William McKenzie: Straus, Munisteri are key to GOP’s future

By William McKenzie

The two most important Republicans in Texas today are not Rick Perry and David Dewhurst. Nor is Ted Cruz one of them, although the new senator will have a high profile come January.

The Republicans who will really matter next year are Joe Straus, the House speaker, and Steve Munisteri, the Houston attorney who heads the state GOP, because they can most help their party position itself for the future.

Sure, as governor and lieutenant governor, Perry and Dewhurst will influence next year’s Legislature. But Straus is the one to watch among Austin’s Big Three.

The San Antonio Republican emphasized during a recent interview with this newspaper that his motto for the 2013 session is that it’s time to get serious about the state’s longer-term needs.

To him, that means mastering the central issues of public education, higher education, transportation and water. Those issues matter now, but they will become even more critical as our population keeps growing sharply.

Texas has about 26 million residents. By 2030, we are supposed to have 33 million people.

If Texans today or in the future can’t turn on the tap and have enough water, drive on roads without constant congestion, find enough decent schools for their kids, or attend quality, affordable colleges, they will start holding the party in charge responsible. For the foreseeable future, that will be the GOP.

Straus knows this, as do some of his lieutenants, such as Dallas GOP state Rep. Dan Branch. They are focused on doing the core functions right, which is what limited-government Republicans should do. Running against government all the time won’t solve the state’s problems, but the state’s challenges can be resolved by using the arms of government and the principles of the private sector.

Perry and Dewhurst aren’t ignorant of this responsibility. Dewhurst especially has gotten it in the past, but he and Perry appear consumed with their next elections, so they are tacking with the prevailing Republican winds. They are riding hard against government, just as Cruz did in whipping Dewhurst in their Senate battle.

Munisteri matters in a different way. He’s using his post to remind his party that it cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the state’s shift into a minority-dominated population. Otherwise, Republicans will return the state to the Democratic fold.

Munisteri was speaking this way before Republicans got clobbered among Latinos in the presidential race. This summer, for example, he told Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka: “If you want to have a real political party, you have to include everybody. You can’t lose 90 percent of the African-Americans and 70 percent of the Hispanics. The party has to embrace change.”

To his credit, Cruz is making a similar argument, but he probably will make his mark nationally, not within Texas GOP politics. Plus, Munisteri has the power to redirect the state party, which he did in June by helping soften its immigration plank at the state convention.

The conservative also is doing what party leaders must — making sure the fringe doesn’t take over. Munisteri spoke out last week against those within Texas’ arch-conservative circles who want the state to secede.

He told National Public Radio’s On Point show that he is a proud American and that Texas is not leaving the union. He cited legal precedents to emphasize that won’t happen, pouring cold water on arguments that Texas secessionist leader Daniel Miller was making on the program.

Texas Republicans already wrestle with fringe elements. The party can’t afford to let them drive the GOP or else it will lose independents and even moderate Republicans.

If Straus and Munisteri succeed in their separate missions, they will place Republicans in a tough-to-beat position, even when Democrats start making inroads in state elections. If this pair doesn’t succeed, Republicans will start sealing their fate. They have been elected to govern, and demographic tides are moving against them.

William McKenzie is columnist for  dallasnews. He moderates the Texas Faith blog at dallasnews.com/texasfaith and contributes to dallasnews.com’s education

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