‘This Is What the GOP Has Unleashed’

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But, she added, no one she has spoken with is even close to abandoning the Republican Party for a Democrat right now. “It’s more like a dramatic eyeroll,” said Zavala, who previously worked for a female Republican state lawmaker. “Like, ‘I can’t believe what they did.’”

While Republican leaders have lost some support in recent weeks, James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, noted that the drop in Abbott’s approval ratings came largely from independent voters, who don’t reliably show up to vote. Republican politicians here appear undeterred by the recent poll numbers or social media backlash on the left and more motivated by their steadfast primary voters. Abbott already has called a third special legislative session starting Sept. 20, so the Legislature can draw new congressional and statehouse maps. Also on the docket are restrictions on transgender student athletes and a ban on vaccine mandates.

The national Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous argues that state Democrats are facing a number of hurdles at least partly of their own making: no consistent messaging that appeals to centrists and independent voters and the state’s growing share of Latinos, no strategy to overcome GOP control of elections, no large bench of candidates ready to take on Republican lawmakers. Thompson said she started her group because there was no obvious other place for her to go. “I wish,” she said, “there was an organization who could rise up against what is happening in Texas right now.”

Powered By People, Beto O’Rourke’s group that supports Democratic candidates, raised $200,000 in the past week, said Texas Democratic strategist Abhi Rahman. And much of that money will be used to register new voters and do candidate outreach. But most Democratic groups are still trying to figure out how to take advantage of the surge of energy and enthusiasm. “We’re trying to figure out what activism looks like,” said Chris Lazare, the organizing director of Real Justice PAC and an alum of O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign.

“Democrats are a little bit stunned,” added Mike Collier, who lost the lieutenant governor’s race in 2018 by 5 percentage points and is challenging the Republican incumbent, Dan Patrick, again next year. Texans are no strangers to conservative legislation, but usually the backlash is more muted. Collier said he has seen a recent fundraising boost in his campaign, and that he’s spent the week pushing out emails and tweets spotlighting the new Republican legislation and talking about issues like the state’s electrical grid failure this past winter and its spike in Covid deaths.

David Cohen, co-founder of Forward Majority, a national group that focuses on helping Democrats win statehouse seats, said he still hopes recent events can spur a new level of action: “What we have seen this last week underscores how critical it is for Democrats to wake up and get serious about building long-term and durable power in the state.”

Texas has been here before, of course.

In 2013, the state debated another restrictive abortion law that required abortion clinics to meet hospital standards. Back then, state Sen. Wendy Davis and her pink Mizunos became instant national celebrities for filibustering and blocking the bill. Although the bill eventually passed, Davis raised nearly $1 million in the days after her filibuster, tapping a network of small-dollar donors Democrats believed would transform the party and propel Davis over Abbott for the open governor’s seat.

But a series of missteps and bad timing — 2014 turned out to be a wave election year for Republicans — plagued Davis’ campaign. She lost to Abbott by more than 20 percentage points.

Davis told me earlier this week that she believes a lot has changed in Texas in the seven years since her loss. Texas has added millions of new residents in recent years, mostly in the state’s cities and suburbs. In 2018, Abbott and other Republicans lost Harris County, which includes Houston. Many of the provisions in the election bill Abbott signed on Tuesday, like a ban on 24-hour voting, directly target Harris County’s 2020 pandemic voting measures.

Abbott himself also has changed. When he first ran for office in 2014, he cut the figure of a moderate Republican — he was “a sleepy attorney general,” in the words of Thompson, who started the anti-Abbott group. “He just seemed so chill before.” But this past year, with the threat of multiple Republican primary challengers, the governor clearly has been focused on appealing to grassroots GOP voters.

Davis thinks there is an opening for Democrats to stay focused on the message that Republicans are catering to primary voters, while ignoring basic issues like curbing Covid cases or fixing the state’s power grid. “Will it be the case that this is a wake-up call for some independent and moderate Republican voters to decide differently about candidates they will support in the next election cycle?” asked Davis, who started a nonprofit in 2016 called Deeds Not Words to organize young women voters. “I certainly hope so.”

Texas state Rep. Chris Turner, the House Democratic caucus chair, sees a different historical parallel. In 2017, Texas Republicans again dove headfirst into the conservative culture war issues of the day, passing a partisan sanctuary cities law and more abortion restrictions and debating a law that would restrict transgender bathroom use. In 2018, Democrats — partly united by opposition to former President Donald Trump — had their best showing in years. They gained seats in Congress and the state House and Senate, knocked out Republicans in Harris County leadership and narrowed margins in statewide races. O’Rourke lost to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz by less than 3 percentage points. When 2019 rolled around, Republican state lawmakers stayed away from the most controversial legislation, instead focusing on curbing property tax increases and investing in education.

Next year, Trump won’t be on the ballot, but the new state legislation will be, Turner said. The Texas GOP “went too far in 2021, and they are at great risk for paying the price in 2022,” he said. He is “confident” Democrats will have a full slate of candidates ready to draw sharp differences between the parties next November; the filing deadline is still months away.

To Thompson, this moment feels different from previous years partly because of the national attention on Texas. In response to the abortion law, Women’s March organizers are planning events in all 50 states on Oct. 2. Hundreds of members of Thompson’s Facebook group responded to a post about the march, sharing information about local events across the state. She believes people in her group are ready to vote for any Democrat who runs against Abbott. “We are tired of losing,” she said.

But, Democrats say, the process to capitalize on the past week is just starting. They might simply have too much ground to make up, and there is a real chance 2022, especially with a Democrat in the White House, could turn out like past elections — perhaps Texas will continue to trend more purple, but without any major wins for Democrats to point to. “That is a slow build,” Cohen at Forward Majority said. “It’s not something that’s magic in a bottle, and it comes to fruition.”

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