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AUSTIN, Texas -- California fancies itself as a trendsetter and Florida prizes its claim as a microcosm of America.
AUSTIN, Texas -- California fancies itself as a trendsetter and Florida prizes its claim as a microcosm of America.
But when it comes to politics -- both present-day battles and future trends -- ground zero right now is the fastest-growing of the mega-states: Texas.
Just consider the data points:
-Texas Republicans now mirror their national counterparts, a party cleaved between conservatives radicalized by President Barack Obama and an establishment wing that alternates between taming the fire-breathers and accommodating them. The powerful House speaker here, Joe Straus, has sought to keep conservatives at bay, killing such made-for-cable-news legislation as bans on TSA groping.
-The Republican fear of being "primaried" has infected the Lone Star State at high levels. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the second-ranking Senate Republican, is going to lengths to preempt a primary challenge from the right by sticking close to his colleague, tea party-backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has been in the chamber for all of a month. The wise-guy joke going around Austin: Cruz is the only freshman in Congress with two votes.
How inflamed are conservatives looking at four more years of Obama? One longtime Texas congressman even said he expects every GOP member of the delegation to face some kind of primary next year.
-Both through its geography and its political ecosystem, Texas is at the very center of the burgeoning national debate on immigration. Two Republican members of the House delegation, Reps. Sam Johnson and John Carter, have been part of a working group on the issue but Cornyn and Cruz have kept their distance from the bipartisan Senate gang pushing comprehensive reform.
-Texas could be the backdrop for a future Bush family restoration; Republicans here are already talking up 36-year-old George P. Bush, the half-Hispanic son of Jeb Bush, who has raised $1.3 million for a 2014 run for some statewide office to be named later.
-For just sheer enjoyment, Texas has the continuing saga of its seeming governor-for-life, Rick Perry -- who recently picked a priceless fight with California Gov. Jerry Brown and who doesn't swear off another run for his seat or another presidential run.
-And for both parties, Texas is arguably Exhibit A in how demographic forces are shaping electoral destiny.
Democrats here, shut out of statewide office since 1994, are glum about their current prospects but hopeful about a future revival for the same reason the national party is optimistic about their chances of retaining majority status in the coming years: the electorate is changing in their favor.
In Texas and beyond, the Castro twins -- one (Julian) mayor of San Antonio and the other (Joaquin) a freshman congressman -- are seen as the face of the Democratic future. Hispanics now make up a majority of Texas public school students and estimates are that they'll comprise over half of the state's residents in less than 20 years. Texas is already a "majority-minority" state.
But, as with the national political conversation, both Republicans and Democrats in Texas believe that blanket demography-is-destiny prognostications are simplistic and that the GOP won't automatically be consigned to irrelevance once the population hits a certain threshold. Texas Republicans hope the emergence of George P. Bush could be one reason why.
Mirroring the country at large, much depends on how Republicans act with regard to Hispanics and whether Democrats can field the sort of quality candidates who can bind together a viable center-and-left coalition.
"We are getting closer to it being a reality," said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) of his party regaining majority status statewide, "but it's not going to happen by demographics alone."
Castro, noting that the party needs to first bolster its infrastructure, predicts it will take eight to 10 years for Democrats to be in a position in which they can take over state politics.
"When you're in a hole in a place as big as this, it's going to take a little while to climb out," he said.
Demographics -- and the issue of growing Hispanic clout -- is interwoven throughout this state's political DNA. Republicans here have been smarter about how they approach Hispanics, reaching out to the state's Latino voters, appointing some to high-profile posts and generally avoiding the hostility that came with, for example, California Gov. Pete Wilson and Prop 187.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Strama, a Texas political operative in the GOP wave of 1994, vividly recalled a symbolically important moment in the days immediately following the George W. Bush defeat of incumbent Gov. Ann Richards: Bush was asked if he might propose a Prop 187-style law in Texas denying health and education benefits to illegal immigrants and their children.
"Any political consultant that day in those times would have said the correct answer was yes," said Strama. "But he didn't blink."
Perry has hewed to a similar approach, memorably deeming his GOP critics as "heartless" in the 2012 Republican presidential primary for their criticism of his support for giving in-state tuition to the children of illegals.
But now the GOP, in Texas and beyond, faces a test with Hispanics with how it procedes on immigration reform.
While Johnson and Carter have dived into discussions on the issue, Cornyn and especially Cruz have been far more hesitant. Some Texans worry that if Cruz votes against the eventual bill, Cornyn will have to as well -- and that their opposition, even with Senate passage, will make it harder on the state's House Republicans to back comprehensive reform.
"We have to fix this and we have to do it fairly with compassion to those people that are involved," said Carter.
But asked if any immigration measure would pass if it's perceived as amnesty, Carter didn't hesitate: "No, it cannot."
The key, he added, is "how you define amnesty."
"There's ways to do it, we're working on it," said Carter.
But other Texas Republican congressman are stepping gingerly around the issue, recognizing the danger of being branded with a scarlet "A" in their conservative districts ahead of 2014 primaries.
"It depends on what we have before us," said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), a senior member of the delegation and former congressional aide. Thornberry said his immigration priorities were on enforcement and mending the legal immigration system. He also echoed other House Republicans in saying, contra the Senate approach, he'd prefer breaking up the issue "in bite-size chunks" instead of passing a comprehensive bill.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) sounded an even more skeptical note, saying that memories of the last major immigration bill, in 1986, are still fresh for many conservative activists.
"All I can tell you is what I see at home: a lot of lessons learned from '86," said Burgess. "That, 'OK, we'll go one-time amnesty and after that we'll really be good.' But nobody believes it this time, nobody believes it."
Thornberry noted that Republican voters back home were even angrier toward Washington than when he first arrived in Washington following the 1994 election and that every incumbent in the state had to be on guard.
"I expect everybody will have a primary challenge because people are so disappointed at the results of the last elections," said Thornberry. "They're disappointed they can't get everything done they want to get done with divided government and they're looking for an outlet and one outlet is to attack other Republicans."
But Republicans eyeing Texas's Hispanic future are emphatic that immigration must be dealt with in short order.
Straus, in an interview last week in his elegant Capitol office here, had a blunt message for his counterparts in Washington: "It is an issue that has lingered far too long and as policymakers in the most important border state in the country, we need, as Texans, the Congress to solve this, take it off the plate."
And the speaker -- who represents San Antonio, home to the Castro twins -- added a warning.
"We better watch our agenda very closely and try to appeal to more people," he said. "Politics is a game of addition. Just because we've had success in recent years doesn't mean we're guaranteed of success tomorrow."
Straus, much like Speaker John Boehner, has had to quiet some of his more ideological members who've garnered press coverage for pushing issues such as the TSA groping matter and "Sanctuary Cities."
Straus's job is safe in part, though, because he enjoys coalition support from a bloc of Democrats and Republicans.
But while that enables him to muzzle conservatives in his caucus, Cornyn, the new GOP whip, has no such luxury.
Democrats snicker that he's now stuck on "Cruz Control," following the lead of his junior partner on issues ranging from the confirmation of Secretary of State John Kerry (they comprised two of the three "no" votes) to the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (which garnered 78 "yes" votes).
"Cruz is essentially now able to determine Cornyn's dance steps," said Rep. Castro.
The 42-year-old senator represents the new vanguard of his party in both Texas and beyond. Elected to the Senate after winning a primary runoff against the establishment-backed sitting lieutenant governor, he's part of a new cadre of "Red Dawn Republicans" that came of age when Ronald Reagan was president and are more conservative than their elders. The Houstonian has become an overnight star among conservatives for his prosecutorial aggression toward Chuck Hagel during the would-be Defense secretary's confirmation hearings but is raising eyebrows among some of his more senior colleagues.
"He's bumping his head on the wall, isn't he?" observed Johnson with a how-about-that tone. Asked what he made of the rookie, Johnson, who first came to Congress in 1991, said: "Well, I don't know. He's outspoken. But he's on the right side."
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who has taken the helm of the Financial Services Committee, said Cruz represents the urgency bordering on panic many grass-roots conservatives are gripped by in an era of large deficits.
"People sense that time is running off the clock," said Hensarling. "And they're looking for people who will not only articulate what they think but also will take action. That's what they see in Ted Cruz."
Cruz's victory last summer against longtime Lt. Gov David Dewhurst sent shockwaves through the state political establishment and sent the same message to Texas politicos as tea party wins have in other states: ambitious conservatives aren't going to wait their turns any longer.
"You are going to see more contested races in the primaries.," explained Austin-based GOP consultant David Weeks. "The Cruz race changed things."
As his votes show, Cornyn got that message. The other big question now hanging over Texas is whether Attorney General Greg Abbott is feeling as emboldened as Cruz. Abbott, who has held his office for a decade, is sitting on an $18 million war chest and is mulling whether to run for governor in 2014. That could mean a primary challenge against Perry, who is now in his 13th year as governor and has been back in the news for another job poaching run in California. But the betting in Austin is that the governor could forgo a fourth gubernatorial campaign to prepare for another run.
"If he doesn't run for governor, I assume he'll run for president," said one Perry adviser.