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How the Texas GOP has grown more and more conservative

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Republican Party of Texas has changed. The party that embraced the Bush family has now become a place where the Bushes are considered too moderate. Texas Republicans have taken a harder stance on immigration, and the party punishes dissension in its own ranks. With the 2024 presidential election looming, the Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martinez-Beltran reports on the party's evolution.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: Let's start back in 2012, when former Texas Governor Rick Perry was running to be the Republican nominee for president. During a Fox News debate, Perry touted his actions on the border and defended a bill he'd signed allowing undocumented Texas students to pay in-state tuition at public universities and colleges.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK PERRY: But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Just over a decade later, it's hard to imagine the Republican Party of Texas supporting a policy like that. Just ask Matt Rinaldi, the party's chairman since 2021.

MATT RINALDI: No, that was a very bad idea.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Rinaldi is part of the Republican Party's move to the far right, which started around 2010 in Texas with the rise of the Tea Party movement.

RINALDI: The party 10 years ago was effectively a cheerleading society for Republican elected officials. It didn't take positions on tough issues for fear that they might offend some of those elected officials. And my question always was, why?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Part of Texas' rightward shift has been caused by top Republicans like Rinaldi going after old-school Republicans who disagree with them. One example, Rinaldi criticized and campaigned against the Texas House speaker for allowing the impeachment of fellow Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton to move forward. Rinaldi also targeted Republicans who don't support school vouchers, one of Governor Greg Abbott's top priorities.

RINALDI: You have the brand that those elected officials depend on in order to get elected. You should exert some of the leverage you have to make sure that the government operates under the principles and values that your members share.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: But the shift has also had implications nationwide, says Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University.

MARK JONES: Texas has an outsized impact on national policy, first and foremost, because of its size. It's much larger than other red states.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Jones says Texas has a big influence on the legal system. Embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone after the Obama and Biden administrations over healthcare, reproductive rights and immigration.

JONES: During the Obama administration, Texas always was in the lead because it had the advantage of being a large red state where the governor, the attorney general had little fear of Democrats actually taking control.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Texas has sued the federal government over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, best known as DACA, and it challenged President Biden's decision to end the Remain in Mexico policy, which required non-Mexican citizens seeking asylum to go back to Mexico while their cases are processed. But the evolution of the party has rattled many of its members who say it's become less inclusive and more exclusive.

ARTEMIO MUNIZ: You would think that these guys that have been to every meeting and every seminar possible on growing the party would understand that they should be focused on growing the party in the Hispanic community.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Artemio Muniz is the president of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans. His group left the Texas GOP nearly a decade ago over the party's anti-immigration position, including its support for policies Muniz says would create de facto mass deportations.

MUNIZ: They inherited a party that can win without the Hispanic vote, and so they're resting on that. They know that the strategy to just kind of hold the status quo, it can win, and it can win for the next few years. But pretty soon you're going to have to do something about getting new voters in. And right now, it sucks.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Muniz says the party used to be better at courting Hispanic voters, particularly during the Governor Rick Perry years. But party chair Rinaldi says the critics are upset at the fact that the Texas GOP has become more influential than ever. This means that if an incumbent crosses the party, chances are that politician would face a primary opponent and lose. That's exactly what happened on Super Tuesday. Nine Republican incumbents in the legislature targeted by Abbott or Paxton lost their seats. Eight more were pushed into runoffs. For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán | The Texas Newsroom