Houston running. He’s a very conservative Republican. You’ve got a Latina from San Antonio running as a moderate to liberal democrat. Voters will certainly have a choice here.” 

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, faces Republican Greg Abbott this fall. He's ahead in the polls -- and in fundraising.

Still, a tough battle for Democrats in the fall: The Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey says that Democrats face an uphill battle in various races regardless of who won the GOP primaries: “The Democrats have lost nine election cycles in a row,” he told KERA. “They haven’t won a statewide race in 1994. Their infrastructure has suffered. Voter turnout was almost 3-to-1 Republican (Tuesday). The Democrats didn’t have the same number of competitive and interesting races that the Republicans did. This has been an ongoing problem with Texas Democrats. They’re not as organized. They’re not as tightly knit.”

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA
More than 300 tea party supporters filled a Garland auditorium earlier this year to listen to a candidate forum.

 Tea party challenges on the horizon: Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, says the success of a tea party coalition would create challenges in a growing state that will need to expand its highway system, develop water supplies and prepare to educate more children. “Institutional business-friendly Republican interests want to see some additional spending on education, access to health care but particularly on infrastructure," Jillson told KERA. "We’re going to need additional resources to manage those problems. The tea party will not permit that to happen."

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