The Texas GOP convention was no sideshow

This post originally appeared in TribTalk.

On the heels of recent wins by Tea Party-backed candidates in Texas’ Republican primary runoffs, the most conservative elements of the party were again on display at the state GOP convention last weekend.

The platform adopted by the 8,000-plus delegates, as well as the rule changes approved for the 2016 presidential primary process, raised questions about whether the conservative core of the Texas GOP has become the party’s new center of gravity, a role historically played mostly by industrial, business and trade groups. At the very least, the convention illustrated conservatives’ ongoing assertion of influence and a determination to remain relevant past primary season.

As expected, immigration became a banner issue at the convention — not a surprise given the prevalence of that issue and border security among Republican voters’ top concerns as well as unease among party strategists and business constituencies aware of the state’s demographic shifts.

It’s also unsurprising that the more restrictive immigration attitudes of the conservative base carried the day at the convention. For many GOP base voters, anything resembling immigration reform is seen as the dreaded A-word: amnesty. When we asked about comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship, in the February 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 63 percent of self-identified conservatives expressed opposition, 53 percent of those who identified as “extremely conservative” expressed strong opposition and 73 percent of those who identified with the Tea Party were opposed.

While the Texas GOP has little control over national immigration policy (despite the 66 percent of conservativesand 72 percent of Tea Party Republicans who think enforcing immigration laws should be the responsibility of state and local authorities), the subject of granting undocumented immigrants in-state college tuition rates, debated consistently during the primary campaign, also reared its head at the convention. Sixty-two percent of conservatives and 68 percent of Tea Party voters favor out-of-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants. The adopted platform reflected this position.

The platform’s endorsement of “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians also reflected the sustained influence of a more familiar socially conservative constituency in the party. While this endorsement might strike some as peculiar (why not just say nothing at all in the face of public opinion trends?), gay marriage might just be the issue where conservative activists’ ability to buck the GOP majority was most apparent. While only 15 percent of Texas Republicans in the June 2013 UT/TT Poll supported neither gay marriage nor civil unions, 52 percent of "extremely conservative" voters opposed any kind of legal recognition.

Cruz’s anointment by the convention as the top choice in the 2016 presidential contest punctuated a successful outing for the most conservative elements of the party. Among those who identified as “extremely conservative,”72 percent have a very favorable impression of Cruz, highlighting his rise to the top of the Texas political world.

All of these displays of conservative strength might rightly be considered symbolic, but an even more substantive development at the convention received much less attention.

In a move that institutionalized power in a way that the final platform only abstractly represents, the convention attendees also passed an important change in the nomination rules for 2016. The same organized activists who dominated the primary, the runoffs and, finally, the convention will have a much stronger voice in the 2016 GOP nominating contest under the new rules, which will allocate about a quarter of the state’s presidential delegates based on a vote of the convention delegates in 2016. In conjunction with an effort to move Texas’ primary date to March 1 to give the state more influence in the selection process, this change gives conservatives a much larger chance of influencing the presidential primary.

So while the state Republican convention may have looked like a sideshow, this circus may just be getting started. The new ringmaster is Cruz, leading a party that conservatives will likely hail as the greatest show on earth, while others — both Democrats and many Republicans — ponder how to get back in the spotlight.