Texas GOP bets on hard right turn amid changing demographics

By WILL WEISSERT and PAUL J. WEBER Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republicans in America’s largest conservative state for years racked up victories under the slogan “Keep Texas Red,” a pledge to quash a coming blue wave that Democrats argued was inevitable given shifting demographics.

Now, those population transformations have arrived, with the 2020 census confirming that the state got bigger, more suburban and far more diverse. Yet a more apt state GOP rallying cry for today might be “Make Texas Even Redder.”

Faced with increasingly dire demographic threats to their party’s dominance, Texas Republicans have championed a bevy of boundary-pushing conservative policymaking that dramatically expands gun rights, curbs abortions and tightens election laws — steering a state that was already far to the right even more so.

Far from tiptoeing toward the middle to appease the Democratic-leaning Texans driving population growth, the party is embracing its base and vowing to use a new round of redistricting to ensure things stay that way through 2030 — becoming a national model for staying on the offensive no matter how political winds may eventually shift.

“Texas, obviously, is a national leader as it concerns the laws that we pass and other states follow,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is fond of vowing to make Texas the “freedom capital of America,” said Tuesday.

Abbott, who is up for reelection next year and often mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential contender, signed voting legislation Tuesday that empowers partisan poll watchers and prohibits a host of measures that made casting ballots easier in heavily Democratic cities amid the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans argue that the new rules boost election security and charged ahead to pass them, even as Democratic state lawmakers fled the state for weeks to block them.

The voting law was nearly overshadowed by national debate over another new Texas law — the nation’s toughest set of abortion restrictions. By banning the procedure in most instances and leaving no exceptions for cases of rape and incest, the state has mounted perhaps the strongest threat yet to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

Another new law allows virtually any Texan age 21 and older to carry guns without licenses.

Other legislation banned schools from teaching about institutional racism and limited the state’s own cities from making decisions on police funding, environmental budgeting and mask mandates. And on Tuesday, Abbott instructed lawmakers to once again try passing restrictions on transgender student athletes when the Legislature convenes later this month to begin drawing new voting maps.

These policy victories are poised to become cemented for the foreseeable future. Because Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, the party will decide new congressional and statehouse districts based on 2020 census figures — seeking to make the boundaries as favorable as possible so the GOP can hold statehouse majorities for the next decade and beyond.

The new maps will have to counteract what looks to be unfavorable census data for Texas Republicans. The state’s Hispanic population grew by nearly 2 million, according to 2020 census figures, accounting for half of Texas’ total population increase. Even as the GOP made gains with Hispanic voters, about 6 in 10 Hispanics in Texas chose Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump in November, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.

Republicans also see warning signs in the suburbs. The state is home to four of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing cities, fueled by booming communities outside Houston, Dallas and Austin. After years of GOP advantages in these places, Biden split suburban voters in Texas with Trump, AP VoteCast found, and won the state’s five largest counties.

Democrats blame the unfettered conservativism on Trumpism. The former president ushered in “a new Republican Party that is more feisty. It’s more fringe,” said Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds, vice chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

“The cow’s left the barn, and it’s hard to put it back,” said Reynolds, whose district includes booming suburban Houston. “They have to entertain and they have to appease because these are the people that are excited about voting in Republican primaries.”

Democrats like Reynolds warn there will be voter backlash. But they have little history to back that up: Republicans haven’t lost a statewide race in 27 years and say it is a fierce commitment to conservativism, not pragmatic compromise, that has preserved the nation’s longest electoral winning streak.

“If anyone expected that, their head is way too far up their, uh, philosophy,” Corbin Casteel, the Trump campaign’s Texas director in 2016, joked about any notion that census figures might make the state’s Republicans move to the center.

Even more moderate Texas Republicans say past pronouncements about changing demographics helping Democrats were overblown. “The rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches in east Texas.

“We keep winning with really strong numbers,” Clardy added. “I don’t think we’ve had strident, extreme, right-wing positions. I think we’ve governed conservatively.”

Still, the party has shown a capacity for moderation in the not-too-distant past. After a Democratic wave swept Texas and the nation in 2018, the GOP had an exceedingly quiet legislative session, focusing on traditional issues like property tax cuts and public education.

It was only after the party held the Legislature and gained seats in Congress last November that it turned hard right — anticipating that its members’ biggest electoral threat going forward is primary challenges rather than being unseated by Democrats.

A protester holds a sign outside where Texas Gov Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1, also known as the election integrity bill, into law in Tyler, Texas, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. The sweeping bill signed Tuesday by the two-term Republican governor further tightens Texas’ strict voting laws.(AP Photo/LM Otero)

“I’ve heard that all this demographic change is going to catch up to the party of the old white people, but I don’t think it’s happened,” Clardy said. “The numbers may be changing, but they may not be trending the way they think that they are.”

The move to the right is perhaps best illustrated by Abbott, a former state Supreme Court justice who was once considered to have a more measured and deliberative, business-friendly approach to the job but has lately gone even further right than the Legislature — particularly on immigration.

The governor recently ordered state police to arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally and directed a state agency to pony up $25 million for 2 miles of wall along Texas’ nearly 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

No major Democrat has yet announced a candidacy against Abbott, though former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke — who came within 3 percentage points of upsetting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 — still might. The governor has already drawn a primary challenge from former congressman Allen West, a onetime tea party darling known for likening Democrats to Nazis.

Casteel said doubling down on conservative values is working for Republicans in Texas and beyond. He pointed to Abbott and another governor and possible 2024 presidential candidate, Republican Ron DeSantis of Florida. Both have gained national followings by being willing to combat unpopular policies like universal mask mandates. That’s despite Democrats in both states insisting the governors’ failure to more strenuously battle the pandemic could ultimately jeopardize their aspirations for reelection — not to mention the White House.

“He’s faced circumstances that few governors have, with the pandemic and all sorts of other things that put conservatives in a tough bind,” Casteel said of Abbott. “It’s safety versus liberty and he — and folks like Gov. DeSantis — they’ve threaded that needle very nicely. And I think the results are speaking for themselves.”