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November 17th, 2022:

Christopher Busby: The Case for Texas Democratic Optimism

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

The election came and went with a similar story. Texas Democrats just started to get their hopes up about the idea of finally breaking through for their first statewide win since their fall from voters’ graces in the early 90s. Then falling flat yet again in their efforts. 30 years in the wilderness can do a lot to sting the hopes of Democrats parched for any sign of success. In 2014 Wendy Davis sent shock waves among Texas Democrats in her voracious defense of abortion rights yet lost by 20 points. In 2018 Beto O’Rouke came within a three point margin of knocking off the firebrand Junior Senator from Texas Ted Cruz. In 2020 President Joe Biden lost by just 6 pts, the best Democratic Presidential performance since 1996.

Yet despite all the clear movement in Democrats favor, incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott decisively defeated Beto O’Rouke to win by approximately 11 points. My guess is that across the state Texas Democrats feel much like Charlie Brown lying on his back on the football field. Fool me once. Shame on you. Fool me for three decades?

The message I want Texas Democrats to take away from this however is counter intuitive. My message is: Y’all are still headed in the right direction.

Before you think I’m just Lucy with her football again, hear me out.

In political statistics it is often most useful to compare the final performance of a candidate’s party relative to the national environment. In 2000 then Texas Governor George Bush lost the national popular vote in his race for president yet won Texas by 21 points in the same year. In parlance of political statistics that would make Texas an R+21 state. 8 years later when President Obama was carrying the country by 8 points he lost Texas by 12 points, meaning that despite a facially 8 point improvement, Texas was still R+20 compared to the nation as a whole. Little relative movement.

Taking this in mind we shouldn’t be too surprised by political consultants who got excited about Hillary Clinton’s Texas performance where she lost the state by only 9 points despite winning the popular vote by 2 points. Suddenly Texas moves from an R+20 state to an R+11 state. Suddenly Texas moves from a pipe dream to just… a dream.

In the years after Clintons narrow loss Texas Democrats have started taking themselves seriously again. What have the numbers since then told us? Looking at the presidential race President Biden lost the state by 6 points while winning nationally by 4 points. Now R+10 Texas inches ever closer to being competitive. BUT we just got done with a midterm year. Midterm numbers are where data nerds’ minds will pour over for the next few months.

2018 was the Texas Democrats banner year. Beto O’Rouke was cast as a political rockstar for almost upsetting Texas Senator Ted Cruz. His 3 point loss during a year when Democrats were winning by 8 points was very much in line with the R+11 numbers that Clinton and Biden would achieve in the elections before and after. Yet let’s look at Governor Greg Abbott who also was on that same ballot. He defeated Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez by approximately 13 points, an R+21 performance. Many will want to argue that Beto’s performance at the top of the ticket was indicative of Democratic performance that year however looking at the data it’s clear that most statewide officials fell closer to Abbott’s performance. Abbott was one of the top performing officials on the ticket year of either party.

2022 tells a story for state Democrats that they should take some optimism in. Taking the 2018 top performer from each party would seem like a recipe for a competitive race. Easy math would have expected an Abbott victory of 6-8 points if the year was the same. However the midterm years were very different. Numbers are still slowly trickling in so the data here will be less precise than the historical numbers, yet the initial measure of national vote seems like it will likely land somewhere between an R+1-2 year, much different from the D+8 year of the previous midterm. Moving almost 10 points redder Abbott lost 2 points off his victory margin and his performance fell from a solid R+21 to an R+9-10. The message should be clear: When Texas Democrats put up strong candidates with a real performance they can draw down the Republican ceiling more than Republicans can push Democrats to their floor.

Let’s take a more detailed look at the national picture. Governors across the country went up for re-election. Republicans had been hoping to score a host of upsets in swing states. Instead Democrats held on and in fact gained 3 governor’s mansions in open races. The story however was different for Republican incumbents. In every single state where a Republican governor ran for re-election they gained more support as compared to 2018. Except one: Texas. I’ll say it again for effect Texas was the ONLY governor’s race in the nation where the Republican incumbent lost support in re-election compared to 2018. In fact only Nevada and Georgia had governors races where the winning Republican candidate did worse than Greg Abbott and both those states were states which President Biden won in 2020. And looking briefly at President Biden’s performance you would see that of all states won by former President Trump, the only state to vote to the left of Texas was Florida. Florida, for the record, completely fell off the map for Democrats this year with Senator Marco Rubio winning by 17 points and Governor Ron DeSantis winning by 19 points.

So if I haven’t lost you in all the numbers, what does this mean for Texas Democrats in 2024? It means that Texas may be on the precipice of a major shift. Or may not. It depends on whether national Democrats want to fight for it or not. Ted Cruz is no Greg Abbott. While partisan Democrats might find equal distaste in the two I think you would be hard pressed to find the same polarization around Governor Abbott that you do Senator Cruz. Ted Cruz simply falls flat with the same independent voters who have proved crucial Republicans past successes. On a ticket with the equally, if not more, polarizing former President Trump Texas Democrats have a real opportunity. If Texas Democrats put up a real candidate who can draw investment and has a proven track record of campaigning they might just create an opening. Most importantly President Biden’s campaign team needs to take a hard look at the hundreds of millions dumped in Florida cycle after cycle even as it drifts more and more red. 2022 saw Texas and Florida cross each other’s paths in terms of state partisanship. Texas sits to the left of every major red state at this point and only the population sparse Alaska might argue an opportunity for an easier flip. If national Democrats are looking to expand the map beyond the states won by President Biden in 2020 they have their best opportunity in the lone star state.

Christopher Busby is a lifelong Houstonian and independent political campaign consultant and policy advisor. He is a currently pursing a medical doctorate, is former K-12 educator, and has worked extensively on local campaigns. All views and opinions expressed are his own and not representative of any affiliated entities.

If Greg Abbott demands an investigation, Greg Abbott will get an investigation

This is all still so dumb.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is launching an investigation into “alleged irregularities” during last week’s election after receiving a referral from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Ogg sent a letter to Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw asking for the Texas Rangers’ assistance on Monday, the same day Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation and the Harris County Republican Party filed a lawsuit accusing Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum and the county of numerous violations of the Texas Election Code.

The allegations include paper shortages at 23 polling locations, releasing early voting results before polls closed at 8 p.m., the improper disposition of damaged ballots and inadequate instructions on how poll workers were to manage instances in which the two-page ballots were not completely or adequately scanned into machines.

Under Harris County’s countywide voting system, residents had 782 locations to cast their ballots on Election Day. The paper shortages affected a small number of polling places.

The GOP lawsuit, however, claims “countless” voters were turned away due to the paper shortages and did not go to a second location to vote.

See here for the background. Ogg, who was not exactly an asset to Democrats in this election, has taken some heat for this. I get that and I’m not here to defend any of her recent actions, but I’m not exercised about this. There was going to be an investigation of some kind once Abbott threw his tantrum, and given that it can’t be Ken Paxton unless he’s invited in, it may as well be the local DA. Having the Texas Rangers assist makes sense in that it’s best to have outside help for an internal political matter. If this turns out to be much ado about nothing, as I believe it is, then let the Rangers take the blame from the Republicans for not finding anything. I am not going to waste my energy sweating about this at this time.

In the meantime:

Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum, speaking at length publicly for the first time since Election Day, pledged a complete assessment of voting issues Tuesday but said the county is in “dire need” of improvements to the way it conducts elections.

“A full assessment is in order,” Tatum told Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. “We have started that assessment, but I’d like to remind you and the public we are still counting votes.”

He said his office still was working its way through about 2,100 provisional ballots cast after 7 p.m. last Tuesday. A state district judge ordered the county to keep the polls open until 8 p.m. because some voting locations failed to open on time. Those provisional ballots are being kept separate from the unofficial count, pending a court ruling on the validity of those votes.

The deadline for the county to canvass the vote is Nov. 22.

[…]

Tatum told Commissioners Court his staff is contacting each election judge to gather feedback and assess challenges they faced, including any technical difficulties and the response they received.

At least one polling place had a late opening and certain locations ran out of paper, Tatum confirmed.

Tatum took over the job in August, just two months before early voting in the November election began. So far, he noted the county is in “dire need” of some critically needed improvements, including a better communication system, more maintenance and operations personnel and a tracking system for monitoring requests from the election workers running polling locations.

Tatum said he has spoken with election judges who requested technical help and did not receive it.

“Because I can’t track that technician within the system that I have, I can’t tell you what happened,” Tatum said.

I dunno, maybe wait until all the work is done and see what happens before storming the barricades? And yes, especially now that they have full control over the budget, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court needs to ensure this office has sufficient resources. We need to do better. Reform Austin has more.

Senate passes Respect For Marriage Act

Nice. And remember who opposed it, kids.

Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz tried to block a Senate vote to explicitly enshrine equal marriage rights for gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans into federal law Wednesday, after 12 GOP lawmakers joined Democrats to clear the way for the bill’s passage.

The Respect for Marriage Act would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional in 2013. The high court went further in 2015 and ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states can’t ban same-sex marriages, declaring that gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans have a constitutional right to marry.

The core provisions of the Respect for Marriage Act would be relevant only if the Supreme Court reverses that decision in the way it revoked a constitutional right to abortion this summer.

The bill would not force states that currently have unenforceable bans on same-sex marriage, like Texas, to offer marriage certificates to gay, lesbian and bisexual couples if Obergefell is overturned. But it would mandate that the state recognize a same-sex marriage that occurred in a state where it is legal. The vote on Wednesday in the Senate clears the way for it to pass the chamber easily. It will then return to the House, where members will consider the amendments made in the Senate. The House passed the original version of the bill in July.

There was a push to get this to a vote before the election, but the decision was made to defer it to the lame duck session. Given that it has now passed the Senate, I can’t argue the logic – sometimes, the result is all that matters. The RFMA has some progressive critics, but the argument for its passage is strong. I have no doubt it will sail through the House. It’s a very good thing, but don’t rest on your laurels because there’s lots more to be done before the end of the year. Mother Jones, TPM, and The 19th have more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 14

The Texas Progressive Alliance is relieved that democracy is still a thing as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Paxton taken off the hook for testifying in abortion funds’ lawsuit

By the Fifth Circuit, of course.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will not have to testify as nonprofits that help patients legally obtain abortions seek clarity on whether they can do their work in states like Texas where the procedure is outlawed, a federal appellate court ruled Monday.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that an Austin federal court judge should have granted Paxton’s motion to quash subpoenas he was served by the plaintiff abortion funds.

The subpoena made national headlines after Paxton evaded a legal messenger who had shown up at his house on the eve of a hearing in the case. Paxton later called the messenger “suspicious” and “erratic” and said he “justifiably feared for his personal safety.”

The abortion funds are suing the state for protection to resume their work amid the state’s newly enforced abortion bans. They have said Paxton’s testimony is necessary because he and his office have made conflicting statements about the legality of helping Texas residents legally obtain abortions in other states, and he is the only person who can clarify their meaning and intent.

“We are happy that Judge Pitman can move forward in the case now, and that the Fifth Circuit has acknowledged the real threats against our clients related to assisting people to access reproductive health care out of state,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a joint statement.

[…]

At first, the district court granted Paxton’s motions to quash the subpoenas; however, after more information came to light — Paxton had claimed he was served “on the literal eve of trial,” yet emails submitted to the court by the abortion funds’ lawyers showed he had at least four days notice — the judge changed course and ordered Paxton to testify.

The appellate judges disagreed with the lower court’s finding that there were “exceptional circumstances” requiring Paxton to testify.

“Paxton’s personal ‘thoughts and statements’ have no bearing on his office’s legal authority to enforce Texas’s abortion laws or any other law,” the panel wrote in the ruling. “It is entirely unexceptional for a public official to comment publicly about a matter of public concern. If doing so imparts unique knowledge, high-level officials will routinely have to testify.”

The panel also disagreed with the lower court’s contention that testifying would not cause a significant burden for Paxton.

“‘High ranking government officials have greater duties and time constraints than other witnesses,'” they wrote, citing prior case law. “Those duties often involve communicating with the public on matters of public interest. The fact that a high-ranking official talks to his constituents does not ipso facto mean he also has ample free time for depositions.”

See here for the background. This is one of those times where I wish the story included a quote or two from an actual legal expert about the opinion. We all know how deeply in the tank for Paxton the Fifth Circuit is, but based on what is reported in the story, the ruling seems at least defensible. But the Fifth Circuit is so utterly corrupt that I can’t rely on my judgment here, and they deserve absolutely no benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to be a chump here, so I’d like to see someone who knows these things render an assessment. In the absence of that, all I have is my well-honed instinct to not trust that terrible court. And we’ll all have the Internet mockery of Ken Paxton for his pusillanimous efforts to evade the process server. Sometimes the snark is the most dependable thing out there.