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What To Watch As The Texas GOP Gathers In Dallas

Bob Daemmrich
Texas Tribune
Front row delegates at the 2014 Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth.

For many Texas Republicans, their party's state convention starting Thursday in Dallas won't be what they had hoped for: a home-state pit stop in Ted Cruz's battle to the end against Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination.

Instead, more than 10,000 delegates will gather over the next three days at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center as members of a party still coming to grips with Trump as its presumptive nominee. 

"We need to remember as Republicans that Hillary Clinton wants to be Obama 3 — Obama's third term," Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler said in an interview Wednesday. "We're coming together as a party and we're going to elect a Republican in November, and that's all there is to it."

Unity won't be the only item on the menu in Dallas. Here are five things to watch as Texas Republicans descend on the Metroplex:

Cruz's homecoming

Cruz's convention speech Saturday afternoon looks to be his first formal remarks since ending his White House bid. It will be closely watched by Cruz's home-state supporters, many still looking for signals about how to proceed following the devastating loss in Indiana that knocked him out of contention. 

"Ted Cruz is now undeniably the national leader of the conservative movement, and so I expect him to sound like that," said JoAnn Fleming, an East Texas activist who served as the Texas Tea Party chairwoman of Cruz's campaign. "The hardest part for a leader is when the troops have been disappointed and in some ways demoralized, how do you get them back on their feet again?"

After his speech, Cruz is scheduled to headline an event with his wife Heidi and Gov. Greg Abbottat the home of Dallas developer Harlan Crow. Carly Fiorina, Cruz's short-lived running mate, will also make an appearance at the convention: She is set to headline a rally Thursday evening with Cruz's father Rafael. 

With Cruz out of the race, there will likely be less attention paid to the selection of delegates to the national convention, where the Texas senator had hoped to beat Trump after the first ballot. There could still be some action in Dallas: Cruz's campaign is working to ensure the pro-Cruz delegates states like Texas send to Cleveland will protect the GOP platform and rules there.

Donald who?

With Cruz out of the presidential race, Texas Republicans, including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, are beginning to rally around Trump as their national standard-bearer. Not all Republicans are on board, though: state House Speaker Joe Straus and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, running for re-election in a perennial swing district, have suggested they are not yet ready to get behind Trump. 

Even among those now supporting Trump, there is a reluctance to offer a full-throated endorsement, especially with feelings still raw from Trump's clashes with Cruz in the presidential race. 

In an email to supporters last week, Trump's Texas campaign made a plea for unity heading into the convention — and urged respect for the many Texas Republicans who tried to put Cruz in the White House. "Let us do so humbly, without unwarranted contentiousness or competition and forever guard against faction, as advised by our Founders," wrote Joshua Jones, Trump's Texas director. 

"We need to have unity," said Barbara Mabray, a Trump supporter from Georgetown who plans to attend the convention. She acknowledged unity may not come immediately for Cruz backers in Texas, adding, "I think it would’ve been very hard for me if I had been on the other side." 

Chairman's race

With the Republican presidential race settled, much of the political drama in Dallas will center on the Texas GOP chairman's election. Tom Mechler, who became interim chairman after Steve Munisteri stepped down last year, is being challenged by Jared Woodfill, the former chairman of the Harris County GOP. 

Whereas Mechler was elected by the 62-member State Republican Executive Committee last year, he now faces a wider vote by the thousands of delegates to Dallas. Since the beginning, Woodfill has cast himself as a more assertive voice for conservative values, while Mechler has argued Woodfill's tenure in Harris County spells danger for the financial health of the state party. 

The race has turned nasty in recent weeks, with a mailer from Woodfill allies charging Mechler with supporting a "disgusting homosexual agenda" for letting an LGBT group have a booth at the convention. Mechler's allies, meanwhile, have increasingly sought to portray Woodfill's time in Harris County as disqualifying, borrowing a social media hashtag from presidential politics to express their unequivocal opposition: #NeverWoodfill. 

"I think it's going to be tight," said J.T. Edwards, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who endorsed Woodfill on Tuesday. "I see a potential for a floor fight. I see a roll call vote coming to confirm the number if it's too close to call."

Abbott's launch

The convention will serve as a launch of sorts for "Broken but Unbowed," the book Abbott has written about his life and his push for a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution. Early copies of the tome will be available at his booth Thursday morning, and convention attendees are already being reminded of the coming release: Their hotel room keys are branded with an advertisement for the book. 

Abbott will help open the convention Thursday morning with a 10:45 a.m. speech that is expected to touch on his Texas Plan to take back states' rights. As soon as the convention is over, Abbott is expected to hit the road to promote the book, which officially hits bookshelves Tuesday. On Wednesday, he will embark on a bus tour of the state during which he will hold book signings in 19 cities over the course of 10 days. 

The flurry of activity will no doubt fuel speculation about Abbott's political ambitions, but he has already insisted the book is not a prologue to a run for higher office, even brushing off questions about whether he plans to seek re-election. "I'm not even considering the end of my term," the governor said last week on a Houston TV show. 

Bathroom brawl

The convention is unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly pitched battle over transgender rights in Texas and across the country. Patrick is leading the charge in the Lone Star State, most recently calling for the resignation of Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner over his approval of transgender student guidelines. 

Heading into the convention, it remains to be seen how deep support for Patrick's crusade is within the ranks of the Texas GOP. While some state lawmakers and activists have lined up behind the lieutenant governor to press the issue, Abbott and Straus have been much less vocal — if not silent. 

Mechler, who supports Patrick's call to action, said he anticipates discussions in Dallas about whether to add a plank to the party platform on the issue. Asked about that possibility Tuesday, Patrick told reporters in Fort Worth he is "happy to look" into it.

"It's pretty absurd, but 0.2 percent of the population is confused about their gender identity and we're going to completely realign the way bathrooms are being handled in public?" Mechler said. "I think the LGBT has gone way too far this time."

The Texas Tribune provided this story.