Politics
10:12 am
Tue March 11, 2014

Texas Tea Party Taking Power Back From Conservative Business Groups

Last week’s GOP primary showed the continued strength of the Tea Party in Texas. But it also showed a weakening of another stalwart Republican demographic: the businessperson.

First, a disclaimer: The results don't prove anything definitive. One election does not a trend make. And it's not hard to find people who say the state's business leaders still have a large role in Republican Party politics.

"I think the business community hasn't lost its voice," Rice University Political Science department chair Mark Jones says. "But its influence is much less then it was say 10 years ago."

Last week’s GOP primary showed the continued strength of the Tea Party in Texas.
But it also showed a weakening of another stalwart Republican demographic: the businessperson.

First, a disclaimer: The results don't prove anything definitive. One election does not a trend make. And it's not hard to find people who say the state's business leaders still have a large role in Republican Party politics.

There's actually a couple of ways to measure influence in this instance, starting with the business community's impact on the campaign trail – which has waned since the rise of grassroots organizations like the Tea Party.

"Overall though, I think business leaders need to be concerned because their old recipe of, 'Get behind a candidate and provide that candidate with a monetary advantage' – that playbook no longer really works," Jones says. "Ted Cruz demolished it."

That old playbook included working to get a coveted endorsement from the Texas Association of Business, a powerful conservative business group. A few weeks ago, association president Bill Hammond spoke with KUT about how they endorse, just as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was in town to pick up his own.

"We know that if Texas attracts capital, jobs will result. And they'll be good jobs with good benefits and good wages. And that's what we all want," Hammond said.

"You know on the margins there are some discussions, but for us it's about jobs."

Hammond wasn't pleased with some candidates in the GOP that seem to be getting off message.

"I think that words matter, and it's perfectly understandable and acceptable for people to disagree about issues. I think some have characterized the debate in a matter that is not helpful for the long run," Hammond said.

Also not helpful in this election: a Texas Association of Business endorsement. The group's picks for Lt. Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General and some key State House and Senate races came up losers or are headed to runoffs as the second place candidate.

Those that won spent their time focusing on a more ideological platform aimed at Tea Party elements of the GOP – which meant issues the business community might like to have addressed were often pushed to the side.

But Jonathan Neerman, former chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, says that alone isn't a bad thing. 

"That a candidate happens to be a Tea Party candidate, does not automatically mean that that candidate is opposed to pro-business legislation," Neerman says.

But if business groups back the losing candidate, then they don't know whether or not the winner will be willing to work on the issues pushed by those business groups.

So Neerman and the businesses he works with worry just who will end up influencing these candidates.

"Are these newly elected candidates are they going to listen to Austin based political groups? Or are they going to listen to people within their districts who understand that their roads are crumbling, that they don't have enough water and that the tax policies that are impacting their districts, may be popular with certain conservative groups in Austin, but are not popular back in the district," Neerman says.

That brings us to the question Democrats love to ask: Is the GOP becoming too conservative for business groups, and if so, will business start backing Democrats?

Rice University's Jones says 'no,' unless the minority party makes its own changes.

"The business community is getting increasingly nervous in Texas because they view the Republican Party as moving too far to the right, but then they look over and see the Democratic Party still anchored very firmly on the left," Jones says. "And for business leaders to become much more comfortable with the idea of electing a Democrat, they're going to need to see a different breed of Democratic leaders."

But the initial reaction, in Dallas County at least, certainly could see businesses asking for help from Democrats. That's because the area lost at least three Republican legislators with decades of experience in this year's primary.

"Even though they are in the minority party, I think that the influence from Senator [Royce] West, Representative [Yvonne] Davis, Representative [Rafael] Anchia, I think that they're going to play a greater role in serving the constituents needs of the entire county, if the people who were elected Tuesday night to go to Austin on the Republican side turn out to be ones who are not going to collaborate with the business community," Neerman says.

Neerman's goal now is to make sure those newly nominated Republicans are open to collaboration. And he'll spend the next few months finding out if those candidates get, or even want, his support.