WACO, Texas—For two decades, the Texas Republican Party has been the great dissenter as the national GOP veered right on immigration. But it doesn't take very long around Dan Patrick, the Republican who will almost certainly win election in November as the state's powerful lieutenant governor, to realize those days are gone.
While Republican Govs. George W. Bush and Rick Perry prioritized Hispanic outreach and consistently rejected polarizing immigration policies, Patrick—and like-minded new state GOP leaders like Sen. Ted Cruz—are steering Texas Republicans sharply rightward on these issues. Patrick ousted incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a GOP primary this year, mostly behind promises to toughen enforcement at the Mexican border and to repeal the policy of providing in-state public college tuition to young people brought to the U.S. illegally—a plan that the outgoing Gov. Perry signed and still defends.
This dramatic shift, in the state that had previously built the most promising conservative model for attracting Hispanics, underscores how thoroughly immigration hard-liners have regained the advantage in the GOP. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012 despite winning a higher share of the white vote than Ronald Reagan in 1980, Republican interest spiked in passing a comprehensive immigration-reform package that might boost the party's competitiveness among Hispanics. But after the Senate last year approved a bipartisan bill that included a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, conservative resistance derailed the plan in the House.
Since then, President Obama's pledge to use executive authority to provide some of those undocumented immigrants legal status, the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America, and rising anxiety over global threats as diverse as ISIS and the Ebola virus have all combined to harden the GOP's conservative tilt on these issues. Against that backdrop, Republican campaigns this fall are ringing with denunciations of "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants and warnings that terrorists might be surging across the Mexican border (a claim rejected by administration law-enforcement officials).
Nowhere is this shifting tone more evident than in Texas. Both Bush and Perry were sensitive to the state's growing population of Hispanics, who now comprise about two-fifths of all Texans and half of state residents under 18.
When California in 1994 passed Proposition 187, denying almost all public services to undocumented immigrants, Bush as governor pointedly refused to follow. When Arizona in 2010 passed SB 1070, its restrictive immigration-enforcement measure, Perry likewise declared, "It would not be the right direction for Texas." As president, Bush backed comprehensive reform legislation that provided undocumented immigrants a pathway to American citizenship; as governor, Perry signed the bill providing in-state tuition to undocumented young people (with support from all but five legislators in both parties).
Neither man embraced all Hispanic concerns; Perry has rejected the expansion of Medicaid that would hugely benefit that community and he imposed big cuts in education funding the same year (2011) that Hispanics became a majority of Texas public school students. But both worked diligently to suppress the harshest initiatives and set an inclusive tone.
Texas Republicans today strike very different notes. Patrick, a state senator and talk-radio host, is the most inflammatory. He has described illegal immigration as an "invasion" and warned that undocumented immigrants "are bringing Third World diseases with them."
While somewhat tempering that rhetoric lately, Patrick still portrays border conditions in apocalyptic terms that even some Republicans have condemned as alarmist. Debating last week with Hispanic Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Leticia Van de Putte, Patrick warned of "terrorists "¦ drug cartels "¦ and hardened criminals" slipping into Texas: "It's a lot more than just people coming here and working for the American Dream." This week Patrick released an ad, complete with images of black-clad jihadist fighters, in which he warns that "ISIS terrorists threaten to cross our border and kill Americans" and pledges: "Border security will be my top priority." Patrick rejects the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that Bush promoted, and says the in-state tuition policy Perry defends has been a "magnet" drawing illegal migrants.
Patrick somewhat counters these notes by declaring he opposes mass deportation, and promising to improve K-12 education for Hispanics. And he insists that despite these sharp immigration positions, Republicans can attract Hispanic voters, "because our values are the values of all Texans."
A procession of prominent Texas Republican Hispanics like state Rep. Jason Villalba has publicly condemned Patrick's approach. Likewise, Bush's nephew, Jeb's son George P. Bush, who is the Republican nominee for land commissioner in Texas, has joined Perry in saying he still supports in-state tuition for undocumented students. Greg Abbott, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee, is spending heavily to court Hispanics and has also kept his distance from Patrick's most volatile rhetoric.
But the party overall is moving toward him. This year's state party platform seconded Patrick's key immigration ideas and revoked its 2012 endorsement of a "Texas solution" to provide legal status, but not citizenship, to the undocumented. And after hedging all year, Abbott acknowledged last week that if the Legislature repeals in-state tuition for undocumented students, he would sign the bill. Abbott's capitulation shows how little flexibility an agitated base may leave national Republicans to court the Hispanic votes that could determine whether they recapture the presidency in 2016.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.