FORT WORTH, Texas — Tea party activists seized control of the Texas Republican Convention on Saturday, winning a harder line on immigration in the official party platform and lifting firebrand U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz to an easy victory in a 2016 presidential straw poll.
Following hours of often contentious debate and an especially raucous vote, the roughly 7,000 delegates torpedoed platform language approved at their convention just two years ago endorsing a guest-worker program for people in the country illegally.
The so-called “Texas Solution” was meant to satisfy the needs of a booming Texas economy and was supposed to act as a model for comprehensive, federal immigration reform. It was also seen as a boon to the state’s fast-growing Hispanic population — though opponents called it amnesty for law-breakers.
This time, the convention had appeared poised to pass a plank including a compromise removing a specific call for a guest-worker program but creating a work-permit plan that essentially did the same thing once the U.S.-Mexico border was fully “secured.”
That initially passed, but then collapsed as the tea party flexed its muscles — the latest sign that grass-roots activists have pushed the always conservative Texas GOP even further to the right.
Delegate Jack Finger of San Antonio walked the floor with a hand-scrawled sign reading “No! Not even a hint of amnesty!”
“There is language that allows us to slide toward amnesty,” Finger said of the plan that eventually was defeated. “Guest worker, visa permit, all that puts us on a road to make our citizenship meaningless.”
Indeed, the hall was enveloped in applause when delegate Ivette Lozano, of Dallas, took a microphone to liken a softer immigration stance to negotiating with terrorists.
The final vote results on the immigration plank were close enough that the convention called for a rare roll-call vote — but scrapping the 2012 language eventually was defeated decisively. Even before then, though, booing and shouting so marred the proceedings that party chairman Steve Munisteri repeatedly pleaded for civility.
Backers of the “Texas Solution” blamed the defeat on delegates who left before a final vote and parliamentary maneuvering by the other side.
“The people that hung around were the vocal minority of the party,” said Brad Bailey, a Houston restaurateur credited with writing the guest worker language in 2012. “I’ll give them credit, they outworked us.”
Far less contentious, meanwhile, was support for possible future presidential candidate Cruz.
The tea party darling spent two days working the convention and was often introduced as “our next president” and greeted by cries of “Run, Ted! Run!” In a keynote speech Friday, he promised to lead a national conservative revolution unseen since the days of Ronald Reagan.
The result was unequivocal, with delegates chanting “Cruz! Cruz!” before they were read. The senator took more than 43 percent of the vote and the next-closest finisher was conservative speaker and author Ben Carson, who won 12.2 percent.
Fellow tea party-backed U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a native Texan who also addressed the convention this week, won 12.1 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry with 11.7 percent. Perry isn’t seeking re-election in November but sounded like he was mounting a second run for the White House during a well-received convention speech Thursday.
Ten other straw poll candidates won no more than 4 percent of the vote each.
Saturday’s battles over immigration were so heated they meant that the party approved the rest of its sweeping platform with virtually no debate — except a proposed endorsement for medical marijuana that was defeated. Supporters, however, claimed victory simply because the issue made it to the convention floor.
“I believe this is a party of personal liberty,” said delegate David Westbrook, who helped draft the proposed marijuana amendment. “It means we have to be consistent on it.”
Avoiding a floor fight altogether was the removal from the latest party platform of long-standing language that “homosexuality tears at the fabric of society.” But delegates instead sanctioned language allowing Texans to seek voluntary counseling to “cure” being gay — in contrast to California and New Jersey, which have previously banned licensed professionals from providing such therapy to minors.