Governor Greg Abbott appears to be filling out a ‘bingo card’ of rightwing policy desires, even though those proposals are not popular with Texans
From restricting voter access and politicizing the US-Mexico border to targeting transgender student athletes and further rolling back abortion rights, Texas’s current legislative agenda set by its governor, Greg Abbott, reads almost like a conservative bingo card.
But in the shadow of next year’s Republican primary contest, Abbott is already facing hostile challengers in his own party who are ideologically even more extreme and are pushing the radical governor even further to the right as he seeks re-election.
So it may not be a coincidence that, during recent legislative overtime in Texas, he’s heaped on enough red meat to try to foil his rivals, who claim he’s only Republican in name – to the shock of many civic society activists in the state.
“We’re really seeing a race of who can throw Texans under the bus in the fastest and most cruel way, simply to score political points and to remain in power,” said Juan Benitez, the communications director for Workers Defense Action Fund.
For years, Democrats have been slowly chipping away at Republicans’ ironclad grip on Texas in a belief that the state may eventually turn blue. But the state’s conservative leadership in the Republican party is now doubling down on rightwing talking points ahead of 2022, relying on hot-button, emotional issues to rile up supporters.
“What they’re doing is working harder and harder and harder, in my judgment, to stimulate a shrinking base, and going so far to the right they no longer represent the consensus view of Texans,” said Mike Collier, a Democrat who plans to run for Texas lieutenant governor next year.
Despite Texas’s rapidly changing demographics, so far, it has remained staunchly red in terms of who wins.
That, in turn, makes the state’s primaries the real contest in most races, said Juan Carlos Huerta, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi.
“I think there is a bit of a disconnect between the overall sense of what Texans want and what our elected officials do,” Huerta said. “They take care of those who vote for them.”
Texas’s Republican primary voters are often rightwing Donald Trump loyalists, and statewide incumbents who want another term have little choice but to court those votes. If they succeed, they’re more than likely to prevail in the general election, regardless of how radical their platform is.
So the Texas government is dominated by Republicans who have been hand-picked by their most extreme constituents, then rubber stamped by a wider electorate that is guided by party identification. Oftentimes, that means a minority’s beliefs – and not the broad will of the people – are reflected in state policy.
“We are veering more and more right, without really taking a close look at the fact that democracy is just slowly and slowly getting more and more eroded,” said Benitez.
The impact of this disconnect is clear in the politics of the state.
A majority of Texans agree with the landmark US supreme court decision on Roe v. Wade, recognizing the constitutional right to choose an abortion. Yet earlier this year, lawmakers passed a strict new “heartbeat” bill, which restricts abortion access around six weeks into a pregnancy, and which more Texas voters oppose than support.
“Elections have consequences, all right? And the fact that Republicans win – conservative Republicans win in Texas – yes, that’s what they’re gonna advocate: conservative policies,” Huerta said.
During a pandemic that has killed more than 51,000 Texans so far, far-right Republican party members chastised Abbott for instituting a statewide mask mandate and other precautions against their wishes.
After critics were so peeved that they gathered in protest at the governor’s mansion, the state’s ultra-conservative politicians evidently smelled blood. Some, including the former Texas GOP chairman Allen West and one-term state senator Don Huffines, have already announced they’ll try to oust Abbott next year.
“Why isn’t he here?” Huffines asked an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas earlier this month. “He’s not here because he doesn’t want to face you.”
But in reality, Abbott has a $55mn re-election war chest and a higher approval rating in Texas than Senator Ted Cruz, Senator John Cornyn, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and a slew of other prominent state politicians, according to the Texas Tribune.
In case that’s not enough, he has started brandishing his conservative credentials ahead of the election. Some believe he’s branding himself as the standard bearer for the new GOP, not only to win in 2022 but also for a potential presidential bid.
“I don’t think of him in terms of moderate or conservative. I just see him as someone who you can expect to adopt, you know, the consensus worldview, or the predominant –the dominant – worldview of the Republican party at any given time,” said Jason Lee, a strategist for Texas Right to Vote.
In March, before the Covid-19 vaccine was widely available, Abbott opened Texas 100% and abandoned his mask mandate – a decision Joe Biden called “Neanderthal thinking”. Abbott has also banned government-mandated vaccine passports to avoid “treading on Texans’ personal freedoms”.
He has recently made migrants and asylum seekers into political punching bags, announcing his intention to build a wall dividing Texas from Mexico. And following Trump’s endorsement, he echoed the former president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric when they met for a photo op last month, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“It is time to make sure we seal this border and close it down,” Abbott said. “The people coming across the border are cartels and gangs and smugglers and human traffickers.”
After Democrats walked off the state House floor to block a restrictive voting bill during the regular legislative session in May, Abbott vetoed the legislature’s funding and convened a special session to force them to address his priorities. When lawmakers thwarted him again by flying to Washington DC on Monday, he vowed to arrest them.
“This special session to me is to get the bingo card filled out, to hit all the hot button issues that they identified, and basically take away any arguments from his conservative challengers that he didn’t, you know, fulfill his conservative mission,” Lee said.
The session amounts to “political theater to build up to 2022”, Benitez said, and state leaders are using the opportunity to “see who can run farthest to the right”. Agenda items don’t include fixing Texas’s failing electric grid that left hundreds dead during a devastating winter storm last February.
“It’s a two-step process,” Collier said. “First, frighten the base with nonsense. Second, propose so-called solutions and then try to win your primary. And what they aren’t doing is addressing the real issues.”