Texas Democrats Have an Opportunity

But it’s not clear they can seize it.

A gif of a map of Texas with a box on top.
The Atlantic

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has leaned into the culture war, signing laws effectively banning abortion and critical race theory, loosening gun restrictions, and approving an almost certainly unconstitutional law barring social-media companies from moderating content. He has thwarted coronavirus restrictions in a state that has seen hospitals become overwhelmed with patients and more than 6,000 deaths from the pandemic in the past month, sought to fund more border barriers, and approved new voting restrictions targeted at Democratic constituencies following the 2020 election.

Actual governing has taken a back seat to the culture war. The state has done little to force energy companies to prepare for another winter storm like the one that killed hundreds of Texans in February. The governor’s efforts to curry favor with obsessive Fox News watchers by micromanaging how cities and schools try to contain the coronavirus are unpopular, especially with so many Texans getting sick and dying, and hospitals having to delay nonemergency care.

Republican politicians in Texas revel in their status as frontline culture warriors, for the positive attention it draws from conservative media and for the negative attention it draws from the national media, both of which increase their popularity within the GOP-primary electorate. What’s unusual today is the number of Texans getting tired of the bit. For the first time since Abbott became governor, a majority of Texans disapprove of the job he’s doing.

Texas Democrats have put up a fight—their flight to D.C. in an effort to stop the new voting restrictions drew national attention—but they’re simply outnumbered, and there are no Democrats holding statewide office who can challenge Abbott. Despite whispers that Beto O’Rourke, who has spent the past couple of years trying to build up Democratic strength in Texas, will challenge Abbott, there are as yet no candidates at the top of the ticket who could provide a contrast or an alternative vision.

Facing little pressure from his left in a state that ended up redder than the polls predicted in 2020, Abbott has focused on ensuring that he can’t be outflanked on his right by primary challengers, who currently include Don Huffines and Allen West. He assumes that when the general election comes, he’ll be able to crush whomever the Democrats put up. Because Democrats haven’t won statewide office in Texas since Kurt Cobain was alive, it’s a good bet—but it’s not a sure one.

One theory of Democratic resurgence in Texas goes something like this: At some point, the penchant of Texas Republicans to govern so as to please their own primary electorate, rather than the state as a whole, will induce a backlash that results in Texas voters giving the Democrats a chance. The Texas abortion law, which bars the procedure before most women know they are pregnant and deputizes private citizens to seek $10,000 bounties on their fellow Texans, may be too much even for many voters who otherwise consider themselves anti-abortion. The law also contains no exceptions for rape or incest—only 13 percent of Texans favor a ban that strict. In response to a question about the lack of an exception, Abbott recently vowed to “eliminate all rapists,” which is something he probably should have done already if he had the power to do it. The state legislature’s agenda, coming in the aftermath of the February power outage and amid the coronavirus crisis, offers a particularly glaring example of the Texas GOP prioritizing culture-war matters over basic governance.

All of which will offer an opportunity to test this theory in real time. Mike Collier, who is running against Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in 2022 after losing to him by five points in 2018, literally wrote a book on the subject.

“I believe that when a Democrat wins, for the first time in however many years, the story will be that Republicans pandered so hard to the right, they could not come back, because Texans would say no,” Collier told me. “And I think that’s exactly what’s happening.” Patrick is seen as more extreme than Abbott—he made national news early in the pandemic when he suggested that senior citizens should be willing to sacrifice themselves to save the economy, and again in August when he blamed Black Texans for the state’s recent surge in coronavirus cases.

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of Democrats’ chances, though. Texas has certainly trended bluer over the years—in 2012, Barack Obama lost Texas by 16 points; in 2020, Joe Biden lost it by a little less than six. O’Rourke’s strong showing against the Republican senator and social-media troll Ted Cruz was in a midterm year with a Republican in the White House. Public opinion tends to turn against the president’s party in a midterm election. Texas’s population growth has mostly been in cities, which means Republicans will probably find it a simple matter to further gerrymander legislative maps to take advantage of their dominance in rural areas, if they are allowed to do so.

Democrats have pointed to demographic changes—Texas’s growing diversity and an influx of white-collar workers—as lifting their political hopes. But I wouldn’t bank on that either. Republicans often raise the specter of outsiders threatening to turn Texas into California; Patrick likes to say, “We need to keep Texas, Texas.” But Patrick is actually from deep-blue Maryland. Lots of people move to Texas to play cowboy. U.S. Representative Chip Roy made a joke about hanging during a congressional hearing; Roy represents an affluent district, so presumably the proposed lynching would take place in the parking lot of an organic grocery store. In 2018, O’Rourke actually beat Cruz among native-born Texans.

Privately, Texas Democrats will also acknowledge concerns about the organizational state of the party. Their resistance to the new voting restrictions was resourceful and creative, but it also collapsed when several members of the caucus came back to the legislature. Many of them feel as though the national party has written off the state as red forever and is unwilling to invest the resources that local Democrats would need to win it. But they also admit they were out-organized in 2020, when they had high hopes of taking the statehouse, and instead, Donald Trump showed surprising strength in the predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, an outcome they would prefer to characterize as unique to Trump, but one that may be evidence of a broader shift among Hispanic voters across the country.

“The Democratic Party has taken those voters for granted. And the Republicans want them. And so the Republicans are working way harder to win them over than we are to keep them,” Colin Strother, a Democratic strategist who works with clients in South Texas, told me. “If [Democrats] lose south of I-10, we will never be blue.”

Those dramatic political maps of 2020 can be misleading—some of Trump’s success amounts to attracting small numbers of votes in sparsely populated areas, and some Trump voters also voted for down-ticket Democrats. But the Republican agenda might not be as unpopular in South Texas as people outside the state assume.

“The last thing Biden said in the last presidential debate was ‘We’re gonna transition away from oil and gas,’ which is what provides all of our jobs,” Strother said. “‘Abolish ICE’? Those are good jobs on the border. You can make 70 grand a year with a high-school diploma working for ICE.”

Texas Democrats told me that Biden’s remarks about phasing out oil in his final debate with Trump seem to have done him real damage in the Rio Grande Valley, where many people rely on energy jobs. The culture of multiracial coalitions—the foundations of Democratic urban politics across the United States, in which Black and Latino voters converge on the basis of shared political and economic interests—is less present in Texas border counties, where nine out of 10 residents are Hispanic and authority figures like sheriffs, police, and judges reflect those demographics. Republicans’ tough border talk finds a sympathetic audience in the valley, because many of the residents work for the federal border agencies.

Texas Democrats have tried to strike a balance between acknowledging concerns about genuine problems at the border and criticizing Republican hyperbole. “The unfortunate part is that for us on the southern border, and for us that represent the southern border and know those border towns and communities quite well, we know the reality. It is never the horror story and the horror movie that Republicans paint for the counties north of I-10,” state Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents San Antonio and several border counties, told me, pointing out that most asylum seekers are rejected, and most border crossers end up being expelled under a Trump-era coronavirus declaration that Biden has kept in place. “It’s not like it’s some, you know, mass of people that are coming across, like in that Cheech and Chong movie.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the rise in migration has led to a backlash. “My constituents deserve to be secure in their homes … it’s unfortunate we can’t accept everyone, but that’s the way countries work,” Gutierrez said. He told me that because immigration is a federal issue, what the state needs is more immigration judges and prosecutors to process claims and deport migrants if necessary, and high-tech means of surveillance along the border—rather than spending state money on a border wall, which he described as useless symbolism. “What we see on the ground just does not have a simple answer, and Greg Abbott’s 13th-century solutions like an $800 million fence are not the answer we need … Don’t let Texas taxpayers pay for your political advertising.”

Many of these communities are also very religious. Democrats I spoke with shared anecdotes about religious leaders urging congregants to vote Trump at the top of the ticket; Webb County Democratic Chair Sylvia Bruni told the reporter Jack Herrera that she left her church after her former priest “called Democrats ‘baby killers’ from the pulpit and encouraged the congregation to vote for Trump.” One Texas Democrat, who asked not to be named so as to speak candidly, told me that they had made an error in thinking of parts of South Texas as “Latino Texas instead of as rural Texas.” That’s probably too pat—for example, the Rio Grande Valley boasts an extremely high vaccination rate compared with white, conservative rural areas—but in some ways, it’s a useful frame.

All of which is to say that while Abbott may be alienating many Texas voters, 2022 is still a ways off, and it’s not clear whether the GOP is winning over more Texans than it’s losing. A strong candidate at the top of the ticket may help Democrats streamline their message and raise money, but there are also questions about whether the most likely contender, O’Rourke, wounded himself with statements about guns and race during his primary campaign for president. O’Rourke has generated more enthusiasm than any other Texas Democrat in a statewide race in recent memory, but he is also not the model of the centrist, even conservative Democrat who prevails in gubernatorial races in states like Louisiana and Kentucky.

Colin Strother, though, still described O’Rourke as a unifying figure, a kind of “campfire” that Democrats in the state could “gather around.” O’Rourke has proved that he can raise money; he represented a district along the border (and made border crossings one of the few issues where he remained to the right of many of his primary opponents), and he’s spent the past couple of years doing more of what many Texas Democrats identify as their biggest weakness—organizing and registering voters. But he may also be an ideal target for the kind of culture-war campaign that Texas Republicans are very good at waging.

“He’s gonna have to go do the requisite squirrel-hunting trip with him in hunter’s orange with a double barrel over his shoulder,” Strother said. “He’s gonna have to go to South Texas and shoot some hogs; you know what I mean?”