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The Texas GOP is closer to closing its primaries. But hurdles remain

The Texas Republican Party is having its annual convention in San Antonio this week, and while a major focus will be on electing a new party chair and looking ahead to the national convention this summer, GOP delegates have been working behind the scenes on new party rules that could help shape Republican lawmakers' legislative priorities.

One rule would close the party’s primaries. If approved, it could affect how elections are run in the state — and set up a potential legal battle between party leaders and lawmakers.

Republican voters said yes to 13 party propositions on Super Tuesday. Proposition 9, to move to closed primaries, passed with 72% of the vote. It would require voters to register as a Republican in order to participate in they party’s primary elections.

Currently, Texas voters don’t have to be officially affiliated with any party to vote in their primary. Texas is one of 16 states that have open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

University of Houston Political Science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said while the change would be minimal, it shows how polarized the county is becoming.

“This perspective change is consistent with the increasing national polarization in the country that has come home to Texas,” Rottinghaus said.

A path forward

The Republican Party's Rules Committee spent roughly two hours debating the language of the rule during its meeting on Tuesday.

Some delegates expressed concerns that individual county party chairs could be personally sued for not following the state election code, alienating new GOP voters and potentially losing the party elections in the future.

Delegate Toni Trevino said any efforts to close primaries should be done through legislation, not through party rule.

“We need a risk benefit analysis, and it needs to be done through legislation, not through rule only,” she said. “That is simply insane.”

The party rules are non-binding, so if GOP delegates vote Friday to approve the new rule, lawmakers would still need to pass legislation closing the primary. GOP delegate Jim Pickle, who authored the rule change, said the point of pursuing closed primaries through party rule is to push lawmakers to change the state election code — rather than allowing litigation to force the change.

He said the party anticipates lawsuits over the new rule.

“It's pointing a shotgun [at]…the legislature actually saying, ‘Change it or I'll have Reed O'Connor change it for you,’” Pickle said, referring to the conservative-leaning North Texas federal judge.

The Rules Committee advanced the rule in a 26-4 vote.

In a statement, current GOP chairman Matt Rinaldi praised the move, saying, “The time is now for Republicans to choose our own nominees without Democrat interference.”

Rinaldi and other supporters of closing primaries allege Texas Democrats are voting in Republican races to ward off more conservative candidates.

Political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said it’s unlikely the rule will face any opposition within the party, and other states have been successful in closing their primaries.

And it’s an easy political win for party leaders, Rottinghaus added.

“Party leaders want to have complete control over who gets to have a say in who their nominees are,” he said.

The most noticeable change, he said, would come from the candidates a closed primary system would produce.

“We're likely to see more politically extreme nominees in both parties because…you've got only the most hardcore partisans who are going to be allowed to participate,” Rottinghaus said.

Juan Salinas II is a KERA news intern. Got a tip? Email Juan at jsalinas@kera.org. You can follow Juan on X @4nsmiley

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Copyright 2024 KERA

Juan Salinas II