GOP braces for night of chaos in Texas' two-step primary

FORT WORTH — Voting will be just the first of the political battles fought Tuesday in Texas, where a two-step primary process bedeviled Democrats in 2008.

This year, it's the Republicans and the tea party activists who are likely to overwhelm the system.

Under Texas's two-step primary system, people go to the polls during the day to cast their ballots. Then in the evening, the most active of the party faithful head back to the polls for precinct conventions in hopes of charting the direction of their political party for the next two years.

In 2008, Barack Obama partisans turned out in such numbers at the precinct conventions that even though Hillary Clinton had won the voting, Obama, by the time all was said and done, ended up with more Texas delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

This year, the Republicans are preparing for a large turnout. The more than 100,000 Texans who became active with the grassroots Tea Party and 912 movements in the past year show are expected to attend.

"What happened in 2006 and 2008 is that conservatives did not engage," said Adrian Murray, president of Fort Worth 912, a group that was created last year. "Whatever the reason, we stood on the sidelines, and the Obama tsunami swept a lot of Dems into office.

"You could call what's going to happen this year the 'riptide effect' as those Dems get swept back out to sea," he said. "We were caught napping once. Not again."

As a result, a new battle for the direction of the Texas Republican Party is likely to unfold Tuesday night at polling places statewide.

Tea Party activists have been lining up precinct chair candidates and potential delegates who hope for a chance to work on shifting the party's focus away from social issues and toward personal freedoms and requiring more financial restraint from the state and federal governments.

"This is not something that's happening just in Tarrant County or Texas," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Tea Party people are mobilizing to try to take over the primary election process and state convention process.

"They don't like what would be done in their absence, by the regular Republicans."

Republicans have long battled internally on which direction the party should go. Most recently, social conservatives worked in the early 1990s to shift the focus away from business-minded members.

"These kind of things have happened over time," said Ernest Angelo Jr., a Republican National Committee member for Texas from 1976 to 1996. "There were a number of times when groups of people were more motivated than the old guard."

Right now, he said, a new movement could rejuvenate the party.

"The party has become fairly lethargic ... and somewhat complacent," said Angelo, of Midland. "Texas hasn't been as bad, but overall, Republicans got complacent [from] too much success. ... There are a lot of signs that's going to change a lot this year."

Murray predicts "record turnout" at many GOP precinct conventions.

He said training sessions have been held since November to teach convention newcomers what happens and why.

Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant who works with both Republicans and Democrats, also predicts a large showing.

"There's a high level of agitation and unhappiness with things," he said. "We will probably see a high number of people who don't normally turn out. They are people unhappy with things and want to express it politically."

Each precinct polling place will host two conventions Tuesday night -- one for Republicans, one for Democrats.

Attendees may submit proposed planks for the party platform, which for Republicans could touch on nullification and federal fiscal restraints and for Democrats could include whether to eliminate the "Texas two-step" process that awards delegates based on both primary and caucus votes.

"We may see some interesting resolutions passed at precinct conventions, which will show which way the wind is blowing," said Allan Saxe, an assistant political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

At these conventions, delegates are chosen for the March 20 county or senatorial conventions, where platforms are firmed up and delegates are picked for the state conventions this summer.

Republicans will hold their state convention June 11-12 in Dallas; Democrats will hold theirs June 25-26 in Corpus Christi.

"This election matters," said Stephanie Klick, who heads the Tarrant County Republican Party. "We're at a crossroads, and those that want to chart the course of the party in the future in Texas know they need to participate."

Klick said she expects larger-than-average crowds at the precinct conventions. She said a Tarrant County GOP analysis of voter turnout shows that 20 percent of those voting in the Republican primary had never voted in a primary and that 10 percent voted in previous Democratic primaries.

"There are a lot of folks that are getting involved politically for the first time," she said. "Events nationally are motivating them to turn out and get involved for the first time. ... It's a great thing."

Local GOP activists have been knocking on doors, walking precincts and talking to voters for months, encouraging them to vote, attend precinct conventions, run for precinct chair or seek positions as delegates to party conventions.

Similar efforts have been going on statewide.

"We recognize that our failure to engage in the process in the past has led to true conservative voices being sidelined," Murray, of Fort Worth 912, said. "If we want candidates to pay heed to our views, we have to be involved and make our views heard."

Local Democrats are keeping an eye on the GOP precinct conventions.

"The conservatives and Tea Party folks recognize this is an unprecedented opportunity for them to take control of the Republican primary process," said Steve Maxwell, who heads the Tarrant Democratic Party. "They could steer the Republican Party in a more conservative direction than it has gone in the past few years."