political parties

State political conventions make history: Here's why you should care

State political conventions make history: Here's why you should care

Austin Photo Set: News_karen_texas political conventions_june 2012

The state’s two main political parties made history at their respective state conventions this weekend, though you’d be forgiven — sort of — for not really having the conventions on your radar. 

They are the very pinnacle of political wonkiness, a playground for the insiders and activists. They can be intimidating to a beginner. 

The Republican Party of Texas backed off on the harsh immigration rhetoric of the past and proposed a plan that marks a distinct shift for the mainstream of the party (though it did infuriate the tea party grassroots) at their convention in Fort Worth

Over in Houston, the Texas Democrats elected a Hispanic to run the party for the first time in Texas history and moved even further left on their platform.  

Here’s why you would be forgiven for missing the news and coverage of the conventions: Because it’s hard to grasp the idea that they matter. 

Because they pass no laws and none of their decisions are binding, your Average Joe would be hard pressed to care about what they do. But they do matter for a couple of reasons, even if you sometimes have to peer through the back-slapping blowhard-ness of it all in order to see them. 

 But [the conventions] do matter for a couple of reasons, even if you sometimes have to peer through the back-slapping blowhard-ness of it all in order to see them. 

The state conventions are a chance for the delegates from each district to get together on an election year, rally the troops, check in with their party leaders, elect (or oust) their officers, and decide on the platform of issues that will define the party for the next two years. They fire up the grassroots, demonize the opposing party, maybe even fundraise.

The delegates are chosen at their district caucuses at primary time, and they are usually the most hardcore grassroots activists. From the state convention they’ll decide who gets to go to the national convention, which is where they make official their party’s presidential nomination — even though by the time we get to the nationals, the primaries have already identified the nominees and we know who will be on the ballot come November. 

The state conventions matter because they keep us apprised of the direction each party plans to take for the next two years. They choose the people they want to lead the party through the next cycle, which influences fundraising for candidates — which, as we all know, can influence elections. 

And they matter because in a roundabout way, they can affect who ultimately ends up in office. And we all know why that’s important.

At the Republicans in Fort Worth, the featured speaker was Rick Santorum — a rabble rousing grassroots favorite if there ever was one — but the real fun began when rivals Ted Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took the stage. 

These two are in a heated runoff for the U.S. Senate nomination, a contest that would be over by now if it weren’t for the redistricting process that pushed elections back until after the conventions. Because the primary elections are typically over by the time the conventions roll around, it’s unusual to see candidates bashing each other at convention. The race for party chair can get vicious, and the platform fights can be all kinds of gloves-off fun. 

But the Cruz-Dewhurst contest brought high drama for the poli-nerds among us, starting with the moment Gov. Rick Perry got booed for mentioning Dewhurst’s name, and Dewhurst got booed for bashing Cruz. And when Cruz, a former solicitor general and tea party favorite, took the stage to the “Eye of the Tiger” number that defined Rocky Balboa’s scratching, clawing fight to the top. Usually the party celebrates its leaders at convention. This year, it was popcorn time

Even that, however, didn’t actually matter except to give us a glimpse at the level of support Cruz has among the grassroots, which is considerable. 

The news they made was their platform, in particular, the move closer to center on immigration, choosing as a party to support what they called the Texas Solution, a type of guestworker program that has often been used to vilify Republicans who don’t want to build walls and cut off healthcare for the children of illegals (both of which were on previous Republican platforms).

It’s news not because it changes anything legally, but because it lets us know what kind of candidates we can expect to see out of the mainstream party. Whether they win their elections will be anybody’s guess, but it signals an important shift in the party’s philosophy, at least for now. 

In Houston, the Democrats’ party platform made history as well, when for the first time they added express support for equal marriage rights — a nod, presumably, to President Obama’s recently articulated stance on gay marriage and a plea to gay voters not to abandon the party yet. 

But for their part, the true news was made when they elected Gilberto Hinojosa, a former judge from South Texas, to lead the party — the first Hispanic to chair the Democrats in the state’s history.

The fact that it took until now to do that is a stunning historic oversight that, it could be argued, illustrates exactly why the Dems in Texas lost all their power so rapidly and spectacularly. (Maybe don’t ignore your fastest-growing voter base.) 

Now the parties turn their attention to a busy summer, with national conventions coming up and a presidential election that won't be a shoo-in for anyone. Keep watching. You have plenty of reasons to care about that, too.