Everything is bigger in Texas, including a radicalized, weaponized, and emboldened GOP’s audacious abuse of power to fuel their culture wars and subvert democracy.
If you want to see a sneak preview of the GOP’s national project to maintain white, minority rule then look no further than Texas, the second-most populous state in the nation, that now serves as a trendsetter for Republican state legislatures across the nation.
Texas Republicans, led by Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz, are committed to one-upping their colleagues by introducing the most extreme versions of voter suppression, open carry laws, anti-abortion bills, and critical race theory (CRT) bans. Although the state serves as a massive warning for Democrats and the majority of Americans of what will happen when Republicans dominate the state legislature, it also reveals insights into how activists and organizers can creatively resist and advocate for popular, progressive policies.
The Lone Star State has become the “laboratory” for GOP politicians and their hard-right agenda, according to Democrat Ben Chou, who is running to be Commissioner of Harris County Precinct 4. “This is all for a national platform for when they go into the Republican primary,” Chou said, predicting Abbott and Cruz are nursing 2024 presidential ambitions and trying to “one-up” their conservative competition, which includes Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.
Like a reality-TV competition from hell, Texas Republicans are showing off their skills.
They’re first flexing with voter suppression. “More than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions,” according to the Brennan Center of Justice which tracks the GOP’s voter suppression efforts across the nation. Texas is leading the way.
Under the guise of fighting voter fraud, which is almost nonexistent, Texas Republicans passed Senate Bill 1, which restricts the state’s voting process, narrows local control of elections, and implements absurd voting ID requirements that negatively impact Democrats and voters of color. As an example, in diverse and multi-racial Harris County, nearly 16% of the 1,276 absentee ballot applications received for the upcoming primary elections were rejected for failing to meet the new ID requirements. For perspective, in the 2018 Texas primary, only 2.5 percent of 4,800 applications were rejected, according to election officials. Fewer people can vote, which means the bill is working exactly as planned.
The Texas GOP is becoming more extreme because they are responding to their radicalized base, says Azra Siddiqui, president of Wise Up Texas, a non-partisan non-profit that empowers and educates Texans of South Asian descent to partake in civic engagement.
Take Sen. Cruz’s masochistic groveling before Tucker Carlson’s audience on Fox News, where he backtracked from a previous statement where he correctly referred to the January 6th violent insurrection as a “terrorist attack.” A few days later, Sen. Cruz was born again hard, and he shamelessly peddled Carlson’s “false flag” conspiracy theory at a Senate hearing questioning DOJ officials.
As for Gov. Abbott, Siddiqui believes he was pushed further to the right after being primaried by hard-right candidates, such as former Rep. Allen West, whose “far-right primary voters actually show up to the polls for the primary.” As a result, Abbott criticized vaccine and mask mandates and banned any Texas entity, including private employers, from requiring the vaccine.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton followed up by launching lawsuits against President Biden’s federal vaccine orders for the National Guard. In turn, these anti-mask and anti-vaccine regulations have harmed progressive activism, according to Texas Democrat Jen Ramos, State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC) committeewoman for Senate District 21. Before the pandemic, she said, “it wasn’t easy for the GOP to push through their bills without pushback.” In previous years, progressive groups and allies were always protesting at the Texas Capitol against GOP bills. More recently, she said progressives were being outnumbered in testimony ten to one because many didn’t feel safe or comfortable going to the Capitol, where even the Texas state troopers didn’t wear masks in the building.
Texas serves as a warning for Democrats across the nation to pay particular attention to state legislature races. Currently, both houses in Texas have a Republican majority. As a result, the GOP controls redistricting.
“Gerrymandering exists and we’re screwed when it comes to the state legislature. We’re not going to win a majority there any time soon,” Chou said. “The GOP essentially has never advocated for a fair and representative democracy,” Ramos told me. However, with Republicans’ consolidation of power, Ramos says their new position is, basically, “We don't have repercussions anymore, so we're just going to run for it.”
That includes passing a dangerous and reckless open-carry bill that could weaponize the most unhinged among us. Before 2020, Siddiqui couldn’t imagine that moderate Republicans would pass the open-carry bill, which allows Texans to carry handguns in public without permits or undergoing training. That it was signed into law by Gov. Abbott “was very shocking for a lot of us.” It’s proof that what were once the radicalized fringes of the GOP are now its center.
“This past legislative session was the most far-right that I’ve ever seen,” Siddiqui said, citing the introduction of the Texas abortion law, SB8, which allows private citizens to sue anyone who facilitates an abortion after six weeks, without any exceptions for rape or incest. Anyone who succeeds in their claim can be awarded $10,000 by a court. The law has halted most abortions in Texas and serves as a template for Republicans across the nation, especially after the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear objections to the law—effectively leaving it in place.
Furthermore, the Texas bill was a model used by Gov. DeSantis in Florida for his recent Stop WOKE Act, which allows parents the right to sue teachers if they believe their kids are being taught critical race theory, and to collect attorneys if they succeed in their lawsuit. Not to be outdone, Gov. Abbott just trumped him with a new “Parental Bill of Rights” which gives Texas parents more control of their children’s education, including decisions about the course curriculum, especially concerning topics about race and LGBTQ+ issues. The bill will allow parents to stop educators from providing books depicting same-sex relationships, which are described as “pornographic materials.”
The pivot for Democrats in Texas isn’t to necessarily chase moderates or abandon their progressive policies. Ramos cites the example of “rising star” Lena Hidalgo, a 30-year-old country judge in Harris County, the third-most populous county in the United States, who according to Ramos won “against all odds” against incumbent Ed Emmett, a well-liked Republican and one of the largest executives in Houston. Hidalgo is the first woman and Latina to be elected to the office. Ramos says Hidalgo is an example of a young woman who is progressive, unapologetic about her Latinx heritage, young—and all those factors were assets that helped her win mainly because she focused on issues that people cared about. As a result, she’s been able to fight back against the GOP and advocate for COVID safety protocols, which Ramos credits with saving lives.
Chou recommends Democrats focus on counties and cities, where they can push back against the Republican-dominated state legislature, which only meets for five months every two years and thus can’t spend their entire time restricting their efforts. “Up until that next legislative session, we in counties, we plot, we strategize, and we start enacting policies,” he said. Democrats in Harris County, for example, put a polling location in the county jail because nearly two-thirds of the people are there because they are poor and can’t afford bail but can still legally vote. They did this without publicity.
In the end, Democrats have to give people a reason to come out and vote for them, and that means focusing on issues that concern them. They can’t simply rely on people of color—especially Latinos—to show up just because a significant and disturbing number of Republicans are aggressively xenophobic and hateful. In fact, some troubling data shows that the GOP has been able to win over Latino voters recently, focusing on issues concerning the economy, immigration, and the culture wars.
Ramos says it’s a good lesson to remember that Latinos are not a monolith, and Texas Latinos “feel disenfranchised regardless of representation,” with politicians often ignoring community concerns about health care, transportation, and safe drinking water. She said Latino voters will show up for “whoever actually advocates for issues that affect our communities—job security, livable wage, and food on the table.”
A great hope and test for Democrats is the upcoming governor’s race featuring former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Both Ramos and Chou believe O’Rourke has a shot, having mobilized grassroots communities, specifically leaning heavily into health care and rural broadband, and avoiding right-wing bait on divisive culture war issues.
Although it seems hopeless for Democrats in Texas, Ramos urged people not to ignore Texas as unwinnable or dismiss it as a radically conservative state. Texas is far from a left-leaning state, she said, but Democrats are still mobilized, especially in large metropolitan areas where there is still hope for systemic change.
However, hope is no longer enough for Democrats. If they really want to mobilize the majority and push back against a radicalized GOP, they have to step up, organize, fight back, strategize and finally deliver for increasingly disillusioned voters, who are tired of false promises and empty slogans.