The Denton County Republican Party held its biggest fundraiser of the year on Ronald Reagan’s birthday and it was a show of force. About 1,000 Republicans in formal wear crowded into a cavernous banquet hall Saturday to hear from elected leaders.
It was part rally, part gala, with items up for auction including vacations on Martha’s Vineyard and the gavel Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick used last session. Candidates for local and statewide office set up tables and pitched potential voters. Buttons and stickers from a range of Republican presidential hopefuls adorned lapels.
Congressman Michael Burgess praised the county as a bastion of Republican politics in Texas.
“Denton County was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” he said. “Our voters are active, our voters are educated, they demand excellence, and they are the best.”
Burgess told the crowd that the county helped push the state to the right. More than just ideology, the Denton County GOP is a powerful force because it gets people to the polls. And that’s due in no small part to Dianne Edmondson, who has chaired the party for 14 years. She’s leaving her post soon to run for a spot on the state party’s executive committee.
“Since I’ve been chairman, we have never elected a Democrat to partisan office in Denton County,” Edmondson said. “They very seldom file more than one or two candidates anymore because they know we’re just that strong.”
Voter turnout in Denton County has been higher than the state average for the last six elections, but party strength doesn’t always mean party unity.
“We’ve got the social conservatives, we’ve got the fiscal conservatives, we’ve got the so-called liberty Republicans, we’ve got the so-called moderate Republicans,” she said.
As Republicans across the state prepare to vote in the March 1 primary, those factions are on display. Texas House Speaker Joe Strauss and many of his lieutenants and allies throughout the state are facing challengers who say they’d make the statehouse more conservative. But Edmondson says that misses the point. The last session saw sweeping gun rights legislation, a fiscally conservative budget that defunds Planned Parenthood, and almost $850 million for border security.
“We had the most conservative session ever, according to the lieutenant governor and the governor. So what’s the big deal, honestly?” Edmondson said. “Was speaker Strauss my original choice? Absolutely not. But look at the results of the session, not the personalities.”
Over the last few years, Edmondson has seen lots of new people engaging in politics for the first time. That new involvement often comes with a sense of urgency – one that sometimes divisions. But Edmondson says that’s fine.
“One-size-fits-all is not in our platform,” she said. “We’ve got varying viewpoints. We should be able to discuss, maybe come to some sort of agreement, but not demonize our fellow Republicans. And that’s what I’d like to see changed about the national politics and how they’re talking about each other, and in my county.”
When Edmondson talked to her fellow Republicans Saturday night in one of her last speeches as party chair, she was emotional. She thanked her supporters, most of all her husband, and she ended with marching orders.
“It’s been a great run, I’ve enjoyed working with all of you,” she told them. “Now let’s all work together really, really hard so that in November we take back the White House and we take back America.”
That’s an idea that this crowd seemed willing to unite around. With all the heat surrounding this year’s presidential election, Edmondson says she expects turnout to be huge and, at least in her county, overwhelmingly Republican.