Facing tough November, Texas Tea Party now wants to stitch the GOP back together

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Leaders of the conservative Texas tea party movement who have spent years railing against GOP moderates are now urging their supporters to get behind a full slate of Republican candidates this fall — even ones they’ve previously opposed.

The more inclusive approach comes as Republicans strategists across the state concede their party is out of practice when it comes to campaigning for a general election, a concern in a year where Democrats have fielded an unusually large number of strong candidates to run against them.

A number of prominent Texas Republicans have also endorsed Democrats over the tea party’s top candidates this fall.

“A lot of our fights here in this room, in the conservative movement, have been focused in the primaries,” state State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, an outspoken member of the Texas House Freedom Caucus, told a gathering of the NE Tarrant County Tea Party at the Grapevine Convention Center earlier this week.

“You must care about this general election in a way that none of us have ever done before,” said Stickland, who faces a challenge this fall from Democrat Steve Riddell.

Texas hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976 or elected a Democrat statewide since 1994.

Yet in the first midterm election of Donald Trump’s presidency, Democratic candidates are waging aggressive campaigns in places that haven’t seen a serious race in recent memory.

“Most of our Republican candidates, incumbents, and consultants under the age of 50 have never had a race where they’ve had to worry about a general election,” said Dave Carney, the architect of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaigns and former White House political adviser to President George H.W. Bush. “It’s been a big learning curve for everybody.”

Democrats are now targeting eight congressional races in Texas is districts currently held by Republicans. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who is running against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has raised more money than any U.S. Senate candidate in history, funds that Republicans worry could trickle down to help other Democrats.

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“This isn’t [Republicans’] daddy’s reelection campaign,” said Carney, the Abbott strategist. “You have to go talk to voters, new voters, so-called independents, who vote in general elections but don’t vote in primaries.”

Tea Party leaders insist their base is big enough to stave off a Democratic uprising without compromising their conservative values, as long as their party sticks together this fall.

But at this week’s tea party’s event in Grapevine, they were still hammering messages aimed squarely at conservative loyalists.

“People ask me, ‘what are you going to do when you get to Washington?” said Republican congressional hopeful Ron Wright, who previously served as Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector and on Arlington’s city council and as mayor pro tempore, a nonpartisan role.

“I say, ‘Well I’m going to join the [conservative House] Freedom Caucus and bask in the glow of [Rep.] Louie Gohmert, (R-Texas),’” said Wright, citing a controversial conservative firebrand who also addressed the group that evening.

This week national Democrats included Wright’s race on their list of Texas congressional targets. Wright’s campaign, which took on a big debt fighting a tough primary runoff against fellow Republican Jake Ellzey, is a seat Republicans have won easily in recent years, but is now being targeted by Democrats.

Among others: In San Antonio, Republican Chip Roy benefited from millions of dollars from conservative outside groups in a heated GOP primary to succeed retiring Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

Roy, who was slow to fire up his general election campaign, now faces a tougher-than-expected race against Democrat Joseph Kopser, in a district that Smith held easily.

In Houston, Republican Dan Crenshaw donated $100,000 to a GOP leadership PAC after securing the GOP nomination in a tough primary race to replace retiring conservative Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. Crenshaw’s race is also now on Democrats’ target list for November, as he faces a general election contest with Todd Litton.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who personally invited President Donald Trump to campaign in Texas, urged conservatives at the tea party gathering to vote “straight ticket” for Republicans on the ballot this fall — including those he’s long sparred with.

“There are some moderates in our party, and there are conservatives in our party... there are some business people who don’t care about the pro-life issues, and pro-life people who don’t care about the business issues,” said Patrick, who was nearly hoarse from an unusually aggressive campaign schedule this fall. “Not every Republican agrees with me on every issue…[but] every Republican has to line up.”

Patrick this fall faces a challenge from Democrat Mike Collier, who was endorsed by Patrick’s failed GOP primary challenger, Scott Milder.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at adrusch@mcclatchydc.com; @andreadrusch