According to his biographer it was Samuel Johnson who described a second marriage as “the triumph of hope over experience.” The aphorism brings to my mind two other events.
One is golf as committed by hackers like me. The other is the predictions by Democratic pundits and professors that I have been hearing for 20 years that Texas was on the cusp of turning blue, or at least purple.
Most of these predictions have been based on demographics, chiefly that the burgeoning Hispanic population will transform the state’s bright red hue. The rise of younger generations and the growth of urban populations have also been cited.
My stance remains the same as it has been for years. I will believe that a Democrat can win a statewide office in Texas — something no Democrat has done since Bob Bullock was reelected lieutenant governor in 1994 — when a Democrat wins statewide in Texas.
Yet there is a recent development that does appear to increase the Democrats’ chances. Let me lay out a bit of recent history.
The 2017 session of the Texas Legislature was not distinguished by far-reaching legislation. It focused almost entirely on hot-button social issues. Legislators approved an earlier Senate Bill 8 that banned the most common surgical procedure used for second-trimester abortions and required that clinics and hospitals bury or cremate any fetal remains — whether from abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. The 2017 session also banned immigration “sanctuary cities” in Texas, requiring local officials to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
The most heat in the session was Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s insistence on a “bathroom bill” requiring that people use facilities based on the gender assigned them at birth. The bill died in the House, so Patrick engineered the requirement of a special session by blocking passage of a bill required to fund several key state agencies. Then he pressured Gov. Greg Abbott to include the bathroom bill in the special session.
When Abbott did, he faced resistance from major donors who reminded him of the economic consequences suffered by North Carolina after national companies boycotted the state in response to their bathroom bill. Abbott told his donors not to worry, that House Speaker Joe Straus would kill it. When it again died in the House, Abbott publicly attacked Straus over the issue.
It was a session that produced very little of value to most Texans but did play well to the Republican base. What was interesting was what happened in its wake.
In the 2018 general election, Democrats picked up two congressional seats and a whopping 13 seats in the state House of Representatives. Beto O’Rourke, a one-term congressman from El Paso, came within 2.6 percentage points of unseating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Dan Patrick’s soul mate on the ideological spectrum.
Patrick won just 51.3 percent of the vote, down from 58 percent four years earlier. Attorney General Ken Paxton, another culture warrior, squeaked by with 50.6 percent, compared to 59 percent in 2014.
O’Rourke was given considerable credit for running an energetic and effective campaign, but many observers concluded that Texas independents and suburban voters had been appalled at the previous year’s legislative session. Among those drawing that lesson were members of the Republican leadership.
Dan Patrick, at a press conference at the beginning of the 2019 legislative session, announced that the bathroom issue — his primary focus two years earlier — had magically been solved. “I think it’s been settled, and I think we’ve won,” he said.
The Legislature, still dominated by Republicans, took on a strikingly different tone. A couple of relatively modest anti-abortion bills passed, protecting the exceedingly rare baby born live during an attempted abortion and banning cities and counties from doing business with organizations that perform abortions.
The main focus of the session was property tax relief and providing billions in new school funding — the first time in modern history the Legislature addressed the school funding issue without having a gun held to its head by the Texas Supreme Court.
Veteran Capitol journalist Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune summed it up: “Republicans nervous about Democratic advances were looking over their shoulders and thinking about the 2020 election cycle.”
So what happened last November? Despite spending record amounts of cash and touting the possibility of taking over the Texas House and winning several more congressional seats, the Democrats made no progress and were lucky to hold onto the gains they had made two years earlier.
So the Republicans learned their lesson in 2021, right? Their best bet for keeping control of Texas was to downplay the culture wars and focus on the real problems of Texas.
The pandemic? The Legislature has done nothing while the governor and attorney general have fought hard to keep schools and other local governments from enforcing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for masks and vaccines.
The winter freeze that knocked out power across the state, killed at least 210 people, led to electricity surcharges of $16 billion and economic damages estimated in the range of $100 billion? Nothing in terms of rate relief and only modest measures to improve the grid and the reliability of power.
The health consequences of having the most uninsured citizens in the country, made worse by the pandemic? Nada.
There’s much more they didn’t do for Texas as a whole, but they did so much to appease their base. They passed the nation’s most inventive and restrictive abortion law, effectively shutting down most abortion clinics. They did away with gun licensing requirements. They outlawed, without definition, the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools. They established punishments for large cities that for whatever reason reduced police budgets. They mandated the playing of the national anthem at professional sporting events. They restricted the ability of Facebook and Twitter to remove or even tag conservative postings even if they are demonstrably false.
Then in a special session they passed an “election security” bill that made Texas’ voting system, already regarded as the most restrictive in the nation, even more so, And in the current, third special session they are attempting to pass a bill barring trans children from sports teams that don’t correspond to the gender assigned to the student at birth — to provide “fairness” for girl athletes. This despite the fact that the only known controversy over the issue involved a teenager who had transitioned to his male identity. He wanted to wrestle boys but was required to wrestle girls, all of whom he beat.
In other words, they put almost all their efforts into solving problems that didn’t exist — except in the case of the war against COVID-19, in which they sided with the enemy.
There is evidence that the sovereign public is not amused. Abbott’s poll numbers have plummeted from 59 percent approval to 45 percent in a Dallas Morning News poll and 41 percent in a University of Texas poll. Both polls show a majority of Texans thinking the state is moving in the wrong direction.
Independents, which is to say swing voters, agree much more with Democrats on these questions than with Republicans.
More than on other matters there is passion in some of the issues. Parents, for example, tend to be passionate about protecting their children. In the University of Texas poll, 56 percent of respondents support requiring masks for students and faculty, with 47 percent “strongly” supporting. Only 25 percent “strongly oppose” such mandates, with another 7 percent “somewhat” opposing them.
Strong feelings can sway elections. The abortion bill could also sway independent voters.
Still, a lot can happen between now and next year’s November election. Maybe COVID-19 will recede and Texas will not be the leader in deaths and among the leaders in child deaths. The Great Freeze of 2021 may escape memory. Maybe dispirited Democrats and independents will not turn out in the numbers they did in 2018.
On the other hand, we have a million more registered voters than four years ago, and the majority may not like what they see.
It may be the year that Texas turns purple. And it may be that it is not demographics that makes it happen, but Republicans themselves.