FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Just two years after embracing a softer stance on immigration in hopes of wooing the state's surging Hispanic population, the Texas Republican Party has done a dramatic about-face — gutting its own past initiative and vowing that not giving an inch on the issue will ensure future success.
Democrats, who haven't won a statewide office in 20 years, the longest such streak in America, say shifting demographics mean Texas will eventually turn blue. They insist such hard-line GOP policies will only speed the process. But the message from the tea party forces who dominated the recent Republican primary and this week's state party convention was simple: We're not budging.
"This idea that somehow we're not going to be able to attract Hispanic voters to our party over immigration is wrong," state Sen. Dan Patrick, a tea party darling from Houston who toppled long-serving incumbent David Dewhurst to win the GOP lieutenant governor nomination, told delegates Saturday. "Because, much of the time, all Hispanics want the same thing that you want, they want a secure border."
Opponents say calls to secure the border are an excuse to immigrant-bash while offering few solutions, since defining what constitutes a pacified border between Mexico and the United States is impossible. But Patrick's campaign even distributed signs shaped like a fence with a giant padlock over the words "Secure the Border."
"We must not step back from being bold on the issue that impacts the country and this state," Patrick said, "and that's people pouring across the border every week."
Since no incumbent is left running, every major statewide office will have a new occupant following November's election. And not all rising Texas conservatives have taken such fiery immigration stances. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, urged delegates to think about the future of their party and ways to grow it in his convention address.
George P. Bush, who is running for land commissioner and represents the latest generation of his family's political dynasty, says the party doesn't have to change its message, but must take it directly to Hispanic communities that conservatives have long ignored. A similar tone came from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite and native Texan who also addressed delegates.
Still, for many at the convention, there was little patience for a more measured approach.
As the gathering in Fort Worth entered it's final, frantic hour Saturday, the most conservative wing of the party dismantled language in the 2012 state party platform known as the "Texas Solution." It had sanctioned a guest worker program for people in the U.S. illegally, bolstering a workforce for the state's booming economy while providing an olive branch of sorts to Hispanics who tend to support Democrats.
Opponents, however, branded the endorsement amnesty for lawbreakers and removed it in a roll-call vote involving thousands of delegates, many of whom struggled to understand what they were voting on. The move defied business-minded conservatives, who had spent hours trying to hammer out a compromise that would have allowed the Texas Solution to survive in modified form.
Firebrand U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz won the convention's 2016 presidential straw poll, easily defeating Paul and outgoing Gov. Rick Perry, a former tea party champion who has since seen the state's Republican Party perhaps move too far to the right even for him.
At a Dallas event later Saturday, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis called the new GOP immigration plank "a slap in the face to every Texan across the state."
Battleground Texas, a grass-roots group attempting to make Texas politically competitive, noted that in addition to scrapping a guest worker program, the GOP platform endorses offering voluntary therapy to turn gay people straight.
That the Democrats might be on the rise with Davis' candidacy and Battleground Texas, though, is one issue tea party conservatives and more traditional Republicans agree on.
"They picked the wrong battleground," Patrick said Saturday. And Perry went further in his earlier convention speech: "Texas will be their political burial ground."