Social Conservatives Flex Their Muscle in Texas

Social Conservatives Flex Their Muscle in Texas

If you live here, you’re going to have a hard time getting an abortion. And if someone drives you to a clinic or checks you in for the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, your cranky neighbor or office rival might take the new opportunity to collect $10,000 for turning you in. Voting will be harder for lots of people, and you could be jailed if you send someone an unsolicited absentee ballot application. You’ll be able to carry a gun without a license or training, but if you are homeless you can be fined $500 for camping in an unapproved public space. Teachers will be limited on how they can discuss racism and current events, and businesses aren’t allowed to demand “vaccine passports” or inoculation information.

This is the new Texas, and it’s a social conservative’s heaven. Proud of its longtime image as a swashbuckling big state that favors small government, Texas has recently taken a dramatic move rightward as the GOP-run state adopts a slew of laws and policies that read like a MAGA hat-wearer’s Christmas list.

The Lone Star State had 666 new laws take effect Sept. 1, including a ban on government orders to close churches (even during a pandemic), an automatic full-on abortion ban if the Supreme Court undoes Roe v. Wade, and a requirement that professional sports teams with contracts with the state government be required to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games. Other recent new laws punish cities that cut police budgets, by reducing sales tax revenues and denying increases in local property taxes, and increase penalties on those found to have interfered with police activity.

“They say the devil is in the details, but the devil is in the new laws,” says Ed Espinoza, president of left-leaning Progress Texas, in a wry comment on the 666 new laws. Republicans, he says, are “heading into a midterm election where they’re desperate to throw as much red meat to the far right base as possible.”

For the GOP, Texas is now more than the storied leave-us-alone state that made its own rules – such as opting out of the national energy grid, which some have blamed for widespread power loss and massive home energy bills earlier this year – and didn’t care if the rest of the county didn’t like it. Texas, they say, is now the leader of, and prototype for, movements to ban abortion, ease gun restrictions and fight the conservative side of culture war issues like transgender rights and K-12 curriculums.

Much as another state behemoth – California – was the starting place for liberal policies and programs, Texas is poised to serve as the model for other GOP-run states pushing a conservative agenda, officials say.

“I think there is more political polarization in America now than we’ve ever had, probably since the Civil war. The two states which best represent that are California and Texas,” says Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.

The fast-growing Lone Star State “does set a trend for the country. It’s becoming a place where we can implement policies that are different from California and other states, and show they can work and improve the lives of Texans” and other Americans, Rinaldi says.

But is this really the new Texas? Or is it just the leaders of a disappearing Texas trying to shape state policy as long as they can?

Photos You Should See – September 2021

Firefighters take a break while setting a backfire to prevent the Caldor Fire from spreading near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The answer is a little bit of both, demographers and political experts say. Texas is indeed becoming more diverse, with the population – on paper, at least – favoring traditional Democratic constituencies. But it may be a long time before that potential power is reflected in who occupies statewide and state legislative offices.

Texas no longer fits an old Yosemite Sam stereotype of gun-totin’ cowboys on a rural ranch. The population – which has nearly tripled between 1970 and 2020 – is now heavily urban and suburban, notes demographics expert Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Nine out of 10 Texans live in metro areas, and 99% of the growth since the last census has occurred in those areas, Pedigo says.

Democratic Austin is the fastest-growing metro area and added 560,000 residents in the 2020 Census, he notes. “That’s like adding the entire city of Milwaukee.”

Further, 95% of new Texans are people of color, Pedigo says, another statistic that would favor Democrats – though Hispanics in Texas, especially those along the border, tend to be a bit more conservative than Hispanics elsewhere in the country.

“The political system has been dominated by people who vote in Republican primaries … (who are) almost all white, older, conservative and evangelical Christian.”

Those trends have already had an impact on Texas politics, though not yet a game-changing one. In 2004, GOP President George W. Bush took Texas with 61% of the vote in the presidential race. In 2020, incumbent President Donald Trump won it with a far-less comfortable 52% of the vote. In 2018, Democrats flipped two congressional seats and 14 seats in the state legislature, but they did not add any more in 2020.

Republicans can continue to exert outsized power because they are the ones who vote and who set voting rules that disproportionately affect voters of color, experts say.

“The superficial political play is important, passing laws and executive actions. They are somewhat disconnected from the broader changes happening in the state because the political system has been dominated by people who vote in Republican primaries,” says Richard Murray, a former pollster and University of Houston professor who has been a fixture in Texas political punditry for more than a half century.

Those voters – unlike the Texas population as a whole – are “almost all white, older, conservative and evangelical Christian,” Murray says.

Before Republicans lost a chunk of state legislative seats in 2018, the GOP-controlled legislature was content to handle meat-and-potatoes matters, such as writing the state budget and funding schools. But with the political writing on the wall, Republicans are in a rush to enact policies that feed their base, he says.

“It’s a Custer’s last stand mentality,” Murray says.

Still, it could be years – even decades – before Texas politics catches up with the changing face of the state, says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. White and Black voters turn out a lot more than Asian American or Hispanic voters, he notes, so while whites and Hispanics each are about 40% of the population, whites cast about 60% of the votes compared to 25% for Latinos.

On top of that, Republicans control redistricting, meaning Democrats will likely not be able to benefit from growth in urban areas.

But Texas might well go the way of its rival California after all, experts say. Once-Republican California became more and more liberal as the state became more diverse and more populated by Latinos and Asian Americans. The failure of state Republicans to embrace that population hurt them politically (former Gov. Pete Wilson’s advocacy for an anti-immigrant proposition was especially damaging), and now all 10 of the Golden State’s statewide-elected officials are Democrats.

“California will continue to set the tone for the country,” says longtime Democratic operative Bob Shrum, director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California. “Texas right now is setting the tone for the rump of the country that disagrees with the modern world.” With the GOP hanging tightly to control, It’s a tone that may ring long and loud.

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