Midterms a warning shot to ‘red meat’ Republicans

GOP candidates for lieutenant governor take their places for a debate at KERA studios in Dallas on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. Photo by LM Otero / AP Photo

A few years ago, my wife and I decided to spend a rare date night away from the kids at a Republican primary forum in Fort Worth. Four candidates were vying to be the state’s next lieutenant governor. When it was his turn, the eventual victor, Dan Patrick, began his red meat speech by highlighting what he considered his most important achievement as a state senator: installing “In God We Trust” in the Senate chamber. Now, my wife and I are about as conservative as you can get, and weekly churchgoers to boot, but we both turned to each other and rolled our eyes at his answer.

You’re a man of God, you say? I say, that’s great — now lower our property taxes, please.

Conservatives in Texas have grown flabby over the past 25 years of political dominance. Before the recent midterm elections, the state Democratic Party was a joke whose only purpose seemed to be offering up sacrificial lambs for statewide offices. The margins from a sea of rural counties were healthy enough to offset the blue islands of Dallas, Houston, and the People’s Republic of Travis County. For my entire life, conservatives have faced zero downsides in playing to the hard right in the most obnoxious ways possible, because the general election was always in the bag. The only thing that mattered was getting out of the primary.

No more: Those blue islands are spreading to places like Fort Worth, and are themselves expanding as more of the state’s population lives in and around our large cities. Write off Beto as an especially telegenic talent running in an especially good year for Democrats if that makes you feel better, but with increasing urbanization, state conservatives cannot continue to forfeit the parts of the state where most people live.

And what do those people care about? For one, they care about being embarrassed by their political leaders. Our metro areas are diverse, and filled with kind, tolerant people. You can’t blame these voters for not wanting to be seen as associating with a political party that seeks to ban officials because of their religion, as in the Tarrant County GOP. Even soft culture war volleys like Patrick’s carry a whiff of ham-fisted intolerance.

Urban voters also want affordable housing, low taxes, good schools, safe communities, and to not waste away their lives in horrible traffic. Conservatives must offer them solutions, because progressives certainly are. If you think that Texans will never agree to a state income tax, take off your partisan blinders. Ask yourself how the progressive pitch sounds to an average, apolitical working family just trying to get by: “Property taxes in this state are outrageous, and they’re paid by middle class and working people who just want a place to live. If we had just a small income tax on the richest 1 percent of Texans, we could provide X amount of annual relief to the average family.” Of course, as similar experiments in places like New Jersey (or the federal government, for that matter) show, it never stops with the richest 1 percent and the rate continues to rise. But it’s persuasive, and certainly beats holier-than-thou posturing in the state Senate. Inertia in political preference can change quickly around our metropolitan areas once the Texas left has a few attractive issues and candidates.

People come here, especially to our metropolitan areas, from around the country and across the world in order to better their lives and those of their children. This is a time of tremendous energy and opportunity for those of us who believe in free markets and limited government. Our task now is to reach out to those new Texans (and young Texans) with persuasive evidence, to ensure that Texas remains prime real estate in our land of opportunity.

Michael A. Wood

President, Lone Star Policy Institute