As Biden renews his defense of democracy, the gubernatorial campaign shifts into higher gear in Texas
The public phase of the general election campaign in Texas has jumped the gun a bit ahead of Labor Day compared to the past, even as electoral politics are cranking up nationally, too. Look no further than President Joe Biden’s primetime speech last night, in which Biden frankly declared that "equality and democracy are under assault" by Donald Trump and "MAGA Republicans." The extent of the speech's resonance in Texas is a big question mark, perhaps more than one might have thought a few months ago given the turn in the national political environment. In Texas, the week's events illustrated that the local dynamics in the top-of-the-ballot Texas gubernatorial election continue to exhibit an energy all their own, however much national politics hover over the campaigns of both Greg Abbott and Beto O'Rourke. (On the national shift, Axios’ Josh Kraushaar helpfully rounds up some recent changes in forecasts and polling from the Cook Political Report and The Wall Street Journal that are behind their respective paywalls.)
In his renewed offensive in the fight for “the soul of the nation,” Biden spoke bluntly about the threats posed by anti-democratic forces mobilized by Donald Trump, and the troubling embrace of political violence in the U.S. One of many examples: "Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” he said early in the speech, deploying his new term-of-choice for distinguishing Trump supporters from other Republicans – and strategically using the word “republic,” too. However justifiable Biden’s argument that democracy is under threat from the forces unleashed and empowered by Trump, Biden faced a tall order in breaking through the partisanship any attack on Trump and his impact on American political life triggers from both those who are deeply loyal to him, and, more problematically, those who allegiance to Trump is based on some mixture of fear and self-preservation. For example, the speech and the President were preemptively dismissed as attacks on democracy (!) by Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy hours before Biden had even delivered it.
The day before the speech, Josh Blank and I looked at the spectrum of elements providing the context for Biden’s speech in the latest Second Reading podcast. We try to unpack how difficult it is to separate the substance of the democratic backsliding we are witnessing from the political context. There has been ample analysis of Biden’s speech and what are essentially the challenges of trying to engage persistent anti-democratic forces within the bounds of democratic rules and institutions, especially on the terrain of an election. But it might boil down to the fact that making the midterm election a referendum on Trump and his corrosive impact on the political process counts both as a substantive defense of democracy and as good election politics for Biden and Democrats. That inherent tension between the two, and the likely counter-response from both groups of Republicans among whom Biden is trying to drive a wedge, complicates the prospects of success on both fronts.
Speaking of politics and elections, Governor Abbott’s campaign worked to push border security back into center stage again this week with the expansion of the state-financed bussing of asylum-seeking migrants to a new Democratically-led city, Chicago. It’s hard to imagine that the governor and his team would keep going back to the well with this trolling maneuver unless their internal polling told them it is playing well with Republican base voters. These voters are vital in an increasingly competitive Texas, particularly in the midst of a widely-observed shift in national politics that finds Republicans much less optimistic about their presumed advantages than they were just a few months ago. The well-established salience of immigration and border security to Texas Republicans and conservatives, and the equally well-documented intensity of Republican voters’ widespread antipathy toward both legal and illegal immigration, suggest the general explanation for why the Abbott campaign continues to pay migrants’ bus fare.
Yet even with the most stalwart Republican and conservative Texans registering strong approval of Abbott’s performance on these issues, and seemingly ready to spend yet more state revenue on border security writ large, it’s fair to ask if Abbott might eventually hit a limit to support for this particular tactic. Multiple news outlets jumped on the price tag that circulated this week. Per CNN (among others), “a state government spreadsheet obtained by CNN through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that, as of August 9, Texas has paid $12,707,720.92 to Wynne Transportation, the charter service that is taking migrants to the two cities.” (That was before the Via Chicago phase of Abbott’s plan.) While that’s a tiny share of a state border security budget that has ballooned to more than $4 billion for the biennium, the El Paso Times’ Lauren Villagran calculates this “works out to works out to $1,304.35 per trip.” The droll other shoe drops in the story’s next sentence: “Comparatively, a one-way, same-day ticket on a Greyhound bus from El Paso costs $291 to New York City and $324 to Washington, D.C. Same-day flights to either destination are under $400.”
Is there a point at which the of-the-moment appeal of “trolling the libs” display behavior gives way to concerns about cost, or a lack of impact on the actual problems posed by international migrants being detained at the Texas-Mexico border? It's hard to say, but if that point comes, it’s probably not before November. I talked briefly with NewsNation’s Mike Viqueria about the politics of Abbott’s bus rides and the gubernatorial election. That interview pointed me to the work of a NewsNation reporter, Ali Bradley, who is trailing one of the Texas-provided buses. She filed a story on the same newscast, and has been posting updates for the network on Twitter. Her attention to the multiple stops made among the bus route, and whether migrants are getting off the buses along the way, illustrates an irony about the policy also captured in a headline and the accompanying Texas Tribune story by Stephen Neukam: "Gov. Greg Abbott’s migrant busing program is what asylum advocates wanted all along." Again, for all its trolling appeal, this policy seems vulnerable to criticism among those it's designed to appeal to, and not only because of its cost.
In addition to trolling big city Democratic mayors, the Governor also earned headlines during a burst of in-person campaigning when he opined that it is "unconstitutional to ban someone between the ages of 18 and 21 from being able to buy an AR (assault rifle).” While Abbott could rely on a recent district court ruling to buttress his interpretation, a Taylor Goldenstein story in the Houston Chronicle finds many legal experts disagreeing that the matter is as cut and try as the Governor declares. The coverage of Abbott’s positioning and the response to it underlines the political difficulties the governor continues to encounter in the aftermath of the Uvalde murders. Abbott posed his Constitutional interpretation in direct contrast to the call by some Uvalde survivors for raising the age for legally purchasing an assault rifle. Per Sneha Dey’s coverage in The Texas Tribune, the full Abbott quote from a campaign stop in Allen, Texas: “It is clear that the gun control law that they are seeking in Uvalde — as much as they may want it — has already been ruled as unconstitutional.” The comments and the response they engendered renewed the ongoing criticism of Abbott’s response to Uvalde parents as too little and too political, captured in a kicker quote in Dey’s story that led a Tribune editor to add an explicit language warning atop the story. While the Abbott campaign is likely happy not to be talking about abortion, this can’t be what they are looking for. In our JuneUT/TxPP poll, we asked a general question about lowering the age to purchase a firearm (we didn’t specify assault weapons) to 18.
After a few weeks of state and national press coverage of Beto O’Rourke’s sustained campaigning, O’Rourke was forced to take a break due to illness. The campaign has announced that he will be back on the road starting today (Friday). In last week’s Second Reading podcast and in a subsequent post on the Texas Politics Project website, Josh Blank and I considered O’Rourke’s efforts in rural Texas, and, more broadly, how his rural stops might or might not help O’Rourke’s prospects. The blog post compiles a lot of election and polling data folks watching the election might find of interest, including party identification and turnout in rural Texas. Josh channeled some of his hard work last week on this post in a quote in a Tribune story on the same subject by Patrick Svitek, Carla Astudillo, and Jayme Lozano that was posted today and has also includes some interesting color reporting from the campaign trail. Also on Friday, the prolific Svitek reported that the O’Rourke campaign “is reserving $10 million in TV ads over the next week, including “$3 million on Spanish-language TV,” while noting that Abbott’s has been up on TV for a couple of weeks.
As long as we’ve gone this far, a few quick hits from the busy Texas political environment.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar reported Thursday that state tax collections for the just-ended fiscal year amounted to $77.21 billion, up 25.6% over the last fiscal year and $841 million more than projected. It’s not highlighted in the press release, but a check of the Comptroller’s ever-useful “monthly state revenue watch” page finds that federal income, at $72.74 billion, slightly exceeded total tax collections. That was down 11.23% from the previous fiscal year.
Speaking of democracy and political violence, yet another Texan was arrested in relation to January 6. Jolie McCullough reports in the Tribune that a Granbury attorney for the Oath Keepers “has been indicted on four counts related to the Jan. 6 insurrection,” per federal prosecutors. Public records compiled by USA Today put the number of Texans charged with crimes in relation to Jan. 6 at more than 70. UT/TxPP polling suggests that they have plenty of fellow travelers in the state.
The State Board of Education voted to delay proposed updates to the social studies guidelines in the state amid conservative criticism. For long-time observers of fights over Texas public school curriculum, what’s old is new again. Per Brian Lopez’s coverage in the Tribune and his added detail for The Texas Standard, members of the state House’s Texas Freedom Caucus “wrote a letter to the education board threatening legislative intervention if no “substantial changes” were made to the proposal.” If the Comptroller’s report is a leading indicator of a fiscal free-for-all looming in the 88th legislature, the SBOE decision to punt on updates they were poised to implement following über-conservative opposition foreshadows one front in what are likely to be multiple heated fights over public education in the 88th legislature.
I’ll end on final Texas note on the state of democracy. The Secretary of State announced the certification of all statewide and district candidates who are unopposed in the general election, and declared them elected per the Texas Election code. The list is seven and half pages long and includes 58 of the 150 members of the Texas House of Representatives (36 Republicans and 22 Democrats), and 10 of the 31 members of the Texas Senate (7 Republicans and 3 Democrats). Big congratulations to all the winners, and to the members of the redistricting committees. Even bigger kudos to the 12 legislators who are in both groups!
Thanks for reading, and keep in touch. Here’s wishing you all some peace during the holiday weekend.
Executive Director, The Texas Politics Project
College of Liberal Arts / Department of Government
The University of Texas at Austin