DALLAS — If there’s an overarching theme of the CPAC convention in Dallas this weekend, beyond devotion to former President Donald Trump, it’s an unfettered commitment to actively defeating what most people here believe is an aggressive attack on America from a neo-Marxist left.
In speech after impassioned speech, participants are encouraged to get active, fight and push back against Democrats who they say are trying to take over America.
“Be it the liberals, Marxists or Democrats, they are demanding that we surrender our culture,” said Don Huffines, a former Texas State Senator and now gubernatorial challenger to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Patriots, grab your rusted swords of liberty! Help me cut the chains of government and awaken the sleeping sheep from their slumber to help us restore the liberty that has been stolen from us!” Huffines said, conjuring up Game of Thrones-like imagery to fire up the crowd at the three-day convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Dallas.
“This is Texas. We will bend no knee to no man, to no government for no reason!”
Huffines’ appearance at CPAC is significant as Texas Republicans gear up for the primary season. The Dallas businessman is popular among conservatives at the convention, who blame Abbott for caving to liberals in his response to the pandemic and accuse him of being a Republican in name only, or RINO.
Now, there are two conservative challengers for Abbott in the Republican primary for governor. Allen West, the former head of the Texas Republican Party and a staunch critic of the governor, also declared his candidacy this month.
The possibilities that come with two ultra-conservative Republican gubernatorial candidates in the primary race have set Texas’ conservative grassroots activists — like the thousands gathered in Dallas for CPAC — into high gear.
“Action and involvement are the key things here,” said Fran Rhodes, the president of the True Texas Project, a grassroots conservative organization started 12 years ago by members of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.
The organization changed its name to reflect a statewide shift, said Julie McCarty, the founder of the organization and a well-known name in the conservative, grassroots movement in Texas.
But labeling the True Texas Party “Tea Party 2.0” would be an accurate description, she said.
If there is a difference between the group then and now, it is that the True Texas Project is less focused on promoting new candidates and more focused on holding elected Republicans to account for conservative priorities, Rhodes said.
“If we succeed in electing some new, strong conservatives, in large numbers, then that will be historic,” Rhodes said. “So, whatever happens in the election, we will keep doing what we do, which is educate and motivate citizens to be engaged.”
The organization operates at a classic, grassroots level, encouraging local chapter members to engage with local party precincts, races and issues. It holds training sessions about voter registration and advocacy. It also lobbies in Austin.
During this year’s legislative session, more than 130 True Texas Project representatives lobbied in Austin on abortion, gun rights and other Republican priority issues. They testified at hearings, talked to legislators, lobbied committee members and wrote position papers, Rhodes said.
According to McCarty, the group is gaining momentum. At the beginning of 2021, True Texas Project had three local chapters. By the end of 2021, it will have 17 locations across the state, she said.
“And we are just getting started,” McCarty said.
Abbott is seen as having presidential aspirations, putting the national spotlight on Texas’ gubernatorial race. It also means that Abbott, fearing fallout from the right side of the party, has steered his campaign in recent weeks to reflect an even more conservative bent.
He’s declared that Texas would build its own border wall to stop illegal immigration. In calling for a special legislative session, he’s put major conservative issues on the agenda, such as election integrity, transgender youth in sports, critical race theory and social media censorship.
Before the rise of the Tea Party and the 2014 election, Texas had been a fairly traditional, business-friendly Republican party, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
During the last seven to eight years, the Texas Republican party has evolved into a social conservative-first and business-second party, becoming more conservative, Jillson said.
“Abbott is very much aware of that and very sensitive to not allowing anyone... to get consistently to his right,” Jillson said. “So, he continues to shift right. And to be sure that there’s not enough space to his right for anyone like Don Huffines or Allen West, let alone [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick to steal a march on him on that side of things.”
Both parties are working hard to get more voters ahead of the 2022 elections. Texas Democrats predict that there are as many as 2 million unregistered voters who, if registered, would vote Democrat.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, is working on the left, traveling across the state in a campaign-like tour to fire up Democrats about voting rights issues and get more registered. O’Rourke has not announced if he will run against Abbott, although many Democrats hope he will.
The Texas GOP has been threatened in recent years by diversifying and growing demographics some see as fueling growth in the Democratic party. Although the Republicans still hold a trifecta of power, recent gains in the Texas House in the 2018 election shook the GOP enough to organize and maintain the status quo in 2020.
It’s why conservative Republican activists, like the thousands here at CPAC this weekend, said it’s so important to get organized and get to work.
“Grassroots activism can have a huge impact especially when they focus on talking about issues, where they can have more success,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an independent Republican strategist based in Austin. “It’s more difficult to take that energy and pick an incumbent and try to replace them with an outsider.”
Trump has dominated CPAC in recent years, and this year’s convention is no different. Some question whether such devotion will hinder the party going forward, particularly if Trump’s dominance in the party continues to drive divisions in the GOP.
The heavy reliance on Trump in the Republican party does raise concerns for some activists and grassroots organizers.
While everyone is out there hoping for a savior, there’s a lot of work to be done, McCarty said.
“Trump’s not going to save us. We need to get busy and save ourselves,” she said.