For a decade and a half, Texas politics may have driven you crazy, but they were easy, or at least fairly easy, to understand. There were the radical conservatives and theocrats, motivated either by their fervor or will to power. Then there were the moderate Republicans, motivated by their belief that the only thing more important than traditional values was the free market.
The state's factions worked together enough to marginalize Democrats and fought it out in primary elections and at the capitol in Austin. They pushed and pulled against each other, sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes in public, but they stuck together enough that it was hard to imagine things ever being different.
Then came the 2016 election. President Donald Trump — to state the obvious — shook America's political foundations to their core. His election also served as a turning point for dozens of Texas' biggest politicians. For the likes of Dan Patrick, Beto O'Rourke, Ken Paxton and so many others, political lives can be divided cleanly into Before Trump and After Trump pieces.
Let's take a look at the 45th president's gravitational pull on Texas.
Before Trump: The number of Texans outside of El Paso who could've identified O'Rourke before November 2016 probably could've fit into a minor-league baseball stadium. He was a locally popular former city council member with a limited statewide or national profile because El Paso — while it's a great place to visit and a better place to live — might as well be on the moon, given its isolation in far West Texas.
After Trump: O'Rourke began picking up steam toward becoming a thing, thanks in large part to President Trump's immigration policies. He talked up his hometown and its lack of crime on cable news shows and started barnstorming Texas in anticipation of a Senate bid against incumbent Ted Cruz. O'Rourke famously visited all 254 counties in the state before finishing within three points of Cruz — about 10 points closer than anyone would have thought possible a year earlier.
O'Rourke took the close loss to Cruz — and the millions he raised from donors across the United States — as proof that he was meant for something bigger. He announced a presidential run this spring and quit the race the first week of November. O'Rourke is not going to be president, but everyone knows his name. He owes that, in part, to the president.
Before Trump: Cruz was going to be president. After pulling off a monumental upset in Texas' 2012 Senate race, Cruz successfully positioned himself as one of Congress' purest conservatives over the next four years. He successfully scuttled the Gang of Eight's comprehensive immigration reform package in 2013, railed against the Affordable Care Act and accused President Obama of wanting to allow "grown men and boys into little girls' bathrooms."
Backed by his credentials as a fiscal conservative, immigration hawk and culture warrior, Cruz should've been a shoo-in for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
After Trump: Instead, perhaps because of his personality, Cruz got crushed by the president in the 2016 primaries. Trump called Cruz's wife ugly, coined the nickname Lyin' Ted and insinuated the senator's dad was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Cruz voted for Trump, the man he called a pathological liar, anyway and has proved to be one of his strongest supporters in Washington.
Before Trump: Paxton, Texas' attorney general, was a curiosity, thanks to his penchant for taking things that don't belong to him, his love for suing the Obama administration and his pair of still-unresolved felony indictments. While there's a strong chance Paxton would still be attorney general if Trump wasn't elected in 2016, he certainly wouldn't be on the national stage.
After Trump: The president has elevated Paxton, who should be an embarrassment to Republicans, to being a national figure. The attorney general is leading the lawsuit that could torpedo Obamacare and has consulted with the administration on DACA, the President Obama-initiated program that allows young adults brought to the U.S. as children to live and work in the country without fear of deportation. When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped down, there were cries on social media that Paxton should be his replacement. At the time, it sounded like a crazy suggestion. Upon further review, however, an indicted attorney general would fit right into the Trump administration.
Before Trump: Before President Trump took office, Colin Allred the politician didn't even exist. The former Baylor and Tennessee Titans linebacker was a civil rights attorney with experience working in the Obama administration, but he had never held or run for office at any level.
After Trump: Growing discontent with the president among moderate college-educated and suburban voters gave Allred an opening and he took full advantage. He outlasted a primary field that included Obama appointee Lillian Salerno, Hillary Clinton adviser Ed Meier and former WFAA reporter Brett Shipp, and then knocked off 11-term incumbent Pete Sessions in November 2018.
Before Trump: In January 2017, Sessions took the oath of office prior to his 11th term as a member of Congress. He was the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and hadn't faced a serious electoral challenge since 2004. Nobody really liked him, but they were willing to put up with him. Two years later, he was out on his rear end.
After Trump: Allred pounded Sessions, repeatedly, for the congressman's vote to support the Trump-backed plan to repeal Obamacare. Sessions never caught up to the fact that he'd fallen, all at once, out of step with his district. In his concession speech, he blamed newcomers to Texas who just didn't understand what made the state great.
Sessions is running again in 2020, but he's decamped for Texas' Waco-based 17th Congressional District. Trump has poisoned Dallas against Republicans, and he knows it.
Before Trump: Gohmert was a joke before Trump's election. He'd wander out onto the House floor for Gohmert Hour, say something crazy about abortion, immigration, God or guns, and then wait for his next morsel of media attention. He kept getting reelected, and that was fine, because nobody, you know, actually listened to him.
After Trump: Trump's election led to Gohmert's becoming part of Dear Leader's vanguard, joining with Matt Gaetz and other members of the House's odd squad to champion conspiracy theories, threaten civil war and preach the gospel of Trumpism wherever he could. Far from being stuck on the back benches, Gohmert is now on the front lines. Lord help us all.
Before Trump: Perry was living the good life before Trump's election. Sure, he'd muddled his way through two completely unsuccessful presidential campaigns, but his long run as Texas governor was remembered fondly by conservatives. If he'd wanted, he could have easily lived out his political winter at home, picking up easy money from giving speeches and serving on corporate boards.
After Trump: Instead, Perry agreed to become President Trump's energy secretary. That would've been fine, but the former governor managed to get himself enmeshed in the Ukraine scandal that's threatening to take the president down. Perry has announced that he plans to resign his post at the end of the year. He may end up wishing he'd done so a lot sooner.
Before Trump: Patrick's story is a lot like Paxton's. As Texas' lieutenant governor, he had power before Trump. Patrick ran the Texas Senate with a heavy hand, pushing the state's legislative agenda as far to the right as he could. He was clearly ambitious — rumors of his running for higher office are as predictable as August heat — but it was hard to imagine his being part of, say, a Jeb Bush administration.
After Trump: The lieutenant governor smartly hooked his star to Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election. He's been rewarded with rumors of a cabinet appointment, all the speaking slots on cable news that he can handle and gigs at Trump rallies around the state. With Trump in office, Patrick's always-fiery rhetoric has reached new heights.
"They have no idea what's coming a little over a year from now," Patrick said, gesturing at the press pen during President Trump's October rally in Dallas. "We in Texas will not stand by quietly, idly, as the big government left and their communist policies take our country away from us."
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