New limits on how and when voters can cast their ballots. A green light for most adults to carry handguns in public without undergoing training or obtaining a permit. And abortion restrictions that have the potential to upend Roe v. Wade.
In Texas, the red meat is looking rarer than ever, and a bitterly divided nation is taking notice.
With a successful 2020 election behind them and conservative challengers targeting them in 2022, top Texas Republicans have leaned right during this year’s legislative sessions, passing a bevy of far-reaching conservative priorities. The moves have GOP activists crowing and other state legislators drafting copycat bills. But they’ve also caught the eye of the US Department of Justice — which sued the state last week over the abortion restrictions — as well as national Democratic strategists, who argue Texas conservatives’ machinations have the potential to backfire for Republicans across the country.
The question, for national political watchers and for ever-optimistic Texas Democrats, is whether Republicans, in delivering for their most conservative voters, have alienated everyone else — and handed Democrats a winning national strategy in the 2022 midterm elections.
“They’re so worried about the right in Texas that they’re making themselves vulnerable to the center across the country,” said Ian Russell, a national Democratic strategist who has worked on congressional races in Texas. “They would be incredibly naïve to think that what happens in Texas stays in Texas. . . . The message to voters across the country in 2022 will be some version of, ‘If you vote for Republicans, expect to see what you’re seeing in Texas.’ ”
But Republicans see the national focus on Texas as fleeting. November 2022 is, after all, more than a year away.
The midterm election will be less about the policies of any one state than it will be a referendum on the Biden administration, argued Brad Todd, a GOP consultant who has worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Texas abortion law “is a mirage. We will not be talking about it six months from now,” Todd said. “That’s going to do nothing but raise money for Democrats and distract reporters.”
The moves by Texas GOP leaders come as communities of color drive the state’s population growth, demographic trends that tend to favor Democrats. But the GOP, holding the pen to redraw the state’s political districts in a decennial process this fall, has the power to counteract some of those effects with advantageous maps that will stay in place for the next decade.
It’s no secret that Texas is a red state — no Democrat has won statewide there since the 1990s — but as recently as two years ago, there was no appetite at the Capitol in Austin for so-called “heartbeat” laws banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, or permitless carry of handguns. Those measures were filed, but didn’t gain traction in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Analysts attribute that to the 2018 election, when Democrats made major gains in the State House even as Beto O’Rourke suffered a narrow loss to Senator Ted Cruz at the top of the ticket. It gave way to a 2019 legislative session focused on kitchen table issues such as public education funding and property tax cuts. Leaders touted bipartisanship and collaboration; the state’s loudest conservative voices decried the agenda as “purple.”
The opposite pattern emerged during the Texas’ legislative cycle this year, with what longtime Texas pollster Jim Henson called “a hit parade of conservative causes fulfilled beyond the wildest dreams of most conservative activists.”
Solid Republican victories in the 2020 elections left state GOP leaders asserting they had a mandate to pursue conservative causes. A new speaker took control of the Texas House, the Legislature’s more moderate chamber, and was willing to consider measures that had been scuttled in the past. And perhaps most important, analysts say, the prospect of primary challengers in 2022 had some Republicans zealously guarding their right flank.
Look no further than Republican Governor Greg Abbott, a sometimes inscrutable and politically cautious former judge and attorney general who for decades has won his seats, and avoided serious primary challenges, by stockpiling tens of millions of dollars in his campaign war chest and taking care to alienate few.
But his handling of the pandemic has brought constant criticism from those on the left, who want him to do more, and those on the right, who say he’s already done too much to shutter the state. As Abbott shuns new restrictions, banning government vaccine mandates and fighting school mask requirements, more than 5,000 Texans died of COVID-19 in a recent one-month period.
Now, Abbott faces multiple primary challengers, including a former state senator who has promised to “shut down the border” and a former Florida congressman and Texas GOP chairman who in October led a protest over COVID-19 restrictions on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion.
Abbott has had to shift right to defend himself — and potentially to gear up for a 2024 presidential bid, political watchers said.
“He is somebody who shifts based on the political circumstances of the day,” said Luke Macias, a conservative political consultant who is supporting one of Abbott’s challengers.
Spokespeople for Abbott did not respond to requests for comment.
Texas Democrats had little power to fight conservative priorities, an impotence best demonstrated by their dramatic, improbable quorum break to Washington, D.C., which delayed, but could not defeat, the new voting restrictions.
They hope that Republicans are punished at the ballot box for that right turn. But it will be hard for Democratic backlash to crest without a credible candidate to carry it. So far, no major Democrat has emerged to run in the governor’s race.
Though state Democratic leaders say the near-total abortion ban will help them fund-raise across the country, it remains to be seen how voters in the state will respond. The law has ignited an uproar among liberals, but does not appear far out of step with the state’s Republican primary electorate; April polling showed that 49 percent of registered Texas voters “somewhat” or “strongly” support making abortion illegal after six weeks of pregnancy except in the case of a medical emergency. Support for the restriction was even stronger among Republicans.
Democrats hope that regardless of how the law plays in Texas, it will be enough to galvanize voters in suburban swing districts next year, when control of the US House is at stake.
“It will backfire for Republicans in the midterms, but it might be more on the national level than in Texas,” said MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who was the 2020 Democratic nominee for US Senate and lost to John Cornyn.
Indeed, the ripple effects are already being felt in Florida, Arkansas, and South Dakota, where some lawmakers hope to put similarly constructed abortion laws in place. The Texas statute prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before many people even know they are pregnant, and empowers private citizens to enforce it, an odd legal structure that makes it difficult to challenge in court.
State Representative James White, a Republican from reliably Republican East Texas, said his support for this year’s conservative measures was less about politics than about long-held principles.
“I just follow the old Sam Houston logic,” he said, referring to the maxim attributed to the Texas Revolution leader: “Do right and risk the consequences.”
Still, White acknowledged, in evaluating a vote, “the first thing you always think about is, ‘Will I get reelected?’”