After watching Donald Trump fumble away the White House, Texas Republicans are using their political muscle to generate victories in next year’s midterm contests, while setting themselves up for another decade in power.
In many ways, Trump’s defeat was a blessing for Republicans. They are now rallying their base by casting President Joe Biden as ineffective on several conservative linchpin issues, including border security. Some of the GOP’s biggest legislative gains in Congress and state legislatures have occurred when Democrats controlled the presidency.
The modern conservative movement, for instance, was advanced when Bill Clinton was in the White House. And the Barack Obama era led to the tea party movement and large-scale losses for Democrats in statehouses across the country. Now there’s Biden, whose poll numbers are slipping as he becomes a convenient whipping post for Republicans inside Texas and across the country.
The Republican hubris is also evident in policy and lawmaking.
Acknowledging that Trump is still the unquestioned leader of the GOP, Gov. Greg Abbott and Republicans in the Texas Legislature have mollified the former president’s supporters by passing laws and developing policies that give credence to many of Trump’s grievances, including unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Even more devastating, Republicans are in the process of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries, a task that will solidify GOP majorities in Austin and their delegation to Washington for years, if not another decade.
“They’re engaged in extreme partisan gerrymandering, with a very explicit goal of locking in majorities in the Texas Legislature through 2031, and locking in a large majority of the Texas U.S. House delegation through 2031,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
The last four years have been one of the most significant periods in Texas political history.
In 2018, Democrats closed the gap in the Texas House and won two congressional seats. With the exception of Abbott, high-level statewide contests were too close for comfort. Most notably, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, came within 2.6 percentage points of upending Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Next year O’Rourke is expected to challenge Abbott for governor.
Republicans learned from their 2018 struggles. Two years later, they maintained control of the Legislature, Republican incumbent John Cornyn was easily re-elected, and Trump beat Biden in what Democrats and pundits described as an emerging battleground. In fact, the 2020 election cemented Republican dominance in the Lone Star State.
By winning in 2020, Republicans were able to dictate the agenda of this year’s legislative sessions, as well as firmly control the redistricting process.
GOP lawmakers and Abbott insist that they have sufficiently fortified the state’s electrical grid, which nearly collapsed during a February winter storm that left millions without power and resulted in death and property damage.
But the regular and special sessions were highlighted by the passage of a conservative wish list, with many items pushed by Trump and his supporters. The legislation includes a controversial elections bill that supporters say makes it harder to cheat, but critics contend is designed to stifle voting in communities of color.
The Legislature also approved a law that seeks to address social media censorship. It was born out of Trump being kicked off of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Texas officials are also auditing the 2020 election, at Trump’s request. And Abbott signed the most restrictive abortion bill in the nation. The law bans abortions after six weeks and creates a bounty system with cash rewards for people who sue those helping patients get illegal abortions.
The red-meat legislation approved by lawmakers is aimed at conservative Texas voters who dominated the GOP primary process. Because Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994, Republicans are confident that they aren’t at risk in a general election.
Part of that calculation involves Biden.
Republicans are pounding the new president on an array of issues. Last week Abbott and several governors met at the state’s border with Mexico for a “bash Biden” session. Illegal border crossings have skyrocketed and, at times, Biden appears to have a lack of control of the situation and its politics.
Expect Republicans to continue to use the national climate against Democrats, much like they did in 2020, when they cast their rivals as far-left liberals who wanted to defund the police.
“They’ve dusted off Rick Perry’s old playbook from the Obama era, where you campaign against the Democrat in the White House as much as you campaign against whoever the Democratic candidates are that you face in 2022,” Jones said. “What hurts Texas Democrats is guilt by association with progressives at the national level.”
To avoid catastrophic losses, Biden has to gain momentum, and Texas Democrats have to put Republicans on the defensive by pounding issues beyond those pushed by the extremists in both parties.
Polls show most Texans feel the state is headed in the wrong direction. Democrats have to figure out how to use that sentiment as a campaign issue.
Trump is the wild card. He benefits Republicans by driving conservatives to voting booths, and he’s a strong asset in GOP primaries. But Trump can be a liability in general elections. In 2018, he was a millstone around the neck of U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions. Armed with Trump’s endorsement, Sessions lost his Dallas County congressional seat to Democrat Colin Allred.
Despite a legislative session heavily geared toward his gripes about the 2020 election, Trump continues to meddle in Texas politics. He’s endorsed statewide candidates like Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. On Saturday, he threatened House Speaker Dade Phelan with political retribution if the House doesn’t approve the forensic audit he prefers.
Unlike 2018, Republicans in general are more organized and ready for general election challenges. In 2020, the generic Republican on the ballot outperformed Trump, which could begin to explain why Biden won Tarrant County, but all of the GOP candidates targeted by Democrats survived their challenges.
Meanwhile, Republicans are making it harder for Democrats to win elections by drawing legislative boundaries that protect their majorities and don’t embrace the minority population growth over the last 10 years.
The maps will be challenged in court, but they are not expected to change much.
“Other than jumping into the DeLorean and driving back to November of 2020 and winning the Texas House, there’s not much that can be done,” Jones said.
Texas Republicans are in the driver’s seat. Let’s see where that takes us.