Texas Republicans are poised to convene in Dallas to celebrate a self-proclaimed "Year of Emergence" as the majority party in the state. But proposed rule changes to enforce ideological purity have sent shivers of fear through some GOP delegates.
The changes are pushed by Robert X. Johnson, a conservative San Antonio furniture dealer and former state GOP party parliamentarian. The symbol for his campaign is a rhinoceros inside a red circle with a slash mark. His message: Stop Republicans in Name Only (RINOs).
Johnson circulated an e-mail to convention delegates last week pointing out that "some candidates running for office on the Republican ticket have blatantly ignored the Platform. They have called themselves Republican but have acted independently to selectively ignore longstanding planks of the platform." Johnson wants to set up a mechanism for the party faithful to decertify such candidates, even if they've already won their nominations in the Republican primary.
It's a sign of just how dominant the GOP has become in the Lone Star State, when conservatives have the luxury of turning their guns against the politically incorrect souls in their own ranks. At the same time, Texas Democrats have gone in the opposite direction. They are trying to broaden their base by fielding a color-coordinated statewide ticket and blanketing the airwaves with appeals to independents stressing nonpartisan issues such as education and health care.
West University attorney Rich Langenstein, like other local GOP pragmatists, labels the Johnson proposal "a strong solution for weak people" and a way to "hasten the Republican Party's advance toward the minority in Texas."
Langenstein says that if the party doesn't like a candidate's positions, it should make its case during an election, "not rely on some bureaucratic poison pill administered by people who have never had to win elections and who have never had to take public positions on political matters."
Houston GOP activist Maureen Mulroony fired back at Johnson after receiving his e-mail. She asked what will happen to Republicans who support the right to choose abortion, live alternate lifestyles and are not Christians.
"Obviously, we will not fit this new definition of Republican purity," Mulroony wrote, "and as there are so many of us, you may want to consider what will happen to your 'Party,' because it certainly isn't the GOP anymore, and is sounding a lot like the beginnings of a Hitler-like purge."
Although the state party leadership has not endorsed the proposed changes, delegates to the biennial convention are far more conservative than average GOP voters. In the confab's ideological hothouse, appeals from fringe players like Johnson could corral a majority vote.
"Nobody I know would support it," says former Harris County GOP chair Betsy Lake, who will miss the convention for the first time in 24 years. "But the problem is that not very many people I know are going to the convention. I just got off the phone with a friend in Austin, and there are a lot of people over there extremely concerned about it."
Lake says interest in attendance seemed very low this year, with delegate seats going begging in her senatorial district.
"The delegates are not like the rest of the population at large," explains Houston GOP consultant Allen Blakemore. "They are not even necessarily like the huge number of people that vote in the Republican primary. They take all this stuff seriously and very personally. After all, they're the ones who write the platform."
The Stop RINOs campaign is being pushed nationwide by a libertarian-influenced group called the Club for Growth, whose holy grail is tax cuts and limited government. Its leaders vow to cleanse the party of apostates like U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont. His jump to the Democrats overturned Republican control of the Senate and wreaked havoc on President George W. Bush's legislative agenda. The club stamped the RINO label on a number of moderate Republicans in congressional primary races around the country this spring, and it launched ad campaigns on behalf of their GOP opponents.
In a recent National Review piece, club president Stephen Moore dismissed moderate Republicans as fifth columnists inside the party. "The RINOs are fond of describing themselves as 'socially tolerant and economically conservative,' " sneered Moore. "Nonsense. For the most part they are left wing on economic and social issues..."
In Texas, Johnson heads the anti-RINO crusade with a plan to provide a process for the party to replace GOP nominees deemed insufficiently committed to core Republican principles.
Those core beliefs can be found in The Texas Republican Platform. It is a hodgepodge of serious policy statements along with less mainstream calls for U.S. reoccupation of the Panama Canal zone, the teaching of creation science, the abolition of the IRS and the establishment of a state-collected "constitutional tax." Johnson's amendments would split the platform into planks deemed "core principles" and those designated as "normal planks."
All Republican candidates for office would be required to sign loyalty pledges to the core principles. GOP candidates would have to produce those signed pledges in order to run for office. They could also be disqualified later and replaced if it was determined that their actions, votes or statements over the previous two years had violated those core principles.
Currently the state GOP platform calls for such signed loyalty oaths, although there is no process for punishing those who opt to pick and choose which planks to support.
Under the proposal, candidates found to have violated core principles could be ousted and replaced by a majority vote of the state convention delegates. If the convention is not in session, maverick candidates could still be booted out by a three-fourths vote of the state executive committee, up to 65 days before a general election. If the wayward candidate is seeking a county office, then the ouster would be possible by a two-thirds vote of a county executive committee.
These measures would violate Texas election statutes, but Johnson dismisses that problem by citing a Supreme Court ruling two years ago. He says justices decided that political parties have the right to restrict candidates/nominees "to only those persons in support of the party platform."
Houston Republican Bill Borden has served on the party's convention rules committee for more than a decade, although he is only a delegate this year. He recalls that in the early '90s Johnson successfully pushed rules changes to put term limits on party volunteers in roles like national committee member. As it turned out, the move was targeted squarely at Ernie Angelo of Midland, who had served as national committeeman from Texas for two decades.
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"We suspected all along that the intent was to get rid of Ernie and not an ideological position he was pushing. After it was over, Johnson admitted it," says Borden. He believes the current campaign likewise has a hidden agenda.
"The next step is to do away with the primary and have a closed primary process whereby all the candidates are selected by caucuses," opines Borden. "This is the direction these people want to go. I can tell you that because they've told me that. That's why this is so newsworthy. The ulterior motive is so devious and deceptive it is laughable."
Until the delegates gather in Dallas on Friday, no one knows just how strong the sentiment for changes will be. Blakemore doubts that Johnson and his followers will be able to get their proposals through the rules committee to the floor for a vote. Borden is not so sure.
"I think he's got a tremendous amount of support among the members of the rules committee at the present time," warns the party veteran. "Some of the people I've talked to in other areas of the state are just scared to death by this thing."