The meltdown of the Texas GOP
The state used to be the gold standard of conservatism. What happened?
Texas Republicans are turning Texas blue, and they've picked an incredibly awkward moment to do so.
Awkward for Republicans, that is, and conservatism more generally. The electoral implications are obvious; If President Trump hadn't won Texas, he would have lost the Electoral College. Beyond that, though, Texas Republicans were — until quite recently — the gold standard of conservative governance in the 21st century United States.
During the period now known as the "Texas Miracle," the state was the most powerful proof of concept that conservatives had. As the second-largest state in the country, in terms of both size and population, it was a reasonable proxy for a socially, racially, and economically heterogeneous nation. Perhaps, more importantly, the state's outsized economic growth and diversification since the beginning of the millennium, in particular, was not just notable but meaningful. Texas created jobs in every income quartile, and almost every industry; outcomes weren't ideal, but they were improving.
All of this happened with Republicans at the helm of state government. For the vast majority of the first decade and a half of the millennium, the state was run by an unexpectedly complementary duo: Gov. Rick Perry and Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst. It's hard to quantify the net benefits the state realized because of their tenure, but it is possible to specify a number of sage policy decisions the two supported — such as expanding infrastructure and funding public education — and, perhaps more to the point, a number of stupid ones they eschewed. To be sure, Republicans indulged in plenty of posturing during those years, but in terms of legislative agendas, red meat was ultimately the appetizer.
But then 2014 happened. Perry decided to retire, and Dewhurst was unseated in the Republican primary by the current incumbent, Dan Patrick. Since then, Texas' newly elected leaders have struggled to govern — and the blistering margins Republicans posted in 2014 point to the reason why. After 20 years in power, Texas Republicans had no real need to compete in the general election. The real contest was for the Republican nomination.
As a result, Texas ended up with some true buffoons in high office. Among the officials elected in 2014 was, for example, Attorney General Ken Paxton. Six months after he was sworn in as the state's top law enforcement official, he was charged with three felonies. One of them was related to a violation that he had already admitted to, of a law he had voted to create years earlier as a member of the Texas legislature.
Making matters worse is that competent Republicans leaders are either in thrall to the party's oddly entitled grassroots activists, like Gov. Greg Abbott, or trying to fly below their radar, like Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
The qualitative change in Republican leadership was clearly on display during this year's legislative session, which began in January and concluded in May. The governor achieved his top priority, the passage of a measure cracking down on "sanctuary cities," which was opposed by Democrats, but also business groups, law enforcement, and civil-rights advocates, all of whom plausibly argued that a "show me your papers" measure would lead to racial profiling in a state that is 40 percent Latino. The legislature did not, by contrast, manage to address urgent priorities such as the school finance system or ethics reform, and by the time the session ended Texas' unemployment rate had ticked above the national average for the first time in more than 10 years.
For a governor of Texas, of either party, the latter data point should set alarm bells clanging; particularly in a state with a skimpy safety net, a thriving private sector is a public policy priority. Abbott, however, has seemingly been preoccupied with politics. The sanctuary cities bill was not enough to appease Patrick, a former talk-radio host, so last week Abbott announced that he wants legislators to come back to Austin in July to tackle 20 items, including a "bathroom bill" similar to the one that elicited so much Sturm und Drang in North Carolina.
To national media observers, this might seem like business as usual. Texans, however, are increasingly dyspeptic about it, which is understandable, especially given the concurrent national context. President Trump might be a Republican, but his nominal agenda is seemingly optimized to mess with Texas; he wants to build a border wall and withdraw from NAFTA, both things most Texans oppose. The Texas GOP is hoping, clearly, that partisan loyalty, and their comparatively robust organizational infrastructure, will insulate their hold on power for the time being. That may be true — for awhile — but change is still afoot.
It may even be happening more quickly than Republicans think. Trump underperformed in Texas in 2016. Democrats, concurrently, made gains. They have continued to do so since then, including over the weekend, when San Antonio City Councilman Ron Nirenberg unseated the incumbent mayor, Ivy Taylor, in a runoff. The office is officially nonpartisan, but Taylor had labeled her opponent "Liberal Ron"; voters approved of that, by a 10-point margin.
And partisanship aside, the unraveling of the Republican Party of Texas is a shame under the circumstances. With the GOP controlling the White House, both chambers of Congress, and two-thirds of the states, conservative role models should be more important than ever. If only they were still around.