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If Rick Perry is a ‘RINO,’ Texas GOP may become small enough to meet in a Starbucks | Opinion

Rick Perry shocked the political world in 1990 when he beat Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, a Democrat who was thought at the time to be pretty popular.

It was a bright spot for Texas Republicans in an otherwise bad year. Perry was one of just six GOP nominees to win statewide. In 1998, he became the first Republican elected lieutenant governor in more than a century. When George W. Bush went to the White House two years later, Perry became governor, won three terms of his own and left office in 2014 as the longest-serving chief executive in Texas history. And when the GOP moved right as the Tea Party ascended, Perry went with it. He ended up in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

In short, Rick Perry is a vital figure in the story of how Republicans came to dominate Texas. But amazingly, to some short-sighted party members who seem to think winning just happens, folks like Perry are deserving of the meanest label they can muster: RINO, or Republican in name only.

Perry, you see, happens to believe in things like compromising to get things done and working with Democrats in the Legislature on nonpartisan issues. Can’t have that in the new Texas GOP, or at least the sliver of it that threatens to dominate Tuesday’s primaries.

They’re pushing to make Republican fights about school vouchers, the impeachment of Ken Paxton, and whether Democrats should be allowed to chair legislative committees. They want to purify the party, over and over again. But even in Texas, they risk declaring so many people RINOs that, eventually, maybe a lot of swing voters won’t vote Republican at all.

It’s a sickness that afflicts the national party, too. It’s not about attracting more voters and winning bigger margins in the Legislature or competing in urban counties again. It’s about getting the most highly distilled, holier-than-thou candidate on the ballot.

Political parties are supposed to be broad coalitions. This one wants to be so pure that it will eventually be small enough to meet at a Starbucks.

Texas Republicans still don’t risk losing much this fall. Joe Biden is not going to win here. Colin Allred is (probably) not going to oust Ted Cruz from the Senate. And there’s no harm in trying to nominate, as William F. Buckley famously said, the most conservative candidate who is electable.

But this could catch up with the GOP. Bush, Perry and others built the Republican majority by focusing on jobs and growth, better schools, cutting taxes and mainstream conservative positions on social issues such as abortion. The current batch doesn’t say nearly as much about maintaining Texas’ economic power, improving public schools or creating jobs. They do talk about the border, an overriding concern for GOP voters and independents. They focus, though, on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment, “Democrat chairs” and school choice.

House Speaker Dade Phelan presides over the debate of SB 7, which would ban COVID vaccine mandates, at the Capitol on Wednesday October 25, 2023. Jay Janner/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK
House Speaker Dade Phelan presides over the debate of SB 7, which would ban COVID vaccine mandates, at the Capitol on Wednesday October 25, 2023. Jay Janner/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK

State party leaders even voted overwhelmingly to censure House Speaker Dade Phelan, the Beaumont Republican that so much of the far-right faction blames for its priorities getting stuck in Austin. No doubt, there are some issues where Phelan isn’t the most conservative person in the room. But it’s pretty laughable to call a speaker who presided over enactment of a near-total abortion ban and big tax cuts less than conservative.

School choice is becoming the focus of many Texas House races, as Gov. Greg Abbott is helping challengers to lawmakers who opposed his plan to create education savings accounts. It’s a good policy idea, but it’s not a priority for even most GOP voters.

Jim Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, recently wrote that the outfit’s polling asked an open-ended question of Republican voters about their top concerns. Just 2% named school choice. Not a single voter raised the Paxton impeachment. And, he said in an email, just one mentioned Democrats chairing committees — not 1%, but one person in the entire survey sample.

That issue is one where Perry has pushed back. Campaigning for Phelan recently, he told a story about working with veteran Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston on legislation to prevent sex trafficking of children.

“I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican if you’ll come and help me on that issue,” the former governor said. “Now, I’m not changing my philosophy, and I told Senfronia from time to time, ‘Madam Chair, I love you, but I can’t go there.’ And she understood that. And that’s what we need more of in this state.”

Letting Democrats lead committees is a way to build coalitions that allow for broad backing of legislation, which is sometimes necessary to get a bill through the House as deadlines loom or to pass the threshold for a constitutional amendment, which is 100 votes in the House.

Noting the criticism of Phelan for giving a handful of Democrats chairmanships, Perry said: “So did I when I was the lieutenant governor. So has the current lieutenant governor.”

Perry hinted at where this might all end. When enough Republicans tire of the noise on nonsense issues and engage in the fight for their party, “RINO” could become a sort of status symbol.

At the Phelan event, the Houston Chronicle reported, Perry mimicked having a rhinoceros horn and said: “I think it’s kind of sexy, frankly. … It’s one of the baddest boys on the block, right?”