Gov. Greg Abbott at a border security news conference at Anzalduas Park in Mission on March 9, 2021. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune
A year before Texans will vote in the general election race for governor and other statewide offices, the list of candidates remains incomplete.
The issues those candidates could be debating at this time next year is coming into view — a list topped by continuing practical and political tensions stemming from large numbers of migrants at the Texas-Mexico border and the state’s adoption of the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the U.S., a law to be tested in the real courts and in the courts of public opinion.
Those and other matters — such as the state’s COVID-19 responses and voting rights — are notable for sharp policy differences between Democrats and Republicans. Less clear, as current officeholders appeal to their most ardent constituents for support in upcoming primary elections, are the differences within the parties on those major issues.
All of the state Legislature’s Republicans voted for the abortion law, while only two Democrats did. The law outlaws abortions after the first cardiac activity begins, usually around six weeks, a time when most women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. The vote on the contentious elections and voting bill was similarly split, with all Democrats in the Legislature voting no and all but one Republican voting yes. That legislation restricts how and when voters can cast ballots, including banning 24-hour voting, drive-thru voting and other practices used in Harris and other counties in the 2020 election.
The governor and other Republican leaders are blaming immigration and border law enforcement problems on the Democrat in the White House.
They’ve even enlisted the Texas Department of Public Safety — the state police — to help with their political messaging: “DPS Troopers and @TexasGuard remain on the scene in Del Rio to monitor the #bordercrisis. Thanks to @GovAbbott’s leadership and support from the #txlege, #OperationLoneStar allows Texas to step up where the federal government has failed to #securetheborder,” the DPS tweeted on its official state agency account, along with pictures of troopers and their vehicles amid crowds of migrants.
The situation in Del Rio is a bona fide mess that deserves state and especially federal attention, but it’s also become fertile ground for photo ops for the state’s top elected officials.
The underlying partisan differences make that a solid general election issue, but it’s not a primary issue that separates one set of Republicans from another. It’s hard to differentiate conservatives on things like that.
The GOP’s intraparty squabbles are centered on job performance. The two Republicans aiming at Gov. Greg Abbott — former state Sen. Don Huffines and former GOP state chair Allen West — are trying to turn his COVID-19 responses against him, particularly actions he took in the early part of the pandemic. They contend he isn’t conservative enough. Huffines has said Abbott should ignore the feds and enforce immigration laws himself, which isn’t within the legal powers of the state. He’s not disagreeing about the problem, just saying he’d do the job differently.
The Republicans running against Attorney General Ken Paxton — Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and state Rep. Matt Krause — are in the hunt because of Paxton’s still-pending six-year-old indictment on securities fraud charges and because several of his top aides — now former top aides — allege he has used his office for the private benefit of a political donor. None has said much about Paxton lawsuits they wouldn’t have filed and such; their beef is that the state needs an AG without his entanglements.
James White of Hillister, a state representative challenging Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, is also talking about the work and not the issues. “The combination of my proven conservative record, experience on agriculture issues, and commitment to integrity and ethics makes me the right candidate to steer this crucial agency back in the right direction,” he said as he announced his campaign.
Unless the March 1 primaries are delayed, candidates have just over five months to introduce themselves and their ideas to voters. Time is short, but for some statewide offices — notably governor — Texas Democrats still don’t have any candidates to consider.
That will change — Democratic officials and activists expect Beto O’Rourke to announce a challenge to Abbott as early as next week — but the minority party is late to the 2022 dance. The drumbeat of politics started months ago. Candidates who have already declared for office have been raising money for months and have a head start. Others are waiting to see what opportunities crop up in the new political maps being drawn during the special legislative session that started Monday.
Those new political maps don’t affect statewide candidates, whose district has the same borders as Texas itself. Their races have higher profiles, cost more and require more robust organization. At least they don’t have to reach far to figure out what the issues will be. Those are already in the headlines.
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