The Portland City Council will vote this week on an emergency resolution to bar city purchases of goods and services from Texas until the state overturns its draconian assault on abortion rights. Officials in the Oregon city are hoping the boycott spreads. “We urge other leaders and elected bodies around the nation to join us in condemning the actions of the Texas state government,” says Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Undoubtedly, Wheeler will get takers. But don’t imagine that Republicans in Texas, or nationally, will abandon the course they have charted. What’s happening in Texas is about much more than the fight over reproductive rights.
The state is implementing a template for the authoritarian future Republicans propose for all Americans. The recent enactment of a right-wing wish list of extreme measures by the state’s legislature—denying a pregnant person’s rights to choose, limiting what’s taught in schools about racism, permitting people to carry unlicensed firearms in public—is one piece of an ambitious GOP strategy going into the 2022 midterm elections. The other piece involves the restrictions on voting rights that Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed Tuesday.
Republicans have marginalized their party’s popular appeal. Yet gerrymandering and voter suppression schemes have kept the GOP competitive nationally and in most states. The party has grown comfortable with pluralities as opposed to majorities. Republicans are satisfied with minority rule—as long as their minority is ruling.
In Texas, where Democrats have gained ground in recent years, it is now abundantly clear that the Republican strategy is to make it harder for probable Democratic voters to cast ballots while, at the same time, advancing a legislative agenda designed to encourage maximum turnout by voters who make up their party’s social-conservative base.
More than 40 years ago, Republican political operative Paul Weyrich told a right-wing gathering, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Weyrich died in 2008, but his vision lives on. Indeed, it animates the Republican strategy in Texas, where the party has won every statewide election since 1994.
In 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke won more than 48 percent of the vote in his challenge to Republican Senator Ted Cruz, and Democratic newcomer Justin Nelson won more than 47 percent in his bid for the critical post of attorney general. Democrats made significant gains in state legislative races that year and picked up several US House seats. In 2018, Texas Monthly observed, “The [O’Rourke-Cruz] contest ended in a narrow loss that felt like a win to Democrats, and the results down-ballot gave the party paths to expand the electoral map and perhaps even take control of the state House.”
Texas Republicans got the wake-up call. Their reaction was to go full Weyrich. Instead of trying to expand their appeal, they decided to narrow it with what The Dallas Morning News described as a plan to “steamroll Democrats to pass their conservative agenda.” Despite widespread protests and a high-profile decision by Democratic legislators to leave the state in order to deny the legislature a quorum, Republicans have now succeeded in making Texas what the News refers to as “the most conservative one-party state in America.”
In a state that is rapidly becoming more diverse, more liberal on most issues, and a good deal more Democratic—in 2020, Joe Biden won the highest percentage of the vote for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter—the Republicans’ strategy would seem misguided. And it would be, if Abbott and his legislative allies intended to compete in a fair fight. But they don’t.
The package of voting rights restrictions that the governor has approved includes a ban on drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, which had been used to increase turnout (even during the coronavirus pandemic) in Houston’s Harris County. It also expands voter ID requirements, limits early voting hours, and places new restrictions on mail-in voting. State Representative John Bucy, an Austin Democrat, notes that the bill also outlines new avenues for criminally prosecuting voters who make mistakes. “There are increased crimes and penalties throughout this bill just for participating in the process,” says Bucy, “and there is not explanation as to why.”
Voting rights advocates fear the threat of prosecution will be used to intimidate potential voters, and to undermine efforts to boost turnout among communities of color, students, and other groups that might be more likely to vote Democratic.
At the same time, the law empowers partisan poll watchers to aggressively monitor and challenge voting procedures—effectively codifying the approach taken by Donald Trump and his allies during and after the 2020 presidential election.
Texas Republicans are not outliers; they are trendsetters. Republicans in other states are going all in on voter suppression, as part of a national strategy in anticipation of 2o22 midterm elections that could expand GOP control of statehouses and restore GOP control of Congress. “While laws that make it more taxing to vote are not new, the current onslaught of voting restrictions and changes to how elections will be administered is not something we’ve grappled with on this scale,” notes a FiveThirtyEight analysis from May. “Additionally, there is their nakedly partisan origins—nearly 90 percent of the voting laws proposed or enacted in 2021 were sponsored primarily or entirely by Republican legislators—and the fact that these laws are likely to have a greater impact on Black and brown voters, who are less likely to vote Republican.”
The FiveThirtyEight analysis suggests that making it harder to vote could have a blowback effect for Republicans, who even in a constricted democracy need to turn out their voters. But that’s where these new limits on abortion rights, the effort to stir backlash against teaching the legacies of slavery, and expanding gun rights come in. The new laws in Texas are “red meat” for the Republican base. GOP legislators are creating controversies and responding to them with an eye toward ginning up turnout by their base voters.
Republicans in other states are taking notice. In addition to the push to restricts voting rights, they’re ramping up fights over abortion, guns, and Critical Race Theory. The Associated Press reports that a “network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in culture war fights in schools across the country.” Comparing the approach to that of the Tea Party in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, conservative lawyer Dan Lennington openly admits, “These are ingredients for having an impact on future elections.”
Texas Republicans are grabbing the headlines. But something much bigger is going on. Restricting voting rights for those who might cast Democratic ballots in 2022 while at the same time stoking outrage among social conservatives who are likely to cast Republican ballots is a cruel, if politically potent, strategy. Paul Weyrich only imagined a scenario where Republicans could rule without broad support. Forty years on, Lone Star Republicans have introduced the template for making Weyrich’s scenario a reality—a template that will not stay in Teaxs.