Op-Ed

Why Texas matters politically more than ever

Austin, Texas — My state's primaries used to fall later on the calendar, tucked away where we could do less harm. In 2008, we held our primary some two months after the Iowa caucuses; in 2012, almost six months. This year, Texas votes on March 1, just one month after Iowa, with shiny new delegate allocation rules designed to entice candidates to campaign here. It's the first big state to vote, and more delegates are at stake than in all the early states put together.

The state matters politically more than ever before — even more than it did during the reign of the last fella we sent to the White House, who, many Texans like to note, was born in Connecticut. Six candidates in the original Republican field had some kind of connection to Texas, though only one, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, remains. If Cruz underperforms here, it may kill his campaign; if he does well, it may save him, at least for a little while.

Texas' new weight in the primary makes a certain amount of sense. As a seemingly endless succession of columnists have written over the last few years, the future of the country is being laid out here. The state's leaders think they've cracked the code, with a low-service, anti-regulation economic model, which they evangelize endlessly to their allies in red states and their enemies on the coasts.

Drawn to the state's strong economy, people come in droves: The population has doubled since 1990, and within a generation, mid-sized cities have appeared on maps where tumbleweeds rolled before. They fill with families, often from blue states like California, who oppose the kinds of governmental intrusion they've experienced in the past.

But the state's mounting influence in national politics also feels undeserved, because Texas is so fundamentally undemocratic. Texas routinely ranks 51st in voter turnout, beneath all other states and the District of Columbia. In 2014, when Texas elected a new statewide slate, just 33.6% of voters came to the polls. Special elections for the Legislature and city races are routinely decided by as few as 4% of eligible voters.

These numbers actually oversell the state's civic spirit, because general elections here are irrelevant. Texas has been a one-party state for virtually its entire history, first for Democrats, now for Republicans, who here have completely shut out the opposition party in statewide races since 1994. So every race that matters is decided in the Republican primary, where even fewer people vote. Officials such as the now-indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a top Cruz surrogate this year, effectively secured election by winning the votes of some 450,000 people in the GOP primary runoff — in a state of some 27 million.

The pool of votes needed to tip races in favor of one faction or another is, then, vanishingly small, and interest groups have learned how to take advantage. That's particularly true in legislative races, which are often decided by a few busloads of activists. In one state Senate race in 2014, a relatively mainstream Republican, Bob Deuell, was defeated by 300 votes in his party's runoff by a tea party activist who had been accused by his ex-wife of physical and sexual abuse.

Although there are plenty of relatively sensible Republicans here, they can't seem to win their primaries anymore. And the state's wealthiest citizens have learned that the application of a little bit of money can swing races to the right. Midland oilman Tim Dunn, for instance, has spent millions knocking moderates out of statewide office. In 2014, his candidates effectively took over the state Senate.

Politics is not done in the open in Texas, as it is in other places, with debates and public events. The only organizing that really matters happens at churches or at tea party meets, where the crowds are insular, paranoid and sometimes hateful. At one of the first such events I attended, in 2013, the former chairwoman of the state Republican Party accused Grover Norquist and a slate of Obama administration officials of being secret Muslims. I tweeted about it, and as a result was dragged to my car by an organizer. In the intervening years, the tenor of these meetings has only worsened.

This is the environment that bred Cruz, a hero of reactionary America. He's a Harvard and Princeton-educated lawyer who painstakingly learned to deliver red meat with some acceptable measure of conviction, and he's prospered here because elections have ceased to matter. Before this year's presidential race, his primary runoff for the U.S. Senate was the only contested election he'd ever had to fight.

Winning office in Texas is a unique business: It matters little what most of your would-be constituents think of you. Cruz has never made any overtures to anybody here outside of his core fanbase. He sticks to topics that play well in those small rooms, or feed his national ambitions — even if they're all but irrelevant at home. Even now, he'll get up in front of groups like the well-heeled, business-Republican Greater Houston Partnership and talk about Iran or electro-magnetic pulse weapons.

The most significant political concept at play in Texas is anti-Federalism: an extreme hatred of the federal compact, and a love of the state. Because Cruz could win here, he's changed the face of the country. He has personified our era of congressional gridlock like no one else. And even if he loses his shot at the White House, he's likely to be mucking up Congress for years to come. He is a gift to America from the little meeting-rooms of suburban Ft. Worth and Houston, which are now being given a bigger megaphone.

It's all pretty dismal, honestly, for us and for you, too, but there's a punchline. Cruz is being out-Cruzed: Trump's trumping him. Ted and the Donald aren't similar personally — Cruz is actually conservative, for one — but Trump's campaign is something of a steroidal version of the one Cruz ran in Texas, done in public, not private.

The themes of Trump's campaign, and the anger he plays upon, is connected to the one that first empowered Cruz. Suburban populism, white resentment, and slabs of red meat, insincerely served-up, a mish-mash that plays well in the primary and can't in the general. Instead of churches, Trump plays in stadiums.

If Trump beats Cruz here, the Senator's campaign is dead. If Cruz wins the state by a huge margin, he'll be able to hit the trail again with renewed vigor. And if Cruz wins by a small margin, it's the worst of both worlds. Trump will continue his march to the nomination, and Cruz will stay in the race. That's the effect the more important Texas primary is likely to have in future elections, too: prolonging the GOP fight, muddying it, probably dragging it further to the right.

But what effect will this primary have on Texas? In 2013, many former Obama campaign organizers moved to Texas, with the goal of “flipping” the state. One told me that her experience in Ohio during the general election was transformative. It was inspiring and electrifying to see so many people wanting to take part in the democratic process. Maybe that could be done here.

I don't hold out much hope for that anymore: I've started to think of the state's civic sickness as the result of a perpetually weakened immune system. Maybe you guys would have been better off keeping your distance.

Christopher Hooks is a politics writer based in Austin.

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "The least democratic state - Texas matters politically more than ever before, but only a small fraction of its population bothers to vote in elections." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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