Republican state representatives during a House floor debate on May 6, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
This cannot possibly be as simple as it looks, but here’s what Texas Republicans appear to be telling you about themselves over the last week: Their party is fractured.
They are running to their base to shore up their support among those most conservative and active voters who are so influential in the Republican primaries where GOP incumbents are most in danger in 2022. The governor’s doing it, as The Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported recently. So are lawmakers: The Texas House has backed Senate legislation that would ban abortions after six weeks. On the same day they did that, on the other end of the building, the Texas Senate was approving its version of a House bill that would allow almost any adult in the state to carry a handgun without a license or a permit.
It’s not just legislators. Attorney General Ken Paxton, asked whether he would support Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022’s GOP primary for governor, told The New York Times Magazine: “The way this typically works in a primary, is it’s kind of everybody running their own race. I don’t think he supports me; I don’t support him.”
There’s your Unity ’22 ticket.
Paxton tried to disavow the quote on Twitter: “Fake news @nytimes strikes again! Let me be clear: I support @gregabbottTX! He’s a great Governor and a Great Texan.” The quick reply from Elaina Plott, the reporter who wrote the article, had a nice stinger: “Hi AG Paxton, during our interview, which is on tape, you would not commit to supporting Abbott in his primary for governor.”
It’s hardly the first time Paxton has wrapped his mouth around his shoe. But the AG’s quotability is a sideshow: What Paxton said about the governor describes the state of Texas Republicans right now. They’re not unified.
It wasn’t long ago that the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas was standing with Republican Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and a gathering of conservatives outside the Governor’s Mansion, protesting the Republican governor’s COVID-19 restrictions.
They had bullhorns, which seems aggressive coming from allies. Had they played nice, Abbott might’ve offered toast and jam. But this was a moment for performative politics, for demonstrating not to the governor but to other Republicans that they were willing to stand up to a tyrant of their own party who had the audacity to tell people how to behave in the face of a pandemic. That took place in October, at the beginning of COVID-19’s biggest and most dangerous surge in Texas.
This family fight is taking place up and down the roster. Land Commissioner George P. Bush is “seriously considering” a run for attorney general against Paxton, an intention he repeated for a live audience on Friday at the Texas Legislative Conference in New Braunfels.
“There have been some serious allegations levied against the current attorney general,” Bush said in an interview last month with Dallas radio host Mark Davis. “Personally, I think that the top law enforcement official in Texas needs to be above reproach.” (A quick catch-up for newbies: Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges almost six years ago and is currently under investigation on other allegations — after several top lawyers in his office blew the whistle — saying that he was misusing his public office to help a campaign donor.)
Miller — the ag commissioner who was heckling the governor back in October — sued the Texas Senate, which is run by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a star among many conservatives, for requiring people to take COVID-19 tests before coming over for a visit.
Patrick isn’t playing in the intramural party games. After chatter earlier this year that sparring between the lieutenant governor and the governor in the aftermath of February’s deadly electricity outages sparked speculation that Patrick might want a promotion, he said he won’t run against Abbott — though you can find people in the governor’s camp who’d like proof.
Take him at his word. But the idea that an attack on the conservative governor could come from the right, or that a sitting attorney general might draw a challenge from another statewide official in his own party, is a sign of the political times.
Democrats might not be able to beat Republican incumbents in statewide elections in Texas — a curse they’ve been trying to shake since 1996 — but Republican challengers could be threats in primaries.
It’s clear from their actions that Republicans in office now are hyperattentive to Republicans who aren’t, to the conservatives who are unhappy that they’ve had control of state government for years and years and haven’t been able to get legislation they want to ban abortion or lift restrictions on firearms.
In these final weeks of the 2021 legislative session, the people in the party who’ve resisted those issues for years — whether you call them moderates, establishment Republicans, RINOS (Republicans in Name Only) or “squishes” — are buckling.
They want to return home this summer with votes in favor of guns, against abortions, blocking transgender athletes from competing in high school sports based on their gender identity and making it harder to vote than it was in 2020.
This isn’t how the session started. Remember the big issues? Making sure we have electricity next time the state freezes, cleaning up policing practices, getting broadband for the parts of the state without access, writing a budget?
Those issues are important, but they’re not the stuff of political flyers. Republicans are getting some red meat issues ready for their hungry primary voters.
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