Texas Monthly’s Dave Mann reviews the Republican schism over the bathroom bill and comes to the same conclusion as I have.
At the moment, the Legislature—and the Republican party, for that matter—has settled into an uneasy stalemate between Patrick’s right-leaning Senate and Straus’s more moderate coalition in the House. But, as they say, stalemates are made to be broken, and right now, Patrick’s faction seems likely to prevail eventually. It has the support of the most-devoted Republican primary voters, many of whom view moderation or compromise as surrender.
So business leaders and their Republican allies are in a precarious position. They still have a power base in the House, because Straus and his leadership team have fended off several challenges from the right, but he won’t be speaker forever. This session is his fifth leading the House, tying the record for longest-serving speaker with Pete Laney and Gib Lewis. Whenever he departs, Straus could well be replaced by a more conservative figure. So the talk among business Republicans in Austin’s bars and restaurants these days is about how they can reverse their losses and reclaim their party.
Well, good luck with that. The Republican grass roots aren’t going to moderate themselves, and it seems likely that business-friendly Republicans will continue to lose primaries, especially in statewide races. As long as that dynamic remains, the Republican party won’t be tilting back toward the middle anytime soon.
But there is another political party. Remember that one? It’s been stripped down and left to rust for the past two decades. But the Texas Democratic party is still there, waiting for someone to gas it up and take it for a spin.
That’s just what big-business interests should do. The TAB and any number of influential corporations could easily take over the party by recruiting and funding candidates to run as Democrats. It would be a homecoming of sorts; after all, years ago, before the state flipped to the GOP, business-friendly Republicans were conservative Democrats.
The problem with this idea is that Democrats can’t win in Texas at the moment. Sure, big business could take over the Democratic party, but what good would it do? Except the goal here isn’t to suddenly flip the state back to the Democrats. No, the goal would simply be to make Democrats somewhat more competitive, especially in statewide races. They don’t necessarily have to win, just get close enough to scare Republicans and perhaps nudge the GOP back toward moderation.
Republican primaries might turn out differently if there was the threat of a tight race in the general election—and that threat could be more credible in 2018 than it has been in years, with many pundits expecting the national mood to favor Democrats by then. Would Abbott strike a more moderate tone if he knew a well-funded pro-business Democrat was waiting for him in the 2018 general? Part of the business lobby’s problem with Patrick is that it has no way to threaten him. He’s untouchable in a Republican primary, and his general election campaigns have been cakewalks. But if, say, a conservative Democrat, backed by big-business money, opposed him in 2018, that might lead Patrick to moderate just a bit. Similarly, if the GOP once again nominated social conservatives with questionable credentials—like Attorney General Ken Paxton, currently under indictment, or Sid Miller, the agriculture commissioner famous for traveling out of state for his “Jesus shot”—for statewide offices, they’d at least have a challenging race in the fall. And just maybe the specter of a formidable Democratic opponent would lead to a more robust debate within the Republican party, rather than simply a mass rush to the right.
While I agree with Mann in the aggregate, there are several places where I disagree. For one thing, I don’t know what he means by a “conservative” Democrat, but I do know that Democratic primary voters aren’t going to be interested in that. Discussions like this often get bogged down in semantics and everyone’s personal definitions of words like “liberal” and “conservative”, but I think we can all agree that a Democratic candidate who is “conservative” (or just relatively “conservative” for a Democrat) in the social issues sense is going to be extremely controversial. It’s not like Democrats haven’t tried the approach of soft-pedaling such items in recent elections – see, for example, Wendy Davis’ muteness on abortion and her flipflop on open carry in 2014 – it’s just that there’s little to no evidence that it has helped them any. Maybe nothing could have helped them in those elections, but in the Trump era where everyone is fired up with the spirit of resistance, it’s really hard to see how this approach would do anything but piss people off.
I also dispute the assertion that the threat of a close race will make Republicans more likely to choose the less-extreme, more “electable” candidate in their primaries. For Exhibit A, see Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. Surely Bill White was a credible threat to them that year, but Rick Perry’s successful strategy was the exact opposite of striking a more “moderate” tone. The only thing that might convince Republican primary voters to try something different will be sustained electoral failure. To say the least, we are not there yet.
What I would recommend for Democrats like Mike Collier and Beto O’Rourke and whoever might emerge to challenge Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton is to approach the business community by reminding them that we already broadly agree on a number of core matters – quality public and higher education, better infrastructure, sanity on immigration, non-discrimination – and where we may disagree on things like taxes and regulations, the Lege will still be Republican. What you get with, say, a Democratic Lt. Governor is a hedge against self-inflicted stupidity of the SB6 and “sanctuary cities” variety. You will get someone who will listen to reason and who will be persuaded by evidence. From the business community’s perspective, this is a better deal than what they have now, and a better deal than any they’re likely to get in the near future. For there to be a chance for that to happen, it will take Democratic candidates that a fired-up base can and will support, plus the willingness of the business community to recognize the hand they’ve been dealt. The ball is in their court.