Lone Star Crazy: How Right-Wing Extremists Took Over Texas

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This was supposed to be the year Texas turned blue, or at least purple, the year female and Hispanic voters turned out in droves and carried Democrat state Sen. Wendy Davis to the governor's mansion. Battleground Texas, a group founded last year with the bold goal of transforming Texas into a swing state, targeted the swelling Latino population, which by 2020 is projected to overtake the white population of Texas. Salty, beloved Ann Richards had been the last Democrat elected governor, way back in 1990. Just four years later, a cocky young George W. Bush, mocked by Richards as the "Little Shrub," would unseat her in a landslide. But there was new hope in Davis, famous for staging an 11-hour filibuster in an attempt to derail a restrictive abortion bill.

By Memorial Day, however, the Battleground Texas narrative, at least in this election cycle, had begun to look like Daily Kos fan fiction. Davis was trailing Abbott by 14 points. Meanwhile, back in her old Fort Worth Senate district, a Tea Party Republican named Konni Burton seems well-placed to win Davis' old seat in the fall. The bio on Burton's website begins, "Konni is first and foremost a wife, a mom, and a life long [sic] Christian."

However promising the Battleground Texas statistical analysis might seem on paper, the present-day reality is that Texas remains a very red state, and the narrow slice that represents the Republican-primary electorate – about seven percent this year – continues to move farther and faster to the extreme right. An April poll by Public Policy Polling suggested Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, the first-term senator mulling a presidential run in 2016, is the most popular politician in Texas. The question no longer is, "Would Ann Richards be too liberal to be elected in Texas today?" but rather, "Would George W. Bush?" Immigration reform? Compassionate conservatism? Stick to painting, Chomsky!

Notes Harold Cook, a veteran Democratic strategist in Texas who worked alongside Richards, "When I moved to Austin in 1989, Texas politicians were conservative in the classic sense of the term: They wanted to make sure government was small and unintrusive. There were pretty strong libertarian and populist streaks, and that still exists among the electorate, but what's new, I think, is a litmus test driven by the Tea Party wing, where if you're not mad enough, if you don't demonstrate a certain level of hatred, then your motives are suspect. Your final votes on legislation don't matter. These two politicians might be voting exactly alike – but the one the Tea Party loves is running around the district all the time screaming about how much he hates Obama."

To Cook's point, consider the issues animating the Gathering of the American Patriot. "Open carry" gun laws? All of the major candidates for governor – Republican, Libertarian, even Wendy Davis – support expanding them. The Bureau of Land Management? Perry, Abbott, Patrick and Cruz have all denounced the agency in terms only slightly less incendiary and borderline-seditious than those used by one of the rally's headlining speakers, a pistol-packing pastor named Terry Holcomb Sr., who tells the crowd he has a message for the BLM: "It would be a very bad idea to bring an armed force to Texas and draw down on Texas citizens. This ain't Nevada."

All of the gubernatorial candidates, incidentally, were invited to Burkburnett, but the only one to show was Kathie Glass, a Houston lawyer running on the Libertarian ticket. With her peroxide-blond hair and silver-studded cowgirl top, she looks like a country star from the Seventies, like Conway Twitty might turn up onstage any minute to join her in a mildly suggestive duet. "There's nothing to be feared by peaceful people openly carrying firearms," Glass tells me, her accent sweet as cobbler. "I came here to protest the taking of ranch land. I want to be Texas governor to unite Texans, so we can do again what we've done before: defeat tyranny."

But when she takes the stage a few hours later, her tone is darker. She talks about nullification: the "right" of Texans to ignore "unconstitutional" federal laws, a disquieting throwback to the days when Southern states resisted civil rights legislation.

"If I don't win, I don't care who does, because Texas isn't going to be able to survive, I'm afraid," Glass tells the crowd. "I know it sounds pretty dire. But I've read the last chapter of the book. I've seen the end of the movie. I know how it turns out."

Looking around at my fellow audience members, most of them packing a weapon of some sort, I assume the book to which she's referring is "of Revelations," or perhaps a novelization of The Walking Dead.

But Glass surprises me. Without so much as a spoiler alert, she continues, "The good guys win. And we're the good guys!"

In Texas, the lieutenant governor is elected separately from, and arguably wields far more power than, the governor, essentially running the Senate and setting the budgetary agenda. Sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had been the establishment favorite, with a blue-chip résumé that includes working for the CIA in Bolivia and earning a fortune as a Houston energy man. In recent years, Dewhurst had been moving increasingly rightward to keep abreast of the Tea Party – last year, he publicly called for Obama's impeachment – but in the end, he found himself crushed by 30 points in the primary. Dan Patrick had out-fundraised Dewhurst two-to-one in the homestretch of the campaign.

Patrick, 64, grew up working-class in Baltimore, the first member of his family to graduate from college. He moved to Houston in 1979 and became a popular sportscaster, infamous for sub-Ron Burgundy shenanigans like allowing a pair of cheerleaders to strip off his shirt and paint him blue before an Oilers game. Then he bought a couple of AM radio stations (which he would later sell to Clear Channel for millions) and began hosting his own conservative drive-time show, where he attacked Bush and Perry as too liberal, while still embracing his old penchant for stunts (including having an on-air vasectomy).

While establishment Republicans have warned about the importance of reaching out to minorities and women, Patrick, elected to the state Senate in 2006, doubled down on his craven appeals to the right-wing talk-radio id. He boycotted the Senate prayer when it was led by a Muslim, spearheaded a bill requiring women seeking abortions to first receive a sonogram, and warned of the "illegal invasion" of undocumented Mexicans.

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