In the past, Republican primaries in Texas were won and lost on a wide variety of issues—taxes, ties to the community, money, education, abortion, agriculture.  Usually, candidates who can unite a handful of major GOP donors (most of whom own large businesses in the state) have a major advantage in the primaries.  Then, in 2006, the establishment started to lose control.  First, several incumbent state legislators lost—a rare occurrence in Texas GOP primaries.  This happened, in part, because of the legislature’s failure to pass a school-finance and property-tax-relief package; by the time it had passed, in May 2006, it was two months after the primary.

There was another development, however—one with far greater long-term consequences.  Immigration became the most significant issue in Texas Republican politics, threatening to break up the historic coalition of blue-collar, socially conservative Reagan Democrats and pro-business Republicans.

For over a decade, the state’s GOP leadership worked overtime to prevent immigration from becoming a campaign issue.  Republicans who campaigned on cutting illegal immigration suddenly found that major donors did not want to meet with them.  Former Gov. George W. Bush stated clearly that he opposed “English only” laws and that he preferred “English plus” (whatever that means).  In fact, as governor, Bush made favorable comments about bilingual education, and, when Ward Connerly came to Austin, Governor Bush refused to meet with him.

Today, the citizens of Texas are clearly stating their opposition to illegal immigration.  Poll after poll has shown that stopping the flow of illegals over their border is the most important issue to Republican primary voters.  Perhaps this stems from the emergence of the Minutemen along the border.  Or perhaps the highly publicized Mexican criminal-gang activity has played a role.  What is certain is that Texas taxpayers are sick and tired of having to subsidize services for foreigners who have broken the law.  And they are concerned that English is becoming less and less common in some neighborhoods in the state’s major cities.

The Lone Star Foundation (my employer) recently conducted a study on the costs of illegal immigration.  We found that Texans are subsidizing this Hispanic invasion to the tune of over four billion dollars per year.  The bulk of these costs occur in public education—a legacy of Plyler v. Doe (1982), in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that banned illegal immigrants from our public schools.

In addition to the cost of schooling illegal aliens, Texas taxpayers pay to incarcerate illegal immigrants who commit crimes.  In 2001, the state legislature granted in-state tuition rates at state universities to illegal immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools.

Federal law requires hospital emergency rooms to treat patients without regard to ability to pay.  So when illegal immigrants working in low-wage jobs without benefits get sick, that is where they go.  In Texas, healthcare for indigents is largely provided through a system of County Hospital Districts, which are funded by local property taxes.  Thanks, in part, to illegal immigrants, in Harris County (Houston), both property-tax rates and appraisals have skyrocketed, fueling a massive voter backlash.  At the same time, Houston-area hospitals are facing serious public-health problems: Trauma centers often go on “diversion” status, meaning people with serious injuries have to be flown elsewhere to get treatment.

It is no surprise, then, that a large portion of the drive-time radio talk show of Dan Patrick (KSEV-Houston’s general manager) is devoted to two topics: putting a cap on property-tax appraisals and stopping illegal immigration.

Last year, Patrick ran for an open seat in the Texas State Senate on a platform devoted to those two issues.  (Texas has 32 representatives in the U.S. Congress and only 31 state-senate seats, so races for the Texas State Senate are expensive and get noticed.)  Patrick ran against two sitting state House committee chairmen and a Houston city-councilman.  One of those chairmen, Joe Nixon, had successfully passed Texas’s sweeping tort-reform bill.  Together, Patrick’s opponents spent more than a million dollars, outspending him by more than a 2-to-1 margin.  All of the major business and trade associations endorsed Patrick’s opponents.  Still, in March 2006, Patrick took 69 percent of the vote in a four-way primary—enough to avoid a runoff.  The second-place finisher polled 18 percent.

In the past, candidates who had a message but lacked the support of business had no means by which to get that message out.  Successful campaigns were about raising enough money to make use of direct mail.  For Patrick, KSEV (“The Voice”) provided an alternative forum.  Indeed, the radio station has changed the dynamics of Harris County Republican politics.  Even in state House races (in which Patrick wasn’t a contestant), the candidates had no choice but to talk about tax caps and immigration.  The same went for Patrick’s opponents.  Beyond Houston, in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, the city council recently passed an ordinance prohibiting the rental of property to illegal immigrants and making English the official language of the city.

Now, the Republican Party of Texas platform plank on immigration begins “No amnesty!  No how.  No way.”

In the state legislature, many lawmakers have filed immigration-related bills.  Patrick has filed one that would impose a tax on small-money transfers out of the country (e.g., to Mexico) to help defray the cost of services used by immigrants.

Some proposed bills direct the state to calculate the cost of illegal immigration.  Others would end in-state tuition for illegals.  Still others would prohibit “sanctuary cities,” where city councils (including Houston’s) instruct law-enforcement officers not to ask about immigration status when writing traffic citations.  Another bill would cut off services to citizen children of illegal immigrants—an effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the pro-illegal-immigrant decisions it handed down in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Just because these bills have been filed doesn’t mean they will pass, however.  The business community—particularly those businesses that profit from a plentiful supply of cheap illegal-immigrant labor—are fighting back.  The Texas Association of Business has founded a front group called Texas Employers for Immigration Reform, which is pushing for a guest-worker program at the federal level and little or no action at the state level.  In addition, civil-rights groups are suing Farmer’s Branch and have threatened to do the same to any unit of government that adopts a tough stance on enforcing law that pertain to illegals.

Late last year, a group of major Texas campaign contributors wrote an opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News that called for a guest-worker program.  The list of signatories includes Bob Perry—a home builder who helped to bankroll the “Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth” ads during the 2004 elections—and Bo Pilgrim, owner of Pilgrim’s Pride Chicken.

What action the legislature will take remains to be seen.  One thing already has changed in the Lone Star State, however: Two years ago, no politician dared talk about illegal immigration; now, all of them do.