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Let the fireworks begin: Texas GOP convention opens Thursday

With the direction of their party at stake, Texas Republicans are gathering in San Antonio for a three-day convention with significant decisions to make and a bitter power struggle raging.

Serving as a backdrop are next week’s primary runoff elections, in which the party’s top elected leaders have been working against a number of incumbents in hotly contested races for the Texas House.

One key item on the convention agenda: Choose a new leader who will help determine whether the party focuses on maintaining ideological purity or concentrates on defeating Democrats at the polls and in policy debates.

Other questions revolve around closing the party’s primaries to non-Republican voters and blocking censured officials from running as a Republican.

The convention opens Thursday. Things will heat up Friday — the same day early voting ends in the runoffs — when delegates will select a new chairman, adopt new rules and approve a party platform.

Internal strife is top of mind as delegates handle convention business at the Henry B. González Convention Center.

“What you’re seeing in the runoff elections is exactly what you’re going to see at the convention,” said Matthew Langston, a conservative political consultant who is observing the event. “There’s a definitive split within the party and a lot of friction about the direction and the path and the course of the party. This weekend there will be a live display of that split, followed up shortly by a display at the ballot box.”

For the second straight convention, Gov. Greg Abbott will address delegates remotely rather than in person. He’s scheduled to campaign for House candidates throughout the week, including on Friday at a rally in Rockwall for Katrina Pierson, who’s challenging Rep. Justin Holland in the runoff.

“We have 12 events this week,” said Dave Carney, Abbott’s chief political strategist. “The convention is [during] early voting, so Friday morning we’ll do the event for Katrina and have a live satellite address into the convention.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who was heavily booed at the 2022 convention, is not scheduled to appear this year. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton — both beloved by grassroots Republicans — will address delegates Thursday.

Potential rules focus on party purity

The Texas State Republican Convention attracts some of the state’s most conservative activists, who sometimes clash with their own elected leaders as they work to push the party farther to the right.

Potentially significant changes involve the way Republican nominees are chosen.

One proposal being debated would close Texas Republican primaries, blocking independents and Democrats from crossing over to vote in the process.

A related proposal, already approved by the Rules Committee, would direct leaders of county Republican parties to reject ballot applications from candidates who had been censured by the state GOP. Censured candidates, including incumbents, would be barred from running as a Republican for two years.

The state party has censured House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, in the last year.

The proposals require approval by a majority of convention delegates.

Many of the party’s platform proposals on election reform relate to former President Donald Trump’s grievances about losing the 2020 election.

“When Trump became the standard bearer of the party, that really moved further to the right,” said Villalba, a former Republican who is now an independent.

The secretary of state’s office handles primary elections for both parties, and some say closing primaries would require legislative approval. Proponents of the proposal argue legislative approval isn’t necessary and point to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says political parties can have their own nominating process.

Another proposal would require Texans to renew their voter registration every year.

Convention discussions about the party platform are always lively, with this year’s topics expected to include election integrity, continued restrictions on abortion and border security.

Another proposal would require “all embryos in cryogenic storage” at in-vitro fertilization facilities to be “maintained by the State” until “embryo in said storage can be thawed and implanted.” A related proposal would classify as a homicide any in-vitro fertilization protocol that “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of a human being in the embryonic or other stage of development.”

The platform, which in previous decades was routinely ignored by Republicans, has become a priority-setting guide for action by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Since 2016, when Trump was elected president, most of the Texas GOP’s legislative agenda has been implemented, including carrying guns without a permit, banning gender-affirming care for people under 18, the near abolition of abortion and construction of a border wall.

Delegates will pick a new leader

Convention delegates also will pick a new leader to replace former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, who is not seeking reelection as state party chairman.

Six candidates are running, including Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Dana Myers, former Collin County Republican Party Chairman Abraham George, Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak, former Texas Freedom Caucus Executive Director Mike Garcia, grassroots activist Ben Armenta and San Antonio businessman Weston Martinez.

George, who in March lost a Texas House primary to incumbent Rep. Candy Noble, R-Lucas, is backed by Rinaldi and is expected to be introduced from the floor by Paxton, who has also endorsed him.

In March, the Texas Tribune reported that police were called to George’s Collin County home last year as he was leaving with a loaded gun to confront a man he believed was having an affair with his wife, according to an incident report. George was not arrested or charged.

In a statement to the Tribune, George said “like every family, we’ve had misunderstandings and disputes” and that his “marriage is stronger than ever.”

“This desperate attack will not change anything,” he wrote.

Analysts say the race for party leadership reflects a power struggle within the state GOP.

Republican political consultant Brendan Steinhauser said the leadership race pits Republicans who want the party to hold elected leaders accountable to strict rules, ideology and platform planks against others who see the party’s role as a unifying force with the main goal being to defeat Democrats.

“That’s the heart and soul of this debate,” he said. “It’s hard to predict how it’s going to turn out.”

Langston agreed.

“The chair’s race is exactly what we’re seeing in the Republican Party right now,” he said. “It’s a very diverse view on the direction that Republicans want, and that fight will continue to be contentious. I don’t think we’ve seen a fight like this in a very long time.”

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