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Election 2022

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

Hard to say, but there’s no reason to be particularly optimistic.

As the country’s political polarization reaches a boiling point — illustrated vividly Wednesday by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the president who believed his false claims that the election was stolen — Texas Republicans are seeking to make some of the nation’s strictest voting laws even stricter.

They say the unrest sparked by the events Wednesday is likely to invigorate discussions over the matter in the state Legislature, where the 2021 session will begin Tuesday.

Several election-related bills have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though their aims are in direct opposition, with Democrats looking to ease up laws they see as suppressing the vote and Republicans trying to curb the opportunities for the fraud they say plagued the 2020 election.

Democrats have filed about two-thirds of the election-related bills, with the other third coming from Republicans.

“If this week has highlighted anything, it’s that we need to protect and encourage democracy and that it’s fragile,” said Rep. John Bucy III, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Elections Committee. “And so these types of bills are worth the investment.”

Election integrity was voted one of the Texas GOP’s top eight legislative priorities in 2020 by its members. Republican bills include measures to tighten mail voting restrictions and stop governors from changing election laws during disasters, two concerns that President Donald Trump raised in his election challenges.

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Texas is one of 16 states that require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail.

Bettencourt said Harris County’s move to mail the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.

Other bills filed by Republican lawmakers aim to correct the voter rolls, such as one filed by newly elected Sen. Drew Springer that would require voter registrars to do various checks for changes in address on an annual basis.

Springer said the bill was inspired by an Ohio law that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld that allows the state to purge voters from the registration rolls if they do not return a mailed address confirmation form or don’t vote for two federal election cycles. The Texas bill would require registrars to use data from the U.S. Postal Service and property records for inactive voters to identify possible changes of address, then to send the notice requesting confirmation of their current residence.

The Bettencourt bill, as described, doesn’t concern me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail applications one way or another. Unless there’s more to this, this bill is all show.

The Springer bill is potentially more concerning, but the devil will be in the details. I continue to have hope for a revamped federal law that will do a lot to protect voting rights that will blunt the effect of efforts like these, but it’s very much early days and there’s no guarantees of anything yet.

I did not excerpt a section of the story in which Rep. Steve Toth will propose a constitutional amendment that would require a special session of the Legislature in order to renew a state of disaster or emergency declaration past 30 days. It’s presented as a voting rights-adjacent measure, prompted in part by Greg Abbott’s extension of the early voting period, but as we discussed many times last year, there’s a lot of merit in asserting the role of the Legislature in these matters. I don’t trust Steve Toth any more than I trust Steven Hotze, but on its face this idea is worth discussing. It also would require a substantial number of Dems to support it, so there’s room for it to be a positive force. We’ll see.

There are bills put forth by Dems for obvious things like online voter registration, same day registration, no excuses absentee balloting, and so forth, all of which have little to no chance of being adopted. I’ve said before that I think people like voting to be easy and convenient for themselves and that Democrats should campaign on that (among other things), so I’m delighted to see these bills. I just know they’re not happening this session.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be worse bills filed than what we’ve seen here. I won’t be surprised if there’s a push to amend the voter ID law to include absentee ballots, now that those are no longer seen as Republican assets. I’m sure there will be a bill officially limiting mail ballot dropoff locations, and maybe one to limit early voting hours. For sure, there’s a significant contingent of Republicans that would like to make voting extra super inconvenient for everyone, as well as make the penalties for whatever minor offense Ken Paxton can find to charge someone with as harsh as possible:

Laugh at the lunacy that is Allen West all you like, the man is in a position of influence. Note also the attack on drive-through voting, which is another likely target even without this hysteria. I don’t know how far the Republicans will go, but they’ll do something. We can do what we can to stop them, and after that it’s all about winning more elections. It’s not going to get any easier.

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

Don’t get your hopes too high. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Five years after Texas legalized medical marijuana for people with debilitating illnesses, advocates and industry experts say the state’s strict rules, red tape and burdensome barriers to entry have left the program largely inaccessible to those it was intended to help.

But with a new legislative session gaveling in next month, some Texas lawmakers see an opportunity to fix the state’s medical cannabis program — known as the Compassionate Use Program — by further expanding eligibility and loosening some restrictions so Texas’ laws more closely resemble those of other states that allow the treatment.

There are 3,519 Texans registered with the state to use medical marijuana, though advocates say 2 million people are eligible based on current law.

Texas’ program pales in overall participation and scope compared with other states: It has fewer enrolled patients and businesses than most other states with medical marijuana programs. At least some form of medical marijuana is legal in 47 states nationwide, but Texas’ restrictions put it in the bottom 11 in terms of accessibility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We’re pretty dang close to the bottom. We’re pretty far behind,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, referring to how access to Texas’ medical marijuana program fares compared with other states. Menéndez will push legislation in the next session to further expand the program.

[…]

As of Dec. 14, at least seven bills had been filed by lawmakers seeking to expand the Compassionate Use Program. Menéndez is authoring a far-reaching bill that would make more patients eligible, strike the THC cap and lower business fees, among other changes.

“I think we’d see a lot more participation if we had a real medical cannabis program,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

In the past, medical cannabis bills have faced opposition from lawmakers who see it as a path to legalizing recreational marijuana, Menéndez said. But he says expanding the program will put decisions about who can access the medicine into the hands of doctors.

When the Senate voted to include more patients in 2019, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he was concerned the legislation was more of a “cliff” than a slippery slope.

“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to recreational use,” Birdwell said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable going any further than this because of what I’m seeing in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and what’s happening in those states. I am highly guarded.”

There are a lot more words in there about what Texas does and doesn’t do, and who is affected, and how much better things would be if we had more legal pot, not to mention the economic boost, and you should read them. And then you should remember that nothing is going to pass as long as Dan Patrick – who is for some reason not mentioned in the story – remains opposed to any further loosening of marijuana laws. I support a wholesale loosening of these laws, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that such a loosening would have popular support. Which is why I’d like to see the Democratic slate in 2022 go all in on this. It’s a winning issue, and we’re going to need winning issues if we hope to push Dan Patrick out of there. In the meantime, by all means call your Rep or your Senator and tell them what you support. Maybe your preferred bill will pass the House, or get a Senate committee hearing. That’s likely the best you’ll get for now, but at least it’s something.

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

What to do about Ted and Kenny?

You wouldn’t think it would be possible for Ted Cruz to become more loathesome, but if you think that you seriously underestimate him.

Not Ted Cruz

Two nights before the Electoral College certification in Congress, Ted Cruz was in vintage form.

The junior U.S. senator from Texas was calling in to a friendly conservative radio host — Mark Levin — and setting up Wednesday’s vote to be the kind of intraparty line in the sand that has powered his political rise.

By then, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had made clear that he opposed objections to certifying Joe Biden’s election as the next president. But Cruz and 10 other GOP senators announced they would still object unless Congress agreed to an “emergency audit” of the presidential election results.

Cruz told Levin that there were some conservatives “who in good conscience” disagree with his view of Congress’ role in certifying the presidential election results, and that he had talked to them and did not fault them. On the other hand, Cruz said, there were “some Republicans who are not conservatives but who are piously and self-righteously preening” when it comes to the issue.

In spearheading the group of objectors, Cruz arguably upstaged U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who announced his plan to object three days earlier — and, like Cruz, is considered a potential 2024 presidential contender.

But on Wednesday, what Cruz might have thought was a savvy political play took an alarming turn: Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers were considering Cruz’s objection. Three people suffered medical emergencies during the siege and died; their deaths were in addition to another woman who was shot by a Capitol police officer.

Cruz denounced the violence but incurred a fierce backlash from critics in both parties, who said his drive to question the election results — and appease the president and his supporters ahead of a possible 2024 run — helped fan the flames of anger among Trump supporters. Prominent Texas Democrats called for him to resign. Many others suggested he’d played an inciting role in one of the darkest days in modern American history.

Politically, it was a high-stakes distillation of GOP tactics in the era of Trump.

“His challenge of the Electoral College votes helps him among core Trump supporters but risks further damaging his political standing among rank-and-file Republicans like moderates and suburban swing voters who have traditionally formed a stable winning coalition for Republicans in Texas and nationally,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, who added, “Siding with Trump is risky.”

Few people can pull of smarm and condescension at such a high level, but Cruz makes it look easy. The political environment was very favorable to Democrats in 2018 in large part because of anger against Donald Trump – and, it would seem, his absence on the ballot – and that went even further in the Senate race, where Cruz and his extreme unlikability took it the extra mile. Maybe a better politician, or at least someone who more closely resembles a normal human being, could get that to simmer down over time, but Cruz never misses a beat. He’s cast his lot with the Trumper deplorables, and maybe that’s his best bet to get an edge in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. All I know is, the more people who are sick of his shit, the better. Whether he runs for President or Senate or both in 2024 (remember that legally, he can do that in Texas), I expect we’ll be able to drum up some enthusiasm against him.

Having said all that, I’m unfortunately quite ambivalent about any effort to get him expelled from the Senate. I’ve no doubt that plenty of his Republican colleagues in the Senate also despise him, but voting to boot him out, which will take a non-trivial number of Republicans to happen, is a heavy lift. Just the act of putting a partisan target on his back like that will force some of them to defend him, and that’s the last thing we want to do. Chuck Schumer takes over as Senate Majority Leader on January 22, two days into the Biden administration. There’s a ton of vital stuff that needs to happen right away, from COVID relief to voting rights and much more, and the last thing we’re going to need is a sideshow. And look, as much as I’d love to see Cruz get the heave-ho, even if it did happen Greg Abbott would get to appoint his replacement, who almost by definition will be able to work better with his Republican mates. Where’s the upside in that? Let him stay where he’s mostly going to be ineffective and might help keep his caucus divided.

Now, Ken Paxton, on the other hand…

Best mugshot ever

On Wednesday morning, Ken Paxton stood in front of a roaring crowd, reminding a sea of President Donald Trump’s supporters that the president “is a fighter” and his backers must be, too.

“We’re here. We will not quit fighting,” he said, slamming Republican officials in Georgia who have stood by President-elect Joe Biden’s victory there. “We are Texans, we are Americans, and we’re not quitting.”

But by the evening — after members of the crowd he had invited to Washington, D.C., stirred up with false claims about election fraud, resorted to violence, smashing windows and scaling walls to breach the nation’s Capitol in a mob that forced members of Congress to flee and left at least one woman dead — he had claimed they were not his ilk at all.

“These are not Trump supporters,” he falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook, citing incorrect reports that the pro-Trump mob that invaded the Capitol had been infiltrated by liberal antifa activists.

[…]

On Thursday, Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, called for an investigation into Paxton’s role in Wednesday’s riot, leaving the door open to curbing the power of his office, restricting its budget, even censure and impeachment.

“From filing a fraudulent lawsuit that fueled unhinged conspiracy theories about a free and fair election, to egging on the crowd of insurrectionists in Washington, D.C., Paxton has played a major role in creating the national crisis that culminated with the first breach of our nation’s capital since the War of 1812,” Turner said. “Even today, Paxton has used social media to spread lies about yesterday’s acts of violence and insurrection.”

In December, Paxton’s support for Trump took the form of a widely panned, and ultimately rejected, lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to toss the election results in four battleground states that had handed the White House to Joe Biden. The lawsuit leaned on discredited claims of election fraud in the battleground states.

Paxton finds himself in a precarious political position, even before Wednesday’s disastrous events. Since October, he has been embroiled in a scandal after eight of his top aides in the attorney general’s office told authorities they believed he was breaking the law by doing a series of favors for a political donor.

Texas Republicans — many of whom stayed quiet for the past five years as Paxton battled felony securities fraud charges — came forward to express their disapproval. Some fellow conservatives, including his former top aide U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, have called for his resignation. An FBI investigation into Paxton’s conduct is reportedly moving ahead full-throttle, and in the meantime, the fresh criminal allegations are poised to impose tens of millions of dollars in costs to his constituents: Texas taxpayers.

Paxton has been in hot water before, and often escaped it only to climb higher politically, galvanizing support from the Republican party’s right flank. He alienated some with a long shot run for Texas House speaker, then got elected to the state Senate. He has characterized long-running felony securities fraud charges as a political witch hunt, much as Trump did in Washington.

Still, Paxton may have fewer defenders now than ever before.

At a low point in his rollercoaster political career, Paxton is betting on the Trump base to bring him back up the hill, lending the legitimacy of office to debunked claims that have motivated violence.

Here, I think the calculus is a little different. Opposing Paxton’s need for need for millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees should be easy enough, and will provide a test as to whether his wings can get clipped a bit. I don’t expect much more than that, for the same reason I don’t expect even the biggest Cruz-hating Republicans in the Senate to support a motion to expel him, but we can certainly make him more toxic, and harder for his buddies to defend. Paxton had the second-worst showing in 2018, right behind Ted Cruz, and I think it’s fair to say that patience is a little thin for him. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the rest have to consider the possibility that Paxton and his FBI investigation – even if Trump swoops in with a pardon – will be a burden on them in 2022. I’m sure they believe they’ll be re-elected anyway, but who needs the headache?

What they do about it is less clear. They could support a primary challenger – more likely, they’d just not get in a challenger’s way – or they could just avoid talking about Paxton as much as possible. Or they can just grit their teeth and stand by their man. I’m not listing the “quietly push him to not run for re-election” option, because I think it’s pretty clear that’s not going to work. So what we need to do is help keep the spotlight on our felonious and insurrectionist AG. There’s a petition to sign that calls for his resignation or impeachment, if you’re the petition-signing type. But mostly, just make sure everyone that you know also knows what a terrible person he is. We’re going to have to throw him out the old-fashioned way, so we’d better get to work on it.

More COVID restrictions are about to happen in Harris County

Blame Greg Abbott and the virus, in whatever order you prefer.

Houston and its surrounding communities on Tuesday became the latest region to require new emergency restrictions after seven straight days of ballooning coronavirus hospitalizations.

The rollback, mandated under Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency protocols, includes restaurants dropping to 50 percent occupancy from 75 percent, and bars that have not reclassified as restaurants closing immediately. The restrictions remain in place until the region drops below 15 percent COVID-19 hospitalizations for seven straight days.

As of Monday, the latest day of available data, the Houston region was at 19.9 percent, up from just over 13 percent a week earlier. Infections and hospitalizations have been rising steadily in recent weeks, following spikes in other parts of the state and amid holiday gatherings.

All but four of the state’s 22 hospital regions were over 15 percent as of Monday.

Texas Medical Center Hospitals in Houston announced earlier Tuesday that they were putting a hold on certain elective surgeries to save resources for coronavirus patients. Under the governor’s protocols, hospitals are required to postpone elective surgeries that would deplete COVID-19 resources.

“The best thing we can do is take this threshold as a wakeup call,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This is the time to take this for the red alert that it is. We are only going to get through this if we are able to quickly stem the tide of hospitalizations.”

More here.

The rollback comes as Texas Medical Center hospitals already had begun deferring certain elective procedures or readying such a managed reduction strategy, the same one they deployed during the summer when patient censuses spiked. The reduction is not the wholesale delay of elective procedures all Texas hospitals invoked in the spring.

Hospital leaders said Tuesday their systems will continue some elective procedures but suspend those non-urgent cases whose demands on staff and space detract from resources better used to treat COVID-19 patients. Procedures such as mammography and colonoscopy will continue because they don’t tax needed hospital resources, for instance, but some procedures like heart catheterizations might be better delayed.

[…]

The surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations has been relentless. The number of admitted COVID-19 patients in the Houston region has increased for 13 straight weeks, and the 25-county area anchored by Harris County had more than 3,100 hospitalizations on Monday, the highest since July, the peak of the first wave in Texas.

Houston Methodist was just short of 700 COVID-19 patients on Monday. Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom emailed employees that if this trend holds the system will surpass its peak July numbers in a matter of days.

“This may well be among the most challenging few weeks we’ve experienced during this pandemic,” Boom wrote in the email to employees Monday. “Together, we will get through this, but it will be difficult.”

Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann, said his system exceeded 800 patients and should eclipse July numbers by the third week in January. The system’s number of patients has increased three-fold over the last month, he said.

[…]

The COVID-19 positive test rate statewide is now at 20.53 percent. Methodist’s is nearly 32 percent.

Porsa said said Harris Health is about to enter Phase 3 of its surge plans, which involves closing some of its clinics in order to deploy its nurses and other staff at Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson hospitals, both of which are near capacity. He said the leadership is currently determining which clinics to start with.

Hospital officials said they are encouraged that ICUs aren’t being overloaded with COVID-19. They said their staffs have gotten much better, thanks to better treatment options and nine months of experience with the disease, at getting patients discharged faster now compared to early summer.

But with the Houston area now averaging more than 3,300 new COVID-19 cases a day — compared to roughly 2,330 such cases at the pandemic’s height in July — it appears the peak won’t come before late January or February, hospital officials said. They also worry a more contagious strain — not yet identified in Houston but maybe already here — poses an even greater threat ahead.

“January and February are shaping up to be our darkest days, given these record numbers,” said William McKeon, CEO of the TMC. “Hospitals lag behind in feeling the effects of increases in cases so expect the numbers to keep going in the wrong direction before things get better.”

We’re already passing the levels we had seen at the worst of it in July, and we’re probably a few weeks out from hitting the peak this time around. Remember all this next year, when it’s time to vote for our state government.

Abbott appoints another statewide judge

From before the holidays:

Judge Michael Keasler

Jesse McClure, a trial judge on a criminal court in Houston, will join the state’s highest court for criminal matters in the new year.

Gov. Greg Abbott appointed McClure, a Republican, to the Court of Criminal Appeals, where he will fill a seat being vacated by Judge Michael Keasler. Keasler, 78, is departing Dec. 31 under Texas’ mandatory retirement law for judges.

McClure was appointed to his current bench by Abbott in November 2019 but lost his reelection bid to Democrat Te’iva Bell last month in an election that saw Democrats sweep Harris County.

Previously, McClure worked as a prosecutor for the Texas Department of Insurance, as an attorney with the Department of Homeland Security and as an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County. He will serve the remainder of Keasler’s term, which lasts through the end of 2022, and then plans to seek reelection.

[…]

A Texas law that requires judges to retire within a few years of turning 75 forced Keasler to step down partway through his six-year term.

In Keasler’s case, the law caused a fair bit of confusion.

Last year, two Democrats pursued the nomination to run for Keasler’s seat, expecting an election, rather than an appointment, in a misunderstanding that even the Texas secretary of state’s office did not escape. Ultimately, given that Keasler served through the end of the year, the seat fell to Abbott to fill, not the voters.

Keasler said that did not influence his decision to serve through the end of the year.

“I know I’m in the fourth quarter, there’s no question about that, I just hope I’m not at the two-minute warning just yet,” he joked.

See here for the background on that confusion. I guess “within a few years of turning 75” does leave some room for interpretation. McClure was Abbott’s second appointment to a statewide bench in the last three months, following the well-timed resignation of now-former Supreme Court Justice Paul Green. For all the biennial debate we have about electing judges versus some other system for naming them, we sure do have a lot of judges on the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals who got there initially via gubernatorial appointment. Such selections come with no requirement for Senate confirmation, and in nearly every case the newbie judge gets two full years on the bench before having to face the voters. We can as always debate the merits of the system we have, but we should be honest about the way that system actually works.

Precinct analysis: The judicial averages

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2

As you know, I use the average totals and percentages from local judicial races as my go-to metric for determining partisan indexes for each district. That’s because these are two-candidate races, and generally speaking people vote in them on the party label and not on detailed knowledge of the individual candidates. I’ve looked at this data in various ways over the years – in 2018, it was all about undervoting, as my contribution to the deeply annoying great straight-ticket voting debate. This year, I just want to provide as comprehensive a look as I can at what the partisan index of each district is, so without further ado here are the averages and minimum/maximum values for each district:


Dist    Avg R    Avg D  Avg R%  Avg D%
======================================
CD02  180,657  152,260  54.26%  45.74%
CD07  152,705  147,943  50.79%  49.21%
CD08   25,930   14,830  63.62%  36.38%
CD09   37,855  119,136  24.11%  75.89%
CD10  103,043   58,975  63.60%  36.40%
CD18   59,751  178,574  25.07%  74.93%
CD22   21,796   19,965  52.19%  47.81%
CD29   49,285  100,975  32.80%  67.20%
CD36   82,990   47,534  63.58%  36.42%
				
SBOE4 106,801  333,572  24.25%  75.75%
SBOE6 387,513  345,132  52.89%  47.11%
SBOE8 219,698  161,490  57.64%  42.36%
				
SD04   55,837   22,370  71.40%  28.60%
SD06   57,502  117,156  32.92%  67.08%
SD07  236,992  169,822  58.26%  41.74%
SD11   77,482   46,126  62.68%  37.32%
SD13   38,020  158,384  19.36%  80.64%
SD15  114,322  192,386  37.27%  62.73%
SD17  118,535  122,335  49.21%  50.79%
SD18   15,323   11,618  56.88%  43.12%
				
HD126  39,112   33,088  54.17%  45.83%
HD127  54,309   34,783  60.96%  39.04%
HD128  48,197   21,688  68.97%  31.03%
HD129  48,127   34,606  58.17%  41.83%
HD130  70,364   31,748  68.91%  31.09%
HD131  10,092   44,290  18.56%  81.44%
HD132  50,934   47,797  51.59%  48.41%
HD133  50,892   35,660  58.80%  41.20%
HD134  49,172   56,015  46.75%  53.25%
HD135  36,694   36,599  50.07%  49.93%
HD137  10,422   20,732  33.45%  66.55%
HD138  31,922   30,597  51.06%  48.94%
HD139  15,711   44,501  26.09%  73.91%
HD140   9,326   21,677  30.08%  69.92%
HD141   7,106   35,937  16.51%  83.49%
HD142  13,933   41,496  25.14%  74.86%
HD143  11,999   24,126  33.21%  66.79%
HD144  13,786   16,469  45.57%  54.43%
HD145  14,992   26,765  35.90%  64.10%
HD146  11,408   43,008  20.96%  79.04%
HD147  15,323   52,737  22.51%  77.49%
HD148  22,392   36,300  38.15%  61.85%
HD149  21,640   30,536  41.47%  58.53%
HD150  56,160   39,038  58.99%  41.01%
				
CC1    93,365  277,707  25.16%  74.84%
CC2   150,891  143,324  51.29%  48.71%
CC3   228,295  207,558  52.38%  47.62%
CC4   241,461  211,606  53.29%  46.71%
				
JP1    93,441  162,045  36.57%  63.43%
JP2    34,172   48,572  41.30%  58.70%
JP3    51,782   67,626  43.37%  56.63%
JP4   235,236  182,956  56.25%  43.75%
JP5   204,805  212,367  49.09%  50.91%
JP6     8,152   26,921  23.24%  76.76%
JP7    18,654   99,583  15.78%  84.22%
JP8    67,769   40,125  62.81%  37.19%


Dist    Max R    Min D  Max R%  Min D%
======================================
CD02  185,931  148,006  55.68%  44.32%
CD07  159,695  144,247  52.54%  47.46%
CD08   26,439   14,393  64.75%  35.25%
CD09   40,013  116,625  25.54%  74.46%
CD10  105,177   57,133  64.80%  35.20%
CD18   63,096  174,763  26.53%  73.47%
CD22   22,436   19,262  53.81%  46.19%
CD29   55,680   94,745  37.02%  62.98%
CD36   84,840   45,634  65.02%  34.98%
				
SBOE4 117,378  322,667  26.67%  73.33%
SBOE6 401,507  336,009  54.44%  45.56%
SBOE8 224,690  156,133  59.00%  41.00%
				
SD04   56,905   21,704  72.39%  27.61%
SD06   64,474  110,326  36.88%  63.12%
SD07  242,602  164,480  59.60%  40.40%
SD11   79,333   44,482  64.07%  35.93%
SD13   40,293  155,638  20.56%  79.44%
SD15  118,813  187,188  38.83%  61.17%
SD17  124,541  119,169  51.10%  48.90%
SD18   15,619   11,279  58.07%  41.93%
				
HD126  40,053   31,945  55.63%  44.37%
HD127  55,452   33,703  62.20%  37.80%
HD128  49,089   20,798  70.24%  29.76%
HD129  49,387   33,547  59.55%  40.45%
HD130  71,729   30,669  70.05%  29.95%
HD131  11,027   43,306  20.30%  79.70%
HD132  52,228   46,423  52.94%  47.06%
HD133  53,008   34,318  60.70%  39.30%
HD134  53,200   53,340  49.93%  50.07%
HD135  37,600   35,481  51.45%  48.55%
HD137  10,831   20,255  34.84%  65.16%
HD138  32,956   29,493  52.77%  47.23%
HD139  16,700   43,426  27.78%  72.22%
HD140  10,796   20,276  34.75%  65.25%
HD141   7,844   35,148  18.25%  81.75%
HD142  15,015   40,325  27.13%  72.87%
HD143  13,599   22,554  37.62%  62.38%
HD144  14,965   15,326  49.40%  50.60%
HD145  16,455   25,318  39.39%  60.61%
HD146  11,924   42,368  21.96%  78.04%
HD147  16,147   51,800  23.76%  76.24%
HD148  23,754   35,054  40.39%  59.61%
HD149  22,315   29,713  42.89%  57.11%
HD150  57,274   37,933  60.16%  39.84%
				
CC1    98,310  271,971  26.55%  73.45%
CC2   158,199  135,874  53.80%  46.20%
CC3   236,301  201,920  53.92%  46.08%
CC4   248,120  205,046  54.75%  45.25%
				
JP1    99,574  157,709  38.70%  61.30%
JP2    36,841   45,917  44.52%  55.48%
JP3    54,016   65,253  45.29%  54.71%
JP4   240,145  177,376  57.52%  42.48%
JP5   211,698  206,389  50.63%  49.37%
JP6     9,694   25,425  27.60%  72.40%
JP7    19,825   98,162  16.80%  83.20%
JP8    69,422   38,580  64.28%  35.72%


Dist    Min R    Max D  Min R%  Max D%
======================================
CD02  175,786  157,942  52.67%  47.33%
CD07  145,575  154,644  48.49%  51.51%
CD08   25,520   15,264  62.57%  37.43%
CD09   36,275  121,193  23.04%  76.96%
CD10  101,112   61,042  62.36%  37.64%
CD18   56,673  182,314  23.71%  76.29%
CD22   21,218   20,673  50.65%  49.35%
CD29   45,744  105,745  30.20%  69.80%
CD36   81,336   49,507  62.16%  37.84%
				
SBOE4 100,933  342,178  22.78%  77.22%
SBOE6 373,961  359,113  51.01%  48.99%
SBOE8 215,025  167,034  56.28%  43.72%
				
SD04   55,047   23,216  70.34%  29.66%
SD06   53,562  122,474  30.43%  69.57%
SD07  231,452  175,578  56.86%  43.14%
SD11   75,844   48,065  61.21%  38.79%
SD13   36,086  160,806  18.33%  81.67%
SD15  109,597  198,247  35.60%  64.40%
SD17  112,679  127,956  46.83%  53.17%
SD18   15,000   11,985  55.59%  44.41%
				
HD126  38,215   34,107  52.84%  47.16%
HD127  53,344   35,933  59.75%  40.25%
HD128  47,390   22,477  67.83%  32.17%
HD129  46,964   36,012  56.60%  43.40%
HD130  69,298   32,900  67.81%  32.19%
HD131   9,584   44,980  17.56%  82.44%
HD132  49,625   49,260  50.18%  49.82%
HD133  48,359   37,729  56.17%  43.83%
HD134  45,698   59,519  43.43%  56.57%
HD135  35,662   37,653  48.64%  51.36%
HD137   9,997   21,240  32.00%  68.00%
HD138  30,912   31,792  49.30%  50.70%
HD139  14,891   45,442  24.68%  75.32%
HD140   8,496   22,687  27.25%  72.75%
HD141   6,751   36,444  15.63%  84.37%
HD142  13,366   42,296  24.01%  75.99%
HD143  11,100   25,218  30.56%  69.44%
HD144  13,029   17,345  42.90%  57.10%
HD145  14,011   28,167  33.22%  66.78%
HD146  10,824   43,630  19.88%  80.12%
HD147  14,469   53,867  21.17%  78.83%
HD148  21,053   38,031  35.63%  64.37%
HD149  20,955   31,398  40.03%  59.97%
HD150  55,070   40,198  57.81%  42.19%
				
CC1    88,636  283,723  23.80%  76.20%
CC2   146,468  149,847  49.43%  50.57%
CC3   220,181  215,729  50.51%  49.49%
CC4   234,765  219,028  51.73%  48.27%
				
JP1    87,533  168,977  34.12%  65.88%
JP2    32,564   50,632  39.14%  60.86%
JP3    50,336   69,338  42.06%  57.94%
JP4   230,567  188,394  55.03%  44.97%
JP5   197,305  219,993  47.28%  52.72%
JP6     7,269   28,198  20.50%  79.50%
JP7    17,578  100,870  14.84%  85.16%
JP8    66,324   41,925  61.27%  38.73%

There were 15 contested District or County court races, with another 12 that had only a Democrat running. All of the numbers are from the contested races. The first table is just the average vote total for each candidate in that district; I then computed the percentage from those average values. For the second and third tables, I used the Excel MAX and MIN functions to get the highest and lowest vote totals for each party in each district. It should be noted that the max Republican and min Democratic totals in a given district (and vice versa) may not belong to the candidates from the same race, as the total number of votes in each race varies. Consider these to be a bit more of a theoretical construct, to see what the absolute best and worst case scenario for each party was this year.

One could argue that Democrats did better than expected this year, given the partisan levels they faced. Both Lizzie Fletcher and Jon Rosenthal won re-election, in CD07 and HD135, despite running in districts that were tilted slightly against them. The one Republican that won in a district that tilted Democratic was Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap, who won as his JP colleague Russ Ridgway fell; as previously noted, Dan Crenshaw clearly outperformed the baseline in CD02. The tilt in Commissioners Court Precinct 3 was too much for Michael Moore to overcome, though perhaps redistricting and four more years of demographic change will move things in the Democratic direction for 2024. As for Precinct 2, I believe Adrian Garcia would have been re-elected if he had been on the ballot despite the Republican tilt in that precinct, mostly because the Latino Democratic candidates generally carried the precinct. He will also get a hand from redistricting when that happens. I believe being the incumbent would have helped him regardless, as Jack Morman ran ahead of the pack in 2018, just not by enough to hang on.

The “Republican max” (table 2) and “Democratic max” (table 3) values give you a picture of the range of possibility in each district. At their high end for Republicans, CD02 and SBOE6 don’t look particularly competitive, while CD07 and HD135 look like they really got away, while HD144 looks like a missed opportunity, and JP5 could have maybe been held in both races. HD134 remained stubbornly Democratic, however. On the flip side, you can see that at least one Democratic judicial candidate took a majority in CD07, HD135, HD138, and CC2, while CC3 and CC4 both look enticingly close, and neither HDs 134 nor 144 look competitive at all. If nothing else, this is a reminder that even in these judicial races, there can be a lot of variance.

On the subject of undervoting, as noted in the Appellate Court posts, the dropoff rate in those races was about 4.7% – there wasn’t much change from the first race to the fourth. For the contested local judicial races, the undervote rate ranged from 5.06% in the first race to 6.54%, in the seventh (contested) race from the end. There was a downward trend as you got farther down the ballot, but it wasn’t absolute – as noted, there were six races after the most-undervoted race, all with higher vote totals. The difference between the highest turnout race to the lowest was about 24K votes, from 1.568 million to 1.544 million. It’s not nothing, but in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty minimal.

The twelve unopposed Democrats in judicial races clearly show how unopposed candidates always do better than candidates that have opponents. Every unopposed judicial candidate collected over one million votes. Kristen Hawkins, the first unopposed judicial candidate, and thus most likely the first unopposed candidate on everyone’s ballot, led the way with 1.068 million votes, about 200K more votes than Michael Gomez, who was the leading votegetter in a contested race. Every unopposed Democratic candidate got a vote from at least 61.25% of all voters, with Hawkins getting a vote from 64.44% of all. I have always assumed that some number of people feel like they need to vote in each race, even the ones with only one candidate.

I’m going to analyze the vote in the non-Houston cities next. As always, please let me know what you think.

PAC to boot Paxton formed

No time like the present to start the fight against America’s worst AG.

Thursday, the Boot Texas Republicans Political Action Committee launched a campaign that is dead set on kicking Paxton out of office. Treasurer Zack Malitz said the PAC is raising money to aid Democratic efforts against the attorney general when he’s up for reelection in 2022.

“Someone who is corrupt and criminal should not be the top law enforcement official in Texas — at a basic level,” said Malitz, who also served as former Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s statewide field director during the 2018 U.S. Senate race.

[…]

The Boot Texas Republicans PAC will set up sturdy campaign infrastructure for future candidates running statewide, Malitz said. It will be a data-driven operation aiming to create small-dollar fundraising and volunteer bases for whoever Paxton’s Democratic opponent will be.

On top of Paxton’s legal woes, the attorney general failed his constituents when he tried to block local public health regulations in El Paso during the COVID-19 crisis, Malitz said.

Paxton isn’t focused on his basic duty of serving his Texas constituents, he added.

“Of course, [Paxton] is unfit to serve, given the legal problems that he’s facing,” Malitz said.

The Boot Paxton campaign won’t be taking a position in terms of backing a particular candidate during the primaries, Malitz said. Rather, the PAC is focused on a general election effort and will put all its support behind whoever the eventual nominee is.

Malitz is also the founder of the Beat Abbott PAC that was set up in July. The basic idea is to do some fundraising now, to help the future candidate later. As we know, Joe Jaworski is in for AG, and I feel confident he’ll have some company in the primary. It’s hard to know right now what the 2022 environment is going to look like, but there’s no reason not to prepare for 2022 as if we can win. This is a good start. The Current has more.

More 2022 speculation

From Campos:

Judge Lina Hidalgo

I was watching “What’s Your Point” yesterday and the 2022 election was brought up. Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo would face an opponent in the Democratic Primary. My friend Bill King went a bit further and said that Judge Hidalgo would face an African American or former H-Town Mayor Annise Parker in the primary. Huh?

Anyone can plop down the $1,250 filing fee to run. I am not hearing among Democrats that Judge Hidalgo is doing a lousy job. I think she is doing a pretty good job. She’s promoting issues that Democrats like. What is wrong with rental assistance and supporting small businesses during a pandemic. She would be tough to beat in the Democratic Party Primary if you ask me.

I wonder where Bill and Mark are getting their local Democratic Party intel.

I have no idea where Mark Jones may get his intel, but let me state for the record that I am extremely skeptical of the idea that Bill King is in any way plugged into the local Democratic scene. I strongly suspect that neither of them have heard real chatter from reliable sources, but instead are speculating based on three factors:

1. The 2018 “That could have been me” hangover. I noted this before. As we know, there was a lot of talk about who might have run for County Judge in 2018, with Judge Hidalgo ultimately being the only person to file. Lots of people didn’t want to run against then-Judge Emmett for a variety of reasons, with Annise Parker being the best known of them. It is possible that someone who now regrets not throwing their hat into the ring in 2018 is considering a 2022 run, now that the main challenge is in March and not in November. For what it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything to this effect, but I don’t claim to be especially plugged in at this time, either.

2. The business interests. I am very much in the “Judge Hidalgo has done a fine job” camp, and I agree that she has acted very much in ways that Democratic primary voters would approve. But there are groups that don’t like bail reform, and there are groups that don’t like putting extra regulations on development, and there are groups that likely feel like their influence has waned under Judge Hidalgo and the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. If these folks now believe that Republicans are at a disadvantage running countywide, then one way to do something about that is to recruit and support a candidate for County Judge for the Democratic primary that will be more amenable to them and their concerns. It’s not the only thing they could do – I’m sure Commissioner Garcia will be targeted in November of 2022, though the Commissioners Court redistricting process may make that a less attractive option for them – but it’s on the menu. And let’s just say that I do believe Bill King is a reliable source of information for what the big capital crowd is thinking.

3. The real question is, can I win? Elections are funny things, and as we well know, the “best” candidate doesn’t always win. One question anyone who runs for office has to answer is who are my voters? Are there enough of them to get me past the finish line? I’m sure Bill King’s suggestion of a Black candidate running against Judge Hidalgo is based on the observation that there are a lot of Black voters in the Harris County Democratic primary, and that candidates often attempt to appeal to voters on affinity more than issues. Doesn’t mean such a person would be successful, or even a credible threat, but it’s a possibility.

All of this is my speculation about their speculation. We’re at the time in the calendar when people like to take early looks ahead to the next election, and no one ever keeps track of this sort of nattering, so why not put out a hot take or two. I’ve certainly indulged in this sort of thing before. It’s all fun and games until someone files a designation of Treasurer report. If there’s anything to any of this besides filling up some air time, we’ll know soon enough.

So now we start to prep for redistricting

It’s gonna make for a long session, or more likely sessions.

Wielding the map-drawing power will not be entirely painless for Republicans, who have seen their grip on dozens of state and federal districts erode since the last round of redistricting. Though Democrats failed to flip any of their targeted congressional seats in 2020 and fared about as poorly in state House contests, their single-digit defeats in once ruby red districts point to Democrats’ growing advantages in urban and suburban counties, even as Republicans retain an overwhelming advantage in rural Texas.

Republicans, then, will have to decide how aggressive they want to be in redrawing political boundaries to their benefit, balancing the need to fortify their numbers in battleground districts with the opportunity to flip back some of the districts they lost in 2018, when Democrats picked up 12 seats.

“I see this redistricting opportunity for Republicans as more of a defensive play than an offensive play,” said Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “This is one of the tough things when you’re engaging in redistricting if you’re the party in power, because you can be sort of allured by the short-term potential to win an extra seat or two. But you can take two steps forward to eventually take three steps back if you’re not thinking about demographic changes over a 10-year period.”

For now, the looming redistricting fight is far from the minds of most state lawmakers. Though the U.S. Census Bureau is supposed to deliver updated population data to states by April 1 next year, the agency suspended field operations for the 2020 Census due to the COVID-19 pandemic and wrapped up the count in October, well after the original July 31 deadline. Bureau officials also sought to push back the deadline for sending data to the states until July 2021, prompting speculation that Texas may not get the census numbers until after the Legislature gavels out in late May.

“If the data is not delivered during the regular session, it creates a whole set of cascading problems that impact the drawing of lines, even down to the county and municipal levels, because everyone is going to be put on an even greater time crunch,” said Eric Opiela, an attorney and former executive director of the Texas Republican Party who has worked on prior redistricting efforts.

During normal times, officials might already be using population data from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS) to strategize or even draw up preliminary maps. But the pandemic has forced census workers to adopt unconventional survey tactics and generated unprecedented population shifts due to the rise in remote working, factors that make any pre-2020 population data highly unreliable, Opiela said.

“Those (ACS) projections can be used to allow you to do things like work through scenarios before the official data comes, and it’s actually fairly accurate,” Opiela said. “I don’t know that that’s going to be the case this time. I think it’s going to be very important to wait until the official data is received to draw any conclusions as to where Texans live.”

It’s not just the uncertain timeline. Even if the Census data arrived on time, COVID-19 would likely hamper redistricting efforts by forcing lawmakers to prioritize filling the state’s pandemic-inflicted budget gap and perhaps providing economic and medical relief to COVID-19 victims.

“The challenge with redistricting is it’s such a naturally partisan issue that it’s really hard to sort of box half the day and then be ballet dancers the other half of the day,” Mackowiak said. “It’s hard to be bipartisan on other issues but then super, super partisan during redistricting. So, having a special session just related to redistricting after the major issues are taken care of seems to me to be the smartest pathway.”

See here for the most recent news on the Census situation. I think it’s very likely that we don’t get the data in time for the regular session, in which case redistricting will be done in a special session later in the year. Depending on how late that is, and on how long it takes to hammer out maps, and whether any initial court challenges result in temporary restraining orders, we could see the 2022 primaries get pushed back. The filing period begins in mid-November, after all, so there’s a non-zero chance of it being affected by how this plays out.

It’s worth remembering that if the Dems had managed to win the State House, they still would have had limited influence over redistricting. As the story correctly notes, the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member panel that would have had only one Democrat (the House Speaker, in this hypothetical), would draw the State House, State Senate, and SBOE maps if the House and Senate had been unable to agree on them. The Congressional maps would go to a federal court, however, and that’s where the Dems might have had some influence. If Republicans didn’t want to take the chance of putting map-drawing power in a third party like that, they might have been open to some compromises on the other maps. We’ll never know now, but that was the basic idea.

As it is, how this goes with Republicans once again in full control will come down to how they answer a few key questions. (For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the State House. The issue are mostly similar for Congress and the State Senate, but my examples will come from House elections.) Will they be constrained by established rules like the county line rule, which puts only whole House seats in sufficiently large counties (this is why all Harris County State House seats are entirely within Harris County), or do they change that? How constrained do they feel by the Voting Rights Act, and by other established redistricting precedents – in other words, do they bet big on the courts overturning past rulings so that they can more or less do whatever they want, or do they pull it in so as not to risk losing in court?

Most of all, what do they consider a “safe” seat to be? Look at it this way: In 2012, Republicans won 16 of the 95 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, only five were decided by fewer than ten points:

HD43 – Won in 2010 by then-Democrat JM Lozano, who subsequently switched parties.
HD105 – Barely won by the GOP in 2008, by less than 20 votes.
HD107 – Won by a Dem in 2008, it became the first Republican-held seat to flip in this decade, won by Victoria Neave in 2016.
HD114 – Nothing special, it was won by eight points in 2012.
HD134 – The perennial swing district.

Note that four of those five are now Democratic. Other “less than 60%” seats from 2012 now held by Dems include HDs 45, 47, 65, 102, 115, and 136. (*) The point is, that looks like an extremely durable majority, with enough 60%+ seats on their own to ensure a mostly Republican House. And indeed it was for the first three elections of the decade. There will be books written about why all of a sudden it became precarious, but you’d be hard pressed to do a better job than the Republicans did in 2011.

But as noted, things look different now. In 2020, Republicans won 26 of the 87 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, seventeen were won by less than ten points:

HD26, HD54, HD64, HD66, HD67, HD92, HD93, HD94, HD96, HD97, HD108, HD112, HD121, HD126, HD132, HD138

We can talk all we want about how things might have gone differently in 2020, but the fact remains that it wouldn’t have taken much to change many of those outcomes. How many Republican incumbents will insist on a 55%+ district for themselves? Whatever assumptions you make about the 2020 electorate and what it means for the future, that’s going to be a tall order in some parts of the state.

This more than anything will drive their decision-making, and may well be the single biggest source of friction on their side. Who is willing to accept a 51% Republican district, and who will have to take one for the team? In 2011, Republicans were coming off an election that they had won by more than 20 points statewide. This year they won at the Presidential level by less than six points, and at the Senate level by less than ten. They have a smaller piece of the pie to cut up. They have full control over how they do it, but the pie isn’t as big as it used to be. What are they going to do about that?

(*) In 2012, Cindy Burkett had no Democratic opponent in HD113, and Gary Elkins was re-elected in HD135 with 60.36% of the vote. Both of those districts are now held by Democrats. Always in motion, the future is.

Matthew McConaughey?

I suppose I’m required to have an opinion about this.

Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey isn’t gearing up to run for governor in Texas, but he certainly did not rule it out during a radio interview this week.

“I don’t know,” McConaughey said when asked by talk radio host Hugh Hewitt in a national interview. “I mean, that wouldn’t be up to me. It would be up to the people more than it would me.”

But the 51-year-old Uvalde native was clear: He sees big problems with how things are going with politics in general.

“Look, politics seems to be a broken business to me right now,” he said. “And when politics redefines its purpose, I could be a hell of a lot more interested.”

In the interview to promote his new book “Greenlights,” he talked about watching other actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood get involved in politics and thinking it was interesting to see people of different backgrounds doing the work. But he said he’s still not sure it’s the best route to get things done.

“You know, I still question how much you can really get done in politics, and I don’t know if politics is my avenue to get what maybe I am best equipped to get done,” McConaughey said.

McConaughey didn’t say whether he is a Republican or a Democrat.

Yeah, my opinion is that this is a slow-news-day kind of story, with nothing actually to it. I could write a whole lot of words as to why I think this, but honestly, it’s not worth the bother. I’ll just say this much: I am not gearing up to run for Governor either, but I certainly have not ruled it out. My publicist is now standing by to book interviews.

UPDATE: Looks like not having an opinion was the smart move.

The life and times of Ken Paxton

This long Trib story is basically a biography of Ken Paxton, with a focus on his ethical and legal travails since 2014. Most of what’s in here you already know, but if you need a refresher or you know someone who wants to get up to speed on the saga, this would be an excellent starting point. I’m going to highlight a couple of bits, mostly from the end, to illustrate where we are now.

Best mugshot ever

Although Democrats continue to make major hay of the [2015 securities fraud] charges, Paxton maintained enough support from conservatives to stay in office. Supporters compared his case to that of former Gov. Rick Perry, whose team spun the former governor’s indictment for abuse of power as a political hit job, and whose case was eventually dismissed.

With the securities fraud accusations, conservatives didn’t necessarily think Paxton was blameless — but he looked “sloppy” more than anything else, conservative political consultant Luke Macias said.

“The past accusations were more like Democrats trying to impeach Trump,” Macias said. This time is different, he said: The allegations are more serious, and they’re coming from attorneys respected on the right for their legal abilities and their conservative credentials.

[…]

Federal authorities have declined to say whether they are investigating Paxton, and the Texas Rangers said they referred complaints against Paxton to the FBI. But legal experts say it’s all but certain federal authorities are vetting the accusations against Paxton.

It would be “highly unusual” for federal authorities not to investigate, given the seriousness of the allegations and the presumed credibility of the accusers, said Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice who handled public corruption investigations.

“That is a serious claim made by law enforcement professionals who, we expect, understand the gravity of such an accusation,” Loya said. He added that it’s unlikely any major developments would become public about the investigation for several months.

We may grind our teeth at Luke Macias’ words, but we must recognize that having a Jeff Mateer call Ken Paxton a crook is going to be taken more seriously by Republicans than having any Democrat call Paxton a crook. And yes, I know, it was a grand jury in Collin County that returned the indictments, but don’t let the facts get in the way of the story. Also, we need to be patient, because it will be a long time before we know for sure if this is a real thing that is going somewhere or just a lot of smoke that was never a fire.

Now, Paxton sits at the head of an agency that is hemorrhaging senior staff even as its workload — a slew of election-related lawsuits, thousands of child support cases, an argument at the U.S. Supreme Court — remains heavy and urgent.

In addition to the eight whistleblowers, Paxton has lost Ben Williams, who had worked with the attorney general since his days in the Legislature and ran Paxton’s campaign for House speaker and state Senate. Williams resigned just days after the allegations were made public. Katherine Cary, the agency’s chief of staff, was already set to retire this fall. Marc Rylander, a longtime Paxton ally and the agency’s former communications director, left in September. And Simpson, who headed the agency’s human resources department during the debacle, retired at the end of October.

At a senior staff meeting last month, before the whistleblowers had left or been fired, Darren McCarty, a former senior aide, asked Paxton whether the agency would stop bashing them in statements to the media. There was no response.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the Legislature, Paxton insisted that the agency was forging ahead full bore — a characterization some current and former agency staff members consider far rosier than the truth.

Some attorneys in litigation-heavy divisions of the agency fear his reputation will hurt their credibility in court.

“Any action taken by the AG’s office under General Paxton is suspect,” said Shane Phelps, who was a senior deputy at the agency under former attorneys general Cornyn and Dan Morales. The agency has to keep litigating its thousands of cases, on everything from child support to the death penalty, but now judges will “be on the lookout for any indication that it’s being handled irregularly, in any way that is coming from the top and for all the wrong reasons.”

“It has damaged the credibility and the ability of the AG’s office to further the interest of the state of Texas in court,” Phelps said, and “given all sorts of ammunition for anybody opposing the AG’s office in court to start talking about these things.”

“Something needs to happen,” Phelps said. “It sounds like he’s getting pretty brazen.”

I’d say Ken Paxton been pretty brazen for some time now, but I take his point. As for the current functional capacity of the AG’s office, on the one hand I’m happy to have our eventual Democratic candidate beat Paxton over the head about how his own actions have severely shackled the agency. But on the other hand, given that this AG’s office almost never does something I approve of, I’m not exactly heartbroken by this turn of events. May he stay limited in his ability to cause damage until such time as he is ejected from that office. Reform Austin has more.

(Note: This story came out one day before the four whistleblowers filed their lawsuit against Paxton. I had figured I could wait to publish this till the weekend, since it wasn’t breaking news or anything. Life comes at you fast.)

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

We’re number one (million)!

One million COVID cases in Texas. Hooray?

Texas’ grim distinction as the national leader in terms of COVID-19 infections came as little surprise to some local medical experts, who blamed politicians for conflicting messages about the virus and warned the worst is yet to come.

Texas this week breached a milestone of 1 million cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic, recording more infections than any other state in the U.S. For reference, more people have been infected in the Lone Star state than live in Austin, the state’s capitol.

If Texas were its own country, it would rank 10th in terms of total cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, placing it higher than European hotspots like Italy.

The big numbers are not a shock in a state that’s home to roughly 29 million people. The number of cases per 100,000 residents is lower here than in about half of the states in the country. But Texas also had more newly reported cases in the last seven days — an average of about 8,200 — than other large, hard-hit states such as New York, California and Florida. Only Illinois has a higher seven-day average.

Dr. David Callender, president of the Memorial Hermann Health System, called the 1 million cases “a sobering statistic.”

“It’s not a surprise in the context of all that’s happened,” Callender said. “But it’s a significant number — 3 percent of the population — and cause for worry about the trend continuing as we go forward.”

Callender attributed the high number to “too much division” in the attempt to contain the virus.

“To me, politics entered in an inappropriate way,” said Callender. “People making a political statement with their behavior — that the pandemic is a hoax, that no one can make them wear a mask — really interfered with efforts. It was the wrong mindset.”

To be fair, California is a couple of days behind us, and may have passed one million by the time I publish this. Of course, California also has ten million more people than Texas, so.

The state’s positive test rate is now 11.24%, compared to 7.64% a month ago.

Hey, remember when a 10% positivity rate was considered to be a “warning flag” by Greg Abbott? You know, as part of his famous “metrics” for reopening the state?

Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to messages Tuesday.

Too busy propping up Donald Trump’s ego to deal with this kind of trivia, I suppose.

Meanwhile, in El Paso

The number of coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals has nearly doubled since October, and average infections are at their highest point in almost three months — leaving health officials bracing for a potential crush of hospitalizations going into the holidays.

In El Paso, hospitals are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that in early November the Department of Defense sent medical teams to help, and the county has summoned 10 mobile morgues to hold dead bodies. Local funeral homes are readying extra refrigerated storage space, as the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the far West Texas city has shot up nearly tenfold since the start of September.

The new wave of infections stands in contrast to the summer surge, when Gov. Greg Abbott held regular press conferences about the virus and mandated that face coverings be worn, earning him the ire of the far-right. Now, state officials seem reluctant to crack down on the virus’ spread by further curtailing economic activity — and are fighting the El Paso county judge’s attempt to impose a curfew and a stay-at-home order in the face of record-breaking cases.

The state will not do anything to help, and you local leaders are not allowed to do anything to help. You’re on your own. If you’re very lucky, maybe you won’t have your health insurance taken away while you recover. Did I mention that disaster and emergency response ought to be a big theme of the 2022 election? Texas Monthly has more.

UPDATE: Nothing to see here.

More early data from State Rep districts

From Derek Ryan on Twitter:

Couple of things, as we wait for the rest of the data – I hope to get at least a draft canvass from Harris County soon, and may look at some other counties’ data as I can; the full state data will likely be published in March or so.

– I have covered some of this, all from Harris County. Ryan’s data is around the state.

– I previously noted that HDs 31 and 74 were pretty purple already; I would expect HD34 to join them when that data is available. I should note that despite those Trump numbers, the Dems in those districts did just fine – Rep. Ryan Guillen won HD31 with 58%, Rep. Abel Herrero took HD34 with over 59%, and Eddie Morales won the open HD74 with 54%. If we’re going to argue that Democrats were too ambitious in 2020 – I would not make that argument, but I have seen others at least suggest it – then one might also argue that Republicans were not ambitious enough.

– I have no doubt that Republicans will take these numbers under serious consideration, and I won’t be surprised if they try to draw another Republican-friendly district in the Valley, to accompany HD43.

– Which doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. Someone reminded me on Twitter that Cameron County voted for George W. Bush in 2004. He also got almost 45% in Hidalgo County, and almost 57% in Nueces County. Republican Presidents running for re-election have done well in South Texas before. Perhaps we all forgot about that. We know now that was not the start of a trend.

– That said, I believe that a county or district electing a candidate from one party while supporting Presidents and Senators from another party is an unstable situation, one that sooner or later topples over. See: all of the rural districts that used to elect Democrats to Congress and the Lege while voting 60-70% Republican otherwise, and Sarah Davis in HD134. If statewide Dems do well in these districts again in 2022 and 2024, we can go back to thinking of them as blue. If not, then we do indeed have a whole new ballgame.

(The same is true, of course, for the urban/suburban districts that Republicans won but Biden carried. In those at least we have more than one election’s worth of data to contemplate.)

– And again, we should remember that the Biden/Trump numbers are just one data point. As noted, it’s entirely possible in some of these districts that Trump’s numbers will be well above, or well below, the norm. We’ll need to consider the entire range.

– The implied question in all of this is, what does this data mean for 2022? The answer is, we just don’t know. We haven’t had two elections in a row that looked the same in this state. There are plausible scenarios that make 2022 potentially good for Dems, and that make 2022 bad for Dems. Hard to believe, I know, but we have to let the things happen that will affect those possible outcomes.

More to come as we get more data. Reform Austin is also on this.

Looking ahead to 2022

Continuing with the brain dumps, which are my post-election tradition. This is a collection of thoughts about the next big election, in 2022.

As I said earlier, I take no position on the question of what effect the disparity in door-to-door campaigning had. I can buy there was some effect, but we have no way of how much of an effect it was. The good news is, whatever the case, this isn’t a trend, it’s a one-time effect of an election in a pandemic. I feel pretty confident saying that barring anything extraordinary, traditional door-knocking will be a big component of everyone’s 2022 campaigns. Perhaps Democrats will have learned something useful from this year’s experience that will enhance what they can do in 2022; admittedly, what they have learned may be “this sucks and we never want to do it this way again”.

There are a couple of things that concern me as we start our journey towards 2022. The first is that after four long years of hard work, with one rewarding election cycle and one disappointing cycle, people will be less engaged, which needless to say will make keeping the ground we have gained, let alone gaining more ground, that much harder. I think people will be focused on bringing change to our state government, but we can’t take this for granted. People are tired! These were four years from hell, and we all feel a great weight has been lifted. I get it, believe me. But we felt this way following the 2008 election, and we know what came next. We cannot, absolutely cannot, allow that to happen again. We know what we need to do.

Second, and very much in line with the above, the national environment matters. What President Biden will be able to accomplish in the next two years depends to a significant extent on the outcome of those two Georgia Senate runoffs, but however they go we need to remember that there are significant obstacles in his way. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans were greatly rewarded for their all-out obstructionism throughout the Obama presidency. We can’t control what McConnell et al do, but we can control our reaction to it. Do we get discouraged and frustrated with the lack of progress, or do we get angry with the people whose fault it really is? How we react will be a big factor in determining what the national mood in 2022 is.

I’m already seeing people give their fantasy candidate for Governor. They include the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro (my choice), Cecile Richards, Lina Hidalgo, and others. I don’t know who might actually want to run – it is still early, after all – but we just need to bear in mind that every candidate has their pros and cons, and we need to worry less about matters of personality and more about building coalition and continuing the work we’ve been doing.

For what it’s worth, four themes I’d like to see our eventual candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor emphasize: Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization, emergency/disaster preparedness and response, and improving the voter experience, with a focus on online voter registration. The first two have proven they are popular enough to be adopted by voter initiative in deep red states, the third is obvious and should include things like hurricanes, flooding, and drought in addition to pandemics in general and COVID-19 in particular, and the fourth is something there’s already bipartisan support for in the Lege. Let Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick defend the status quo here.

(Increasing the minimum wage was also a ballot initiative winner in states like Florida, and it generally polls well. I very much support raising the minimum wage, but don’t have as much confidence that it would be an electoral winner here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise.)

Here are some numbers to contemplate as we look towards 2022:

I’d attribute the regression in performance in the biggest 15 counties to Republican improvement more than Democrats falling short – as noted multiple times, Democrats hit new highs in the big urban counties, but so did the GOP. There’s still room for growth here, especially in an environment where turnout level is much more volatile, but the marginal growth is smaller now. Putting that another way, there’s no longer a deficit of voter registration in these counties. We need to maintain and keep up with new population growth, but we’re not behind where we should be any more. If we do that, and we prioritize maximizing our own base, we’ll be fine.

It’s the bottom two groups that we need to pay some attention to. A lot of these counties have medium-sized cities in them, and that’s an obvious place to focus some effort. (I’ve been beating that drum for months and months now.) But we really need to do something about the small rural counties, too, or face the reality of huge vote deficits that we can’t control and have to overcome. I know this is daunting, and I have no illusions about how much potential for gain there is here, but I look at it this way: If Donald Trump can convince some number of Black and Latino people to vote for him in 2020, after four years of unrelenting racism and destruction, then surely nothing is impossible. I think marijuana legalization could be a good wedge issue here. Remember, the goal is to peel off some support. A few points in our direction means many thousands of votes.

It’s too early to worry about legislative and Congressional races, because we have no idea what redistricting will wrought. I think we should be prepared for litigation to be of limited value, as it was this decade, and for the Republicans to do as much as they can to limit the number of competitive districts. They may be right about it in 2022, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be right in subsequent years.

In Harris County, we should expect competitive primaries for all of the countywide positions, and for many of the judicial spots. Judge Lina Hidalgo has done an outstanding job, but we know there are people who could have run in 2018 who are surely now thinking “that could have been me”. Don’t take anything for granted. We need to keep a close eye on the felony bail reform lawsuit, and news stories about how the current judges are handling bail hearings, because we are going to have to hold some of our folks accountable. We need to make sure that all of the Republican justices of the peace have opponents, especially the ones who have refused to do same-sex marriages.

Overall, there’s no reason why we can’t continue to build on what we have done over the past decade-plus in Harris County. Complacency and disunity will be our biggest opponents. The rest is up to us.

George P Bush sees an opportunity

He’s not shy, I’ll give him that.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush will “keep all options open” about a potential bid for attorney general in 2022 as current Attorney General Ken Paxton grapples with a mutiny from his senior staff and the spectre of a criminal investigation, a senior adviser for Bush said Monday.

“Several donors have asked Commissioner Bush to consider running for Attorney General in 2022 in light of the recent allegations about that office,” Ash Wright, a senior political adviser for Bush, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “Commissioner Bush has always said he will ‘keep all options open’ and that remains his policy. Like many conservative leaders around the state, he is very concerned about the allegations regarding Paxton.”

Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush, is the only member of the well-known Republican family to currently hold office, though a cousin, Pierce Bush, ran unsuccessfully this year for the GOP nomination in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District. He was elected in 2014 to oversee the Texas General Land Office, a statewide position.

Ian Prior, a political spokesman for Paxton, said the attorney general — who has called the aides’ allegations false — “is absolutely planning on running again, is looking forward to winning a third term and is never going to stop fighting for the people of Texas.”

Look, you can’t expect George P Bush to just be Land Commissioner forever. He was meant for bigger things. Attorney General sounds nice, and that Paxton fellow has gotten himself into a spot of trouble, so why shouldn’t he try this on for size?

It’s not clear at this time that conditions will be favorable to a Paxton primary challenge. He hasn’t committed any acts of heresy or betrayal, just maybe a few silly little felonies, the sort of thing that could happen to anyone. So far, other than Chip Roy, who has his own election to worry about, no Republicans have done anything more than express a bit of mild concern. If Paxton does get himself into a situation that he can’t weasel his way out of, there’s no way that George P Bush will have the anti-Paxton field to himself. He’s been in a prolonged pissing contest with Dan Patrick about the Alamo (it’s too dumb for me to keep close track of, so go google it yourself), so one assumes there would be a Patrick-approved contestant in that race. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, as Paxton is still there and as yet is not fatally wounded. George P Bush is doing what he does best, which is getting his name out there and making sure people know he’s ready for his next big thing, whatever that may be.

(Note: This story was from before the election. Too much news, remember? I doubt anything has happened since then to change our boy’s trajectory. Also, as a reminder, former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski has announced his Democratic candidacy for AG.)

Will Greg Abbott ever talk about COVID-19 again?

Signs point to No.

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott knocked on doors in the Fort Worth suburbs, fist-bumping with police officers and warning residents that Democrats want to raise their taxes.

That night, he opened Game 2 of the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, belting out a hearty “play ball” before a stadium partly filled with cheering fans.

With the Nov. 3 election fast approaching, the state’s top Republican is in full campaign mode, trying to block Democrats from retaking the Texas House.

But away from the choreographed appearances, the governor is facing another challenge: Coronavirus infections are rising again, filling up hospitals in parts of the state. Unlike when cases mounted earlier this summer, Abbott has been all but silent about COVID-19’s resurgence.

The governor hardly has mentioned the uptick, which has been most severe in parts of North and West Texas. In news releases, he has announced that he’s sending resources and medical staff to hot spots, but he has downplayed or failed to even mention the outbreaks — part of a third wave sweeping the South and Midwest.

Abbott hasn’t held a public briefing on the pandemic in more than a month.

For a governor who made a point of being on television every night as cases spiked this summer, making himself the face of the state’s response, the silence is notable and likely strategic.

“There’s no advantage to Abbott coming out now to acknowledge the spiking numbers, which say Texas isn’t doing a good job, which say he isn’t doing a good job,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “With a week until the election, that would not be beneficial for him.”

[…]

Nearly 5,000 people were hospitalized Thursday with COVID-19, a 55 percent jump since Oct. 3. The average of new daily infections has been rising steadily for two weeks, and the rate of people testing positive for the virus is now just shy of 9 percent, after dipping to a low of 6.3 percent in September.

In Tarrant County, where Abbott appeared Wednesday, health officials have warned residents of substantial community spread, meaning the virus is being transmitted through workplaces and schools.

“The signs are pointing to a big surge coming,” Tarrant County public health director Vinny Taneja told WFAA-TV in Dallas on Wednesday.

Abbott has been an important figurehead in the state’s coronavirus response. When the number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus reached 5,000 in late June, he responded by closing the bars and cutting maximum occupancy for restaurants to 50 percent. He later issued a statewide mask mandate, which remains in effect.

Asked about the new trends Wednesday as he door-knocked for a fellow Republican, Abbott told reporters the state is preparing for a vaccine rollout as soon as late November, a claim that conflicts with remarks from top federal health officials.

The state’s own health officials aren’t planning for a wide rollout of a potential vaccine until July of next year.

Earlier this month, amid mounting pressure from conservatives, Abbott released a video announcing bars could open in counties with local approval, hoping to show a state that had put the worst of the pandemic behind it as voters prepared to head to the polls.

“The good news is that even with more businesses opening, even with more students returning to school and more gatherings like football games, Texans have shown that we can contain the spread of COVID,” Abbott said.

Anyone remember Abbott’s four metrics for reopening? Because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t at this point. Part of the problem, I admit, is that everyone is focused on the election – I sure am – and that means there’s basically no public pressure on Abbott to take action. But this has been building for weeks, and we’ve got kids back in schools while bars are open and people are attending live sporting events – college football appears to be a non-trivial factor in community spread – while a bunch of jackasses are going around the state demanding that we open up even faster. And of course there’s a malevolent President who’s doing all he can to ensure that things are getting worse. Is anyone surprised that Greg Abbott can’t be bothered to at least remind everyone that they should be wearing masks and avoiding crowds?

As little as I think of Abbott, I do expect he’ll have to start talking about this again after the election. If nothing else, we’ll be embarking on a legislative session soon, and we need to decide how we’re going to handle that. I just hope we get something that resembles leadership from Abbott before too many more people are hospitalized or dead.

Keep fighting, fellas

Primal scream time.

Two of Texas’ top Republicans took part [last] Saturday in a protest of Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus restrictions outside the Governor’s Mansion, a striking display of intraparty defiance three days before early voting begins for a momentous November election.

The “Free Texas” rally featured speeches from Texas GOP Chair Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, both of whom invoked the governor critically. At one point, Miller turned toward the mansion with a message for Abbott.

“Quite frankly, governor, your cure is worse than the disease,” Miller said.

West, who took over the party in July and has been an open critic of some of Abbott’s coronavirus decisions, read a resolution that the State Republican Executive Committee passed last month. The resolution tells Abbott: “No Exceptions, No Delays….Open Texas NOW.”

“We call upon the governor to do what is right by the people of the great state of Texas so that Texas can continue to be a leader,” West added. “And if the governor did not get this resolution, I’m gonna leave it right here, at the gates of the Governor’s Mansion.”

The protest drew at least 200 people, a virtually maskless crowd, to a parking lot steps away from the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin. After hearing from a lineup of speakers that also included state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, the group marched on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the mansion, chanting, “Open Texas now!”

The audience was filled with signs expressing disgust at Abbott’s decisions to institute a statewide mask mandate and shut down certain businesses throughout the pandemic. One sign called Abbott the “#1 Job Killer in Texas,” while another called to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO.”

I’ve been sitting on this for a few days in part because there’s so damn much other news that I’ve not been able to fit it in, and in part because it’s hard to add anything to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO”. But we carry on.

West’s criticism of Abbott’s pandemic decisions has fueled speculation that he could run against the governor in 2022. As West prepared to start speaking at the rally, there were a couple chants of “West for governor!” which he sought to brush off, saying, “Oh, stop it, stop it, stop it.” Then there was another chant that drew cheers, prompting West to shake his head lightheartedly.

“Paid political announcement by a bunch of knuckleheads,” he said jokingly.

The idea of a carpetbagger like Allen West being a serious primary challenger to Greg Abbott is bizarre, to say the least, but we live in strange times. I do at this point believe someone will challenge Abbott in the primary, but who that might be and how seriously it will be taken remains unclear. Maybe this was Sid Miller’s audition for the job – he’s dumb enough to think he can do it, and clownish enough to appeal anyone who might think Allen West is some kind of savior. There’s plenty of room for this to get dumber, of that I’m certain. Dan Patrick as ever is the wild card, and likely the one Republican than Abbott actually fears. I don’t have any predictions – even if I did, it would be ridiculous to make them this far in advance – but I sure am interested in seeing how this plays out. We have a super consequential legislative session coming up, with redistricting and coronavirus and executive power and who knows what else that will dominate. How much does this kind of dissension affect Republican plans, or can they pull it together enough to support the things they all are supposed to like? Would a Dem Speaker remind them all of their real opponent? I don’t know, but these are the things I’ll be thinking about.

October 2020 campaign finance reports: Congress

This is it, the last quarterly finance report roundup for the cycle. It’s been quite the time, hasn’t it? Let’s do this and see where we are as voting continues. The January 2019 roundup is here, which closed out the 2017-18 election cycle, the April 2019 report is here, the July 2019 report is here, the October 2019 report is here, the January 2020 report is here, the April 2020 report is here, and the July 2020 report is here. For comparison, the January 2018 report is here, the April 2018 report is here, and the July 2018 report is here. The FEC summary page for Congress is here and for the Senate is here.

MJ Hegar – Senate

Lizzie Fletcher – CD07
Colin Allred – CD32

Hank Gilbert – CD01
Sima Ladjevardian – CD02
Lulu Seikaly – CD03
Stephen Daniel – CD06
Elizabeth Hernandez – CD08
Mike Siegel – CD10
Adrienne Bell – CD14
Rick Kennedy – CD17
Wendy Davis – CD21
Sri Kulkarni – CD22
Gina Ortiz Jones – CD23
Candace Valenzuela – CD24
Julie Oliver – CD25
Carol Ianuzzi – CD26
Donna Imam – CD31


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
Sen   Hegar        20,579,453 12,121,009        0  8,505,926

07    Fletcher      5,673,282  4,115,705        0  1,599,643
32    Allred        5,060,556  3,477,172        0  1,686,828  

01    Gilbert         595,890    321,193   50,000    274,697
02    Ladjevardian  3,102,882  2,373,600   50,000    729,282
03    Seikaly       1,143,345    580,360    3,000    562,985
06    Daniel          558,679    396,453        0    162,225
08    Hernandez
10    Siegel        1,994,611  1,712,734        0    285,368
14    Bell            226,601    196,623        0     35,078
17    Kennedy         190,229    161,093    8,103     30,563
21    Davis         7,917,557  6,035,908        0  1,881,649
22    Kulkarni      4,663,288  2,941,745        0  1,749,310
23    Jones         5,893,413  3,877,366        0  2,107,566
24    Valenzuela    3,589,295  2,601,580        0    987,715
25    Oliver        1,599,523  1,102,297    2,644    497,225
26    Ianuzzi         129,145     91,293   53,335     37,852
31    Imam          1,000,764    620,512        0    380,251

These totals are just off the charts. Remember how in the 2018 cycle I was freaking out as one candidate after another topped $100K? Here we have nine challengers to incumbent Republicans that have topped one million, with the tenth-place challenger still exceeding $500K. For that matter, nine out of those ten outraised their opponents in the quarter, though several still trail in total raised and/or cash on hand. I’ve run out of synonyms for “unprecedented”. All this is without accounting for DCCC and other PAC money being spent. Who could have imagined this even as recently as 2016?

The one question mark is with the incumbent Dems, as both Rep. Lizzie Fletcher and Rep. Colin Allred were outraised for the quarter. Both took in over $1.2 million apiece, so it’s not like they slacked, and they both maintain a cash on hand lead while having spent more. I don’t know what to make of that, but I’m not terribly worried about it. Republican money has to go somewhere.

MJ Hegar raised $13.5 million this quarter, and there’s some late PAC money coming in on her behalf. I wish she had been able to raise more earlier, and I wish some of the excess millions that are going to (very good!) Senate candidates in much smaller and less expensive states had come to her instead, but she’s got what she needs to compete, and she’s got a competitive race at the top of the ticket helping her, too. We don’t have a Senate race in 2022, and someone will get to run against Ted Cruz in 2024. All I can say is I hope some folks are thinking about that now, and taking some initial steps to build on what Beto and MJ have done before them.

I don’t have a whole lot to say otherwise, because these numbers speak for themselves. I mean, remember when we were a little worried about the ability of candidates like Lulu Seikaly and Julie Oliver and Donna Imam to raise enough money? Seems like a long time ago now.

Let me end with a thought about the future. Will what we saw in 2018 and 2020 carry forward? 2022 is the first post-redistricting election, so with new districts and the likelihood of some open seats, there should be plenty of action. We did see a fair amount of cash being raised in 2012, after all. If there are many more Dem incumbents, it’s for sure there will be more money flowing in. We’ll have to see how many competitive races there are beyond that. What I do know is that we have definitively proven that this can be done, that quality candidates can be found and they will be supported. We had the power, and we figured out how to use it. Hard to believe that will go away.

Texas, the “We don’t want you to vote” state

And by “We” I mean “Republicans”.

In five states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, new policies allow all voters to use COVID-19 as an excuse to mail in their ballots. In Iowa, the Republican secretary of state sent absentee ballot applications for the November election to every active, registered voter. And in Mississippi, one of the few states not offering universal absentee voting this year, Republican state leaders extended the deadline to receive mail ballots.

Republican lawmakers across the country, including those in battleground states with tight Senate races, have lifted restrictions and defied President Donald Trump’s unfounded warnings of mail-in voter fraud by expanding the practice, in an attempt to prevent the coronavirus from spreading at polling sites.

And then there is Texas, one of five states where voters cannot use fear of COVID-19 to vote by mail, one of 10 without widespread online voter registration and one of two without either option. Top Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, have made a series of moves they say are necessary to protect election integrity — but that also make it harder for Texans to cast ballots.

Democrats have condemned the actions as thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression designed to prevent them from winning control of the Texas House and delivering the state’s 38 electoral college votes to their presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

Republicans wave off those assertions, noting the expanded voting policies sought by Democrats were not implemented in prior election cycles. And they point to Abbott’s decisions to add a week of in-person early voting and let voters drop off mail ballots before Election Day — though the governor later undercut the latter move by limiting each county to one drop-off site, forcing Harris County to close 11 and prompting accusations of voter suppression from Democrats and lawsuits from civil rights groups.

“There’s no question that the intent behind these moves is to cause there to be fewer Democrats voting,” said Joseph Fishkin, an elections expert at the University of Texas School of Law. “You want to call that voter suppression, I think that’s not unreasonable.”

I’m not sure what else you’d call it if the intent is indeed to make it harder to vote, but whatever. I’ve hit on these themes before, and I’ll repeat them here, because there are two basic facts we have to keep in mind. One is that if the Republicans felt confident that they were the majority, they would not feel the need to compulsively push to restrict the vote. It’s not just the things we’ve seen this year, it’s the resistance to online voter registration, it’s everything about the voter ID law, it’s the fanatical insistence that vote fraud – exclusively by people who don’t vote for them, of course – is rampant, and so on and so forth. They fear that if it were easy and convenient to vote, they’d lose. Donald Trump says it out loud, but their actions have been saying it just as loudly for much longer.

And two, the only way out of this is through it. That means overcoming all the obstacles and winning enough elections to be able to pass laws that will reform and repeal these laws. The courts won’t save us – indeed, considering the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS, the courts will be another obstacle to overcome. It’s not just this year – we cannot begin to make real progress until we win statewide elections, and that means making an even bigger push in 2022. It’s not just about winning the elections, too – it’s about putting pressure on the leaders we elect to enact the reforms we demand and deserve. This is a long haul, and there will be setbacks along the way. But it is the way, and there’s no going around it. Remember this, and use it to push for the changes we need.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

Chip Roy calls on Paxton to resign

Interesting.

Best mugshot ever

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a former top aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, called on his former boss to resign from his post after top members of Paxton’s staff said the attorney general should be investigated for multiple crimes, including bribery.

“For the good of the people of Texas and the extraordinary public servants who serve at the Office of the Attorney General, Attorney General Ken Paxton must resign,” he said in a statement. “The allegations of bribery, abuse of office, and other charges levied against him by at least 7 senior leaders of the Office of the Attorney General are more than troubling on the merits.”

“But, any grace for him to resolve differences and demonstrate if the allegations are false was eliminated by his choice instead to attack the very people entrusted, by him, to lead the office – some of whom I know well and whose character are beyond reproach.”

Roy called the office of the attorney general “too critical to the state and her people to leave in chaos.”

“The Attorney General deserves his days in court, but the people of Texas deserve a fully functioning AG’s office,” he added.

Roy served as Paxton’s initial first assistant attorney general during Paxton’s first term, but resigned upon Paxton’s request in a major shake-up of senior staff in 2015. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 2018.

See here and here for the background. I have some speculation about this, but before I get to that let me answer a question here that was raised in the comments to the previous post. If Paxton does resign, Greg Abbott will appoint a new AG. That person will serve until the next election, which in this case is the 2022 election, when Paxton’s term would be up. Had this all happened earlier – if, say, Paxton had stepped down in January, for example – then Abbott’s appointed AG would have been on the ballot this November as well, in the same way that there’s an election for Harris County Clerk to replace Diane Trautman. Because of the timing here, if Paxton does resign then whoever is appointed in his place will serve out the rest of his term.

Now then. Chip Roy, a former top lieutenant to Paxton, is the first prominent Republican to call for him to resign; as noted before, Abbott and Dan Patrick both issued very milquetoast “wait and see” statements in that Chron story. What might be the reason for this? Three possibilities I can think of:

1. It’s a principled move by someone who has seen enough evidence of wrongdoing and believes in the office enough to want to protect it. Yes, I know, my eyes are rolling as well, but we wouldn’t be in this position if it hadn’t been for the principled action of multiple people who are – or were, anyway – closely aligned with Paxton. I think very little of Chip Roy, but he didn’t have to put out a statement at all, or if he did he could have followed in Abbott and Partick’s extremely timid footsteps. I’m about to give two much more cynical reasons for this, but even if one or both of these other reasons are true, the fact remains that Chip Roy didn’t have to do this, and will almost certainly suffer some blowback for it. Give credit where credit is due.

2. Locked in a tight race for his Congressional seat, in a year where Donald Trump is doing his best to wreck Republican political careers around the country, the last thing Chip Roy needs is for people to think of him as a onetime head honcho for the consistently corrupt Ken Paxton. Getting out ahead of that mushroom cloud of scandal and putting as much distance between himself and Paxton is just Survival 101.

3. Did I mention that part about Greg Abbott appointing a replacement AG if Paxton does step down? And that part about Chip Roy maybe losing his re-election? Now who would be a better and more obvious choice to step in for Ken Paxton than a former Top Man in the office who was the first Republican to call on him to resign, thus giving him the cred he’ll need to clean up after Paxton’s mess and restore some faith in the Attorney General? Don’t tell me Chip Roy isn’t keeping his options open.

By the way, Ken Paxton says he ain’t resigning, but that’s what you’d expect him to say, and it’s what he says now, when we have very little information about these allegations. Let’s see what happens when we all learn more.

Anyway. Speaking of appointments, Paxton has named a replacement for his departed First Assistant AG, Jeff Mateer. Good luck with that, dude. I may need to seriously rewrite this entry if more Paxton news breaks this afternoon, but in the meantime you can read this Texas Signal story that recaps what we know so far. Catch up if you need to, I have a feeling there’s a lot more to come. The Chron, Texas Monthly, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board joins the “Paxton should resign” bandwagon.

When Republicans fight

Such a sight to see.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.

In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.

On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.

The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.

What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.

In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.

As the story notes, this is also playing out in the SD30 special election, where Shelley Luther – supported by a million dollars from one of the Empower Texans moneybags – is busy calling Abbott a “tyrant”. There’s talk of various potential primary challengers to Abbott in 2022 – see the comments to this post for a couple of names – but I don’t see any serious threat to him as yet. If Dan Patrick decides he wants a promotion, then we’ve got something. Until then, it’s all talk.

But let me float an alternate scenario by you. What if the nihilist billionaires behind Empower Texans decide that Abbott and the Republican Party have totally sold out on them, and instead of finding someone to take Abbott out in a primary, they bankroll a petition drive to put some pet wingnut on the November ballot, as an independent or the nominee of some new party they just invented? It’s crazy and almost certain to hand the Governor’s mansion over to the Democratic nominee, but no one ever said these guys were strategic geniuses. It’s been said that there are three real political parties in Texas – the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the far right whackadoo Republicans. This would arguably be an outgrowth of that, and in what we all hope is a post-Trump world, there may be similar splits happening elsewhere.

How likely is this? As I said, it makes no sense in the abstract. It’s nearly impossible to see a path to victory for either Abbott or the appointed anti-Abbott. It’s instructive to compare to 2006, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman were taking votes away from both Rick Perry and Chris Bell. Nobody who considers themselves remotely a Democrat is going to be wooed by whoever Empower Texans could vomit onto the ballot. Maybe they would consider a victory by Julian Castro or whichever Dem to be preferable to another Abbott term, in their own version of “the two parties are the same, we must burn down the duopoly to get everything we want”. Just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen. For now, if I had to bet, my money would be on some token but not completely obscure challenger to Abbott in the primary – think Steve Stockman against John Cornyn in 2014, something like that. But a lot can happen in a year, and if the Dems do well this November, that could add to the pressure against Abbott. Who knows? Just another bubbling plot line to keep an eye on.

How not to be “ground zero” for voter suppression

It starts with winning elections. Which would be easier to do if Republicans weren’t hell-bent on making it hard to vote, but then that’s why they do what they do.

Fewer and fewer states are standing with Texas as it continues to resist calls to expand mail-in voting amid the coronavirus outbreak, with South Carolina on Wednesday becoming the latest to allow anyone to cast a ballot by mail this fall.

Texas is now one of just five states won’t accept concerns about the coronavirus as an excuse to vote by mail and state leaders have blocked attempts by local officials in Harris County to make voting by mail more accessible.

That Texas is out on the edge on an issue of voting access should come as no surprise, experts in voting laws say.

The Republicans who run state government have made Texas a national leader in voting restrictions, ground zero in a series of long-running fights over voting rights, and hotly debated allegations of potential voter fraud. It’s a battle President Donald Trump has escalated in the past week, tweeting repeatedly about mail-in voting, which he alleges will lead to “MAYHEM!!!” despite no evidence of such in the states that already have widespread voting by mail.

Democrats have poured millions into at least 18 different legal battles against Texas over mail-in voting and a host of other election issues — more than anywhere in the nation — as the state’s elections have grown more competitive. They charge that the Republicans who run state government have placed hurdles at every step of the electoral process to keep their power despite demographic changes that have diminished their public support.

Texas’ sluggish voter turnout rates are frequently cited as evidence that GOP suppression efforts are working. The state’s decision not to make it easier to vote by mail, critics say, is just the latest example.

You can read the rest for a recitation of the greatest hits in making it harder to vote, but it’s all familiar. (This was also written before the Abbott order about mail ballot dropoff locations, which shows that there will always be new frontiers in this field.) The key to this whole thing is right there in the fourth paragraph, “The Republicans who run state government”. The only way this is going to change is for the Republicans to not be running state government. We can take an important step in that direction in this election, especially if we can get an all-Democratic federal government that will pass an expansion of the Voting Rights Act and other protections. We can finish the job in 2022 and pass laws to repeal voter ID, allow for no-excuses vote by mail, enable online voter registration, and more. The courts aren’t going to save us. The Republicans have no interest in any of this – indeed, as I’ve argued before, if they maintain their trifecta after this election, they are now strongly incentivized to rein in efforts to send out vote by mail applications to those who hadn’t requested them. We win these elections and we move forward, or we don’t and we move back. The fact that it’s harder for us to win these elections is just too bad. That’s how it is. It’s all up to us.

Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

In a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argues that the GOP group suing Gov. Greg Abbott to prevent him from extending early voting for the November election has no standing and has failed to prove any harm.

Conservative activist Steve Hotze and a long list of high-profile Texas Republicans claim Abbott is violating Texas election law and overstepping his authority without first consulting with the Texas Legislature.

Paxton counters that delegation of powers is both necessary and proper in certain circumstances.

“The Legislature properly exercised its delegation power when it enacted the Disaster Act because it contains adequate standards to guide its exercise,” Paxton’s brief reads. “It sets parameters for what constitutes a disaster, provides a standard for how the governor is to declare one, places limits on his emergency powers, and specifies when the disaster ends.”

See here for the background. A copy of the Paxton brief is here. The introduction is worth a read:

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

Relators direct their petition at the Secretary of State, even though they do not allege that she has undertaken or threatened to undertake any unlawful action. Neither the Governor’s July 27 proclamation (“the Proclamation”) nor the Election Code imposes any ministerial duty on the Secretary. And the provisions of the Election Code concerning early voting are administered by county election officials, not the Secretary of State. Although the Election Code designates the Secretary as Texas’s “chief election officer,” this Court has long held that does not give her generalized enforcement power over every provision of the Election Code. Moreover, the Proclamation independently binds each county’s early-voting clerk, so any mandamus issued against the Secretary would not remedy Relators’ grievances. Indeed, granting the relief Relators seek would have no impact at all—which makes this petition nothing more than a request for an advisory opinion.

Relators’ merits arguments are similarly misguided. They raise multiple constitutional challenges to the Disaster Act, but none is properly before this Court because the Disaster Act delegates no power to the Secretary. And in any event, the Governor’s discretion and authority under the Disaster Act are cabined by reasonable standards, so it is a lawful delegation of legislative power, and the July 27 Proclamation is a proper exercise of that delegated power.

Relators waited two months to file this mandamus petition, yet they ask this Court to “alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 140 S. Ct. 1205, 1207 (2020). They are not entitled to relief.

Well, now we know where Ken Paxton’s line in the sand is: He’ll value the Governor’s executive power over a challenge to voting rights. Well, he’ll value this Governor’s executive power over a challenge to this Governor’s use of that executive power to enhance voting rights. Good enough for these purposes, I suppose.

Other court documents related to this writ are here. There are now documents available relating to the latest Harris County writ as well, which you can find here. Responses to that are due today at 4 PM. Have I mentioned lately that I will be happy to ease up on all the legal blogging? Please get me past this election, that’s all I ask.

PPP/TDP: Trump 48, Biden 48

More polls.

A new poll of likely voters found that President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are tied in Texas. The poll, commissioned by the Texas Democratic Party through Public Policy Polling, is the latest reflecting a dead heat race in the state.

Trump and Biden both received 48% support with 4% of respondents undecided.

Trump has led six of the last seven statewide polls in Texas, according to a tracker of 2020 presidential polls compiled by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Before that, Biden had led five of seven polls.

[…]

The poll also found an underwater approval rating for Trump in Texas, 47-to-48. Trump and Biden will participate in the first 2020 presidential debate on Tuesday.

Polling data is here. They did not include a question about the Senate race, unfortunately. Biden wins 2016 Clinton voters 93-3 and the “Other/Did not vote” contingent 66-25, while Trump carries his voters from 2016 by an 89-8 margin. (The sample reported voting for Trump in 2016 by 50-41.) Biden wins Democrats 88-7, Trump wins Republicans 87-11, and Biden wins independents 54-41. Biden wins Black voters 88-7, Latinos 63-32, and “Other” voters 68-19, while Trump takes white voters 66-32. Voters 18 to 45 go for Biden 56-41, voters 46 to 65 go for Trump 49-47, and voters older than 65 back Trump by a 58-37 margin. None of those data points stand out as being out of whack with other polling.

I should note that the aforementioned poll tracker shows an August 22 PPP poll done for the TDP that had Biden up 48-47. I either missed that one or didn’t get around to it. I have a June 5 PPP/TDP poll that also had a 48-48 tie, which the tracker does not include. For whatever the reason, some polls get Chron/DMN/Trib coverage, while others do not. There is a lot of news out there, I get it.

Along those lines there was a Data for Progress poll from last week that was interesting in a couple of ways.

For this November’s election, Biden trails Trump by 1 point in Texas. Senator John Cornyn maintains a 2-point lead over his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar. In the Senate race, it is notable, however, that a significant block of voters (22 percent) say they’re not yet sure for whom they will vote. In the GCB, Democrats trail by five-points.

In 2022, Texas will hold elections for governor and attorney general. These positions are held by Republicans Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, respectively. Currently, Abbot enjoys a 12-point lead over a generic Democratic challenger. In the 2018 race for attorney general, Democrat Justin Nelson ran against Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, and when we retested this race, we found that Paxton leads Nelson by 4 points. Like with our other 2022 polling, about one in five voters remains unsure for whom they will be voting.

The numbers, which they are only showing in graphical form, are 46-45 for Trump, 40-38 for Cornyn, and 46-41 for the Generic Congressional Ballot (GCB). There was a Data for Progress poll done in early September for the HDCC that had Biden up 48-45, so this isn’t a terrific result when put next to that, but it’s in line with most other polls. DfP also polled Florida (three point lead for Biden) and Arizona (one point lead for Trump, which is better for Trump than other polls).

The 2022 polling is interesting but not worth taking too seriously. Greg Abbott may be leading a generic Democrat 46-34, but he’s very likely not going to have a generic Dem running against him, at least not if all the candles I’ve been lighting for Julian Castro have any effect. Ken Paxton’s 41-37 lead over Justin Nelson makes some sense, but as of today Paxton’s opposition comes in the form of Joe Jaworski, though as that post notes Jaworski is sure to have company in the primary, and it would shock no one if that company includes Justin Nelson. Take this all for pure entertainment value and check with me again in a year or so.

The 2022 election has officially started

And Joe Jaworski is the first candidate out of the box.

Joe Jaworski

Joe Jaworski, a mediator and former Galveston mayor, is not a fan of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican first elected to statewide office in 2014.

“I have always thought the attorney general should be the attorney for the people, not a particular political party or ideology,” he told me Tuesday.

That may sound naive to Texans who’ve followed state politics in recent years. But Jaworski, a Democrat, has a unique vantage point as the grandson of the late Leon Jaworski, the Houston lawyer and one-time Nuremberg prosecutor who gained fame as the second special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal.

Jaworski said his grandfather — “the Colonel,” to family members — put country over party. A Democrat, he became disillusioned with the party after Lyndon Johnson’s administration and voted for Richard Nixon twice. His legal clash with Nixon over Oval Office audio recordings culminated in Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

“Leon Jaworski was always on the right side of history, and that is a meaning that I feel very strongly about,” Joe Jaworski said of his grandfather.

Joe Jaworski announced his own bid for attorney general last week, getting an early start in a bid to unseat Paxton, a Republican, in 2022. Jaworski doesn’t expect to be the only Democrat vying for the job.

But Paxton might as well be on the ballot this cycle, Jaworski argued. Some of Paxton’s peers in statewide office have laid low this election cycle, or focused their efforts on fundraising for downballot GOP candidates. But the attorney general, who continues to fight his own five-year-old indictment for felony securities fraud, has vigorously inserted himself into the political fray.

We are familiar with Paxton’s actions. I met Joe some years ago and did an interview with him for his 2008 race for State Senate in SD11. He’ll be an energetic campaigner and I suspect a decent fundraiser. I’m not surprised that he expects company in the primary – I can imagine 2018 AG candidate Justin Nelson giving it another shot, and there will likely be others out there – but it’s exciting to think about a compelling lineup of primary contests. Lord knows, there will be no shortage of issues to highlight in a race against Ken Paxton, even if he still hasn’t seen the inside of a courtroom for his alleged misdeeds by then.

Jaworski’s got a campaign Facebook page up, which I had come across a couple of days ago, before Erica Greider wrote that column. Obviously, what’s happening this November is the top priority, and the legislative session that follows will be next in line. But the 2022 election has a chance to be truly transformative in Texas, and even if you think that’s an overbid, there will surely be a hotly contested effort to take or maintain control of the House, plus all 31 Senate seats will be up. The sooner we can get some quality folks out there for the statewide positions, the better.

Hotze and crew appeal to SCOTX to stop the extra week of early voting

Here we go again.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is facing a lawsuit over his extension of early voting for the November election from prominent members of his own party — including state party Chairman Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and members of the Texas Legislature.

In July, Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19, citing the coronavirus pandemic. In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court, Abbott’s intra-party critics say the move defied election law that requires early voting to start on the 17th day before the election.

It is the latest legal challenge to Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded aggressively in dealing with the pandemic.

“Governor Abbott seems to have forgotten that the Texas Constitution is not a document that he consults at his convenience,” Jared Woodfill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “It is an uninterrupted charter of governmental structure that limits the Governor Abbott’s ability to act as a king.”

The plaintiffs argue Abbott needs to consult the Legislature before making such decisions and that “if ever a special session was justified, now is the time.”

One of the plaintiffs is Steve Hotze, the Houston conservative activist who has launched several lawsuits against Abbott’s coronavirus response that has seen minimal success so far. But in the latest lawsuit, he is joined by not only West and Miller, but also three state senators and four state representatives, as well as the chairman of the Harris County party, Keith Nielsen, and the Republican National Committeeman from Texas, Robin Armstrong.

West, who took over the state party this summer, has openly expressed disagreement with aspects of Abbott’s coronavirus handling, including his statewide mask mandate and the early voting extension. West seemed to telegraph the lawsuit Tuesday, saying in a statement that he would be partnering with Hotze to make election integrity a “top priority.” West said in the same statement that he opposes the “extension of early voting through the decree of a single executive instead of through the legislative process.”

[…]

In addition to making the early voting period longer for the November election, Abbott gave voters more time to turn in their mail-in ballots in person if they choose to do so. Usually those voters are permitted to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s expanded that option to the entire early voting period.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday additionally seeks to stop the extended period for submitting mail ballots in person, also calling the move inconsistent with the election code.

Before we go on, I should note that what was filed was not a lawsuit but a writ of mandamus. Hotze and a smaller crew of jackals had already filed a lawsuit in Travis County district court about a month ago. I presume this writ was filed because they weren’t going to get a ruling in time, and everything is an emergency as far as Hotze is concerned.

The Chron adds some detail.

In the 40-page petition filed Wednesday, the Republicans wrote that the extension was unlawful because the Texas Election Code defines the early voting periods as “the 17th day before election day … through the fourth day before election day,” and the time for in-person submission of mail-in ballots as “only while the polls are open on election day.” The petition seeks to force Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to stick to the timelines in the law.

Hotze has filed a number of lawsuits aimed at Abbott’s COVID-19 emergency orders; in the early voting suit, he again alleges that Abbott does not have the authority, even during a disaster, to suspend laws through executive order. Instead, he says, Abbott should have convened the Legislature.

“If ever a special session was justified, now is the time,” the petition states. “Abbott’s Executive Orders are unprecedented and have had life and death implications, destroyed small businesses and family’s livelihoods, have had a crippling effect on every single community, and now have the ability to impact local, state and national elections. As long as this Court allows it to occur, one person will continue to unilaterally make these decisions under the guise of an unconstitutional statute.”

The lawmakers involved in the suit are state Sens. Charles Perry, Donna Campbell and Pat Fallon and state Reps. Bill Zedler, Cecil Bell, Jr., Steve Toth and Dan Flynn. Additional relators include former state Reps. Matt Rinaldi, Rick Green and Molly White; Harris County Republican Party Chair Keith Nielson; and several other candidates and Republican group leaders.

This story notes the earlier lawsuit. Of interest is the larger group of legislators that have joined in, which distinguishes this action from earlier Hotze/Woodfill joints. Perhaps the election of Allen West, who is as bananas as Hotze, has lent an imprimatur of establishment approval to this kind of rogue action. That said, this is the Hotze clown car we’re talking about, so of course there’s some unintentional comedy involved:

Never stop never stopping, Stevie.

Anyway. You know my opinion on all this – there are some legitimate questions buried under the mountains of palaver, but they are being asked by the worst possible people. I think there’s a strong case to be made that the very nature of our biennial legislature, which is not paid as an occupation but as a temp gig, makes this claim about calling special sessions impossible. It’s just not something that the system is designed to accommodate. My guess is that SCOTX will give this the same reception as they’ve given all of Hotze’s other writs and motions during the COVID times, but you just never know. And I can’t wait to see how Ken Paxton responds to this.

On a side note, this comes as Steve Toth, yet another froth-at-the-mouth type, officially announced that he is unfriending Abbott, which by itself isn’t that interesting but lends some fuel to the speculation that Abbott is going to get a challenger from the far wingnut right in 2022. All I can say to that is that we damn well better have a good candidate ready and waiting for whoever survives that mud fight.

Hegar targets open carry

I’m all in for this.

MJ Hegar

Former Air Force pilot MJ Hegar, a Democrat challenging Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, is calling for an end to open carry.

The issue has never attracted the same sort of urgency from gun safety advocates as expanding background checks or banning assault-style weapons. But advocates say that is changing as protests rage on. They point to the Austin case and other high-profile shootings, including in Kenosha, Wis., where 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse is accused of killing two protesters and injuring a third with an AR-15-style rifle.

Like Texas, Wisconsin state law allows for rifles to be carried openly, though the state requires the carrier to be 18, meaning Rittenhouse likely was breaking the law. Police didn’t stop him before the shooting, despite video showing them offering him water.

“These cases are exactly why we need to curb open carry,” Hegar said. “Open carry in this day and age only serves to escalate the division and violence in our communities. Recent incidents show us that open carry is no longer about freedom but violence.”

[…]

Gun violence prevention groups that have backed Hegar — and plan to spend heavily in her favor — say it’s a position that will appeal to suburban voters, especially suburban women, a key demographic Hegar will need to carry if she is to be the first Democrat to win a statewide race in Texas in a generation.

Hegar’s backers believe she’s an ideal messenger on the issue as a mother, gun owner and decorated war veteran.

“We haven’t seen statements like this in a long time, and it goes to her experience,” said Brian Lemek, executive director of the Brady PAC, a group that supports candidates pushing for new gun laws. “How many people out there can say … ‘I took on fire from the Taliban, I have scars to show it.’ She understands the dangers.”

Pro-gun groups say Hegar is just trying to find anything that will help her gain traction as she trails Cornyn in polling and fundraising.

“She’s looking for anything she can get and she’s targeting probably new people who have moved to Texas, probably urban people, urban mothers or women,” said Mike Cox, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association. “She’s looking for anything.”

But Hegar — who owns five guns, including a semi-automatic assault-style rifle — has been calling to end open carry since at least last year, well before she won her party’s nomination, when she called open carry “an assault on every bystander within range.”

While the coronavirus and economic downturn have dominated much of the campaign season so far — and Hegar says they will remain the most important issues of the race — polling in Texas has shown support for gun laws, including universal background checks, red flag laws and banning assault-style weapons, especially after mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa last year.

Polling data shows a solid majority in favor of “sensible gun laws”, but that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It’s also not clear how much a specific position might persuade someone to cross over to vote for a candidate they otherwise wouldn’t have supported, or how much a strong position on this issue affects turnout on either side. Be that as it may, the only path forward for new gun laws at the federal level begins with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, and so for obvious reasons a Senator MJ Hegar advances that possibility. Federal laws and policies can also influence state laws, but that will depend on a whole other set of elections here. All of that said, I think we can agree that it’s a new day in Texas when a serious contender for statewide office can openly embrace stronger gun laws as a key part of her candidacy. I feel confident saying that hasn’t happened before. Even if she loses, this won’t be a one-off event. Expect to see more of this in the 2022 elections, when serious change at the state level is on the ballot.

Good riddance to a bad person

We should all be thoroughly disgusted by this.

A Texas assistant attorney general sent dozens of tweets over the past several months threatening violence against progressives, spouting racist and transphobic rhetoric, casting doubt over the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and sharing QAnon conspiracy theories. On Thursday, he lost his job with the state agency after national media reported on his social media activities.

Nick Moutos, whose racist tweets were reported Thursday morning by Media Matters, threatened Black Lives Matter protesters and has regularly referred to the organizers as “terrorists.” He called Islam a “virus” and trans people an “abomination.”

“As of today, this individual no longer works for the Office of the Attorney General,” Kayleigh Date, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, told The Texas Tribune.

[…]

This isn’t the first time a staffer in the attorney general’s office has been in hot water over their social media presence. In 2018, the communications director for the office deleted his Twitter account after sharing tweets mocking sexual misconduct allegations brought against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In 2017, an associate deputy attorney general resigned after a Dallas Morning News story drew attention to comments he made about #MeToo survivors.

And don’t forget Jeff “Satan’s Plan” Mateer, another hateful asshole that your tax dollars pay for. They are really not sending their best to the AG’s office. This particular jackwad has been quite prolific and not at all discreet about it on Twitter, which makes me wonder how it is that it took so long to identify him and get his ass out of there. This guy worked for the public, while having loads of contempt and revulsion for large portions of the public. That’s just not acceptable, in any form or fashion. We really, really need to do some housecleaning in 2022.

Why wouldn’t Dems attack Abbott for his COVID response?

I am puzzled by the premise of this article.

As the Democratic National Convention opened on Monday, former First Lady Michelle Obama condemned President Donald Trump for having downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and scenes flashed throughout the night from Houston, an epicenter of the crisis.

“Too many are struggling to take care of basic necessities like food and rent,” Obama said. “Too many communities have been left in the lurch to grapple with whether and how to open our schools safely.”

In Texas, Democrats have seized on similar attacks, targeting Gov. Greg Abbott and his ties to the Trump Administration during the pandemic to undermine Republicans down ballot, especially in diverse suburban districts around Houston and Dallas.

While the governor is not on the ballot this year, Democrats have long believed that their best path to retaking the state House this cycle goes through Abbott, a close ally of the Trump Administration and a fundraising juggernaut who has consistently wielded his name and campaign war chest to help struggling GOP candidates cross the finish line in crucial electoral contests.

The pandemic has given them some of the most forceful attacks in years.

Abbott’s “complete and utter mismanagement of this from day one has made this a completely different calculus for us than it was before,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. He added, “Everyone is seeing firsthand just how dismal Republicans are at managing a crisis.”

[…]

Whether the criticism against Abbott lands this fall will depend in part on how the health crisis evolves in the coming weeks. Despite his initial haste to reopen businesses, the governor heeded calls to halt further openings and issued a statewide mask mandate, which drew stiff condemnation from his party’s far-right flank.

Abbott has still declined to issue temporary lockdowns or allow officials in the hardest hit regions, especially the Rio Grande Valley, to issue their own. Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are falling, though more slowly than public health officials would hope, especially as schools begin reopening this month.

The governor has allowed school districts to delay in-person instruction, meaning in some counties, students may not return until a week before the election. Public health experts have warned that returning to in-class learning before infections are largely contained could lead to new surges in hospitalizations and deaths.

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University who is tracking the most competitive Texas House races, said Abbott’s response to the surge this summer was “the most he’s ever bucked the conservative wing of his party.”

“And that’s because he maybe knows that if he hadn’t, Republicans may have lost more in November,” Jones said, adding, “I think for Abbott, a lot will depend on whether the pandemic becomes less severe in the next two months.”

The governor’s approval ratings are the lowest they’ve been since he took office, though he remains well liked by Republicans, according to polls. And Abbott has worked to shore up support within his core constituency of white, older Texans by appearing almost nightly on local TV news outlets.

I mean, obviously the Dems are going to attack Abbott’s response to the pandemic. Even if he had done everything in an objectively optimal manner, even if he wasn’t so closely tied to the dismal failure that is the Trump response to the pandemic, even if there were no complaints about the proper amount of executive power being wielded, there would always be things that could have gone better and could be subject to legitimate criticism. Besides, what other option would Dems have? Largely agreeing with him wouldn’t get them anywhere. You may say well, if he was handling this brilliantly then they shouldn’t be attacking him. I say there’s always room for an opposing perspective, and the critique of this aspect of Abbott’s performance as Governor fits well into other avenues the Dems would like to razz him on.

Attacks aren’t necessarily a positive thing for the attackers. People do generally get a sense for when an attack is unfair and based on lies, so whatever the Dems will be saying needs to be grounded in some valid basis or else it just won’t land. Abbott is also perfectly capable of defending himself and launching his own offensives, thanks to his gazillions of dollars in his campaign treasury. Will Democratic criticism of Abbott’s performance vault someone else into the Governor’s mansion? Maybe, though no matter what happens next that will depend as much on who that person will be as anything else. Nothing is guaranteed, and until Dems win a statewide race it’s all theoretical anyway. But really, what else would they do? It would be political malpractice to not be all over this, and that’s even without all the material Abbott has provided. You’re going to be hearing about this for a long time, so just get used to it.

We don’t need a vote to expand Medicaid

There’s a fundamental truth that needs to be addressed in this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On Tuesday, Missouri became the 38th state to expand Medicaid, opening healthcare to over 230,000 Missourians. It joins a lengthy list of GOP-led states in expanding healthcare, including Nebraska, Utah, and Oklahoma. Meanwhile in Texas we still lead the country in the number of uninsured and, since the COVID-19, pandemic another 650,000 have lost their health insurance.

The ballot initiative to expand Medicaid passed in Missouri by 53 percent, with several suburban counties in St. Louis and Kansas City voting overwhelmingly for the measure. The governor of Missouri, a staunch conservative, actually added the ballot initiative to the August primary ballot instead of November’s presidential ballot, hoping a smaller turnout would defeat the measure.

Clearly, the voters of Missouri felt expanding Medicaid was important for their state. The vote also comes as the Trump administration continues its effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, potentially kicking 20 million Americans off their health care and denying preexisting conditions coverage to over 120 million. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton support ending the ACA.

Texas has been in a health crisis for a long time, well after the state decided not to expand Medicaid through the ACA. According to a report from 2018, over 17 percent of Texas residents lacked health coverage. That’s about 5 million Texans without access to health care.

With COVID-19, that health crisis has only exacerbated. While cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have gone down in parts of the state, those numbers will likely rise precipitously as schools open. Over 7,000 Texans have died from the coronavirus. Many hospitals, particularly rural ones, are overwhelmed. The health care status quo has never felt so dangerous and untenable.

So will Texas ever get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid? According to Republican lawmakers in the state, that would be a “no.” Rep. Celia Israel commented on Twitter that she and Rep. John Bucy sponsored a bill in the last legislative session that would allow voters to “weigh in and expand Medicaid,” but that it never got a hearing.

[…]

If Texans do get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid, it will surely be opposed by Republicans statewide and in the legislature. If history is any guide, however, improving health care will transcend partisan lines.

The people of Missouri voted on the question of expanding Medicaid because the state of Missouri allows for laws to be enacted by referendum. In other words, in the state of Missouri and a number of others, you can collect petition signatures to put a proposed law up for a vote by the people, which is then enacted if it passes. Different states have different rules for this, but that’s the basic idea. The city of Houston allows for charter amendments to be put up for a vote via the petition process, which is always a fun thing to endure. For better or worse, the state of Texas does not allow for this.

The key thing to understand here is that the folks who pushed Medicaid expansion in Missouri via referendum did so for the explicit purpose of bypassing Missouri’s legislature and governor, both of which opposed Medicaid expansion. Most states early on passed Medicaid expansion via their legislatures, including some Republican states, but in recent years most of the action has come via the ballot box, in states like Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma. The key ingredients there were a combination of legislators and governors that opposed expanding Medicaid, and a petition process that allowed for the legislative process to be circumvented.

So if you’ve wondered why if those states can vote to expand Medicaid why can’t Texas, the answer is because the law doesn’t allow for it. It can only be done via the Legislature. Indeed, bills to do some form of Medicaid expansion have been proposed but have not gotten anywhere. The reason for that of course is intransigent Republican opposition, but guess what: The Democrats have a shot at taking the majority in the State House this year (as you may have heard), which would overcome one of those obstacles. We’d still need to take the Senate and elect a new Governor to finish the job, but at the very least the House could pass a Medicaid expansion bill, or put something for it in the budget, and dare the Senate and Greg Abbott to oppose it. I for one would be fine with having the 2022 Governor’s race be defined in large part by expanding Medicaid (in addition to, you know, COVID-19 response).

If that’s the case, then what was Rep. Israel tweeting about? Very simply, it was a political move to try to force the issue in a slightly different way. What Reps. Israel and Bucy proposed was a Constitutional amendment, which is something that the voters have to approve, which would have expanded Medicaid. Why propose a Constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, instead of a regular old bill that needs only a simple majority? Three reasons: One, constitutional amendments do not need the governor’s approval, so it would go to the voters regardless of what Greg Abbott wanted. Two, it offered Republican legislators who opposed Medicaid expansion but might have felt the need to do something a way out, as in “just vote to let the people decide, and we’ll never bother you about it again”. And three, constitutional amendments can only be changed or repealed by subsequent constitutional amendments, with their two-thirds-majority requirements, thus protecting Medicaid expansion via this avenue from the whims of a future Republican legislature.

The point is, though, we don’t need to vote to expand Medicaid. At least, we don’t need to vote on a ballot proposition to do it. We just need to vote for a Legislature and a Governor who are willing to do it. We’re a lot closer to that than we’ve ever been, and we’re closer to it than states like Missouri and Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma had any hope of being. The votes we need to expand Medicaid are this November, and November of 2022. Those are the prizes to keep your eyes on.