“The Republican Party is at a crossroads like it’s never been before, and it’s gonna have to decide who it is,” said Corbin Casteel, a Texas GOP operative who was Trump’s Texas state director during the 2016 primary.
No one seems to be under the illusion that Trump will fade quietly. Since losing the election to Joe Biden in November, Trump has launched baseless attacks on the integrity of the election as most prominent Texans in his party let his claims go unchallenged. Some of Trump’s most loyal allies in Texas expect he’ll be a force here for years.
“The party is really built around Donald Trump — the brand, the image, but most importantly, his policies and what he accomplished,” [Dan] Patrick said during a Fox News interview Thursday. “Whoever runs in 2024, if they walk away from Trump and his policies, I don’t think they can get through a primary.”
To Texas Democrats, Trump has been a highly galvanizing force who created new political opportunities for them, particularly in the suburbs. He carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016 — the smallest margin for a GOP nominee in Texas in two decades — and then an even smaller margin last year. But his 6-point win here in November came after Democrats spent months getting their hopes up that Trump would lose the state altogether, and they also came up woefully short down-ballot, concluding the Trump era with decisively mixed feelings about his electoral impact at the state level.
More broadly, some Texas Democrats believe Trump is leaving a legacy as a symptom of the state’s current Republican politics, not a cause of it.
“Frankly I don’t think he changed the Republican Party in Texas,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the state Democratic Party chair, adding that Trump has instead magnified the “extreme politics and tendencies” that Texas Republicans have long harbored. “The things that [Trump] stands for — the white nationalism, the anti-LGBT [sentiment], the just flat-out racism, just the absolute meanness — that’s what the Republican Party has been in Texas for quite some time.”
As for Texas Republicans’ embrace of Trump, Hinojosa added, they “are the people that Trump talks about when he says he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose their support.”
To be sure, it’s entirely possible Republicans unite in the next year the way political parties do when they’re in the minority — with an oppositional message to the opposing administration. But the GOP’s longer-term challenges could prove harder to resolve. In the final years of Trump, some in the party drifted from any unifying policy vision. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, the party opted not to create a new platform, saying it would instead “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”
November’s elections in Texas did little to settle the debate over which direction the party should go. Those who want to move on note that Trump won with the narrowest margin for a GOP presidential candidate this century, and swing-seat Republican congressional contenders largely outperformed him in their districts.
“Most every Republican that was successful, with the exception of a handful, outperformed Donald Trump by a significant margin,” Hurd said. “If you’re not growing, you are dying, and if we’re not expanding to those voters that are disaffected and don’t believe in the message that Democrats are providing, then we’re not going to be able to grow.”
On the other hand, Trump’s 6-point margin was bigger than expected, and he performed surprisingly well in Hispanic communities in South Texas. Former Texas GOP Chair James Dickey said Trump’s message was “particularly effective” in swaths of the state that aren’t typically looked at as political bellwethers.
“His biggest impact has been a return to populist roots and an expansion of the party in minority communities, which, again, is a return to its roots,” Dickey said.
My medium-lukewarm take based on 2018, 2020, and the Georgia runoffs is that Republicans do better with Trump on the ballot than not. Dems made the big gains in 2018 in part because Republican turnout, as high as it was in that off-year, wasn’t as good as it could have been. The GOP got some low-propensity voters to turn out in November – as did Dems – and now they have to try to get them to turn out again. Maybe they will! Maybe with Trump gone some number of former Republicans who voted Dem because they hated Trump will find their way back to the GOP. Or maybe those folks are now full-on Dems. The national atmosphere will be critical to how 2022 goes – the economy, the vaccination effort, the Senate trial of Trump, further fallout from the Capitol insurrection, and just overall whether people think the Dems have done too much, too little, or the right amount. Dems can only control what they do.
And that’s going to mean playing some defense.
Democrats are headed back to the White House, and Texas Republicans are gearing up to go back on offense.
For eight years under President Barack Obama, Texas was a conservative counterweight to a progressive administration, with its Republican leaders campaigning against liberal policies on immigration, the environment and health care and lobbing lawsuit after federal lawsuit challenging scores of Democratic initiatives. When Republicans could not block policies in Congress, they sometimes could in the courts.
Now, as Joe Biden enters the White House promising a slew of executive orders and proposed legislation, the notorious “Texas vs. the feds” lawsuits are expected to return in full force. And state leaders have begun to float policy proposals for this year’s legislative session in response to expected action — or inaction — from a White House run by Democrats.
Under Trump, Texas has often found itself aligned with the federal government in the courts. Most notably, the Trump administration lined up with a Texas-led coalition of red states seeking to end the Affordable Care Act. That case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Once Biden enters the White House and his appointees lead everything from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Homeland Security, Texas’ conservative leaders will return to a familiar posture: adversary, not ally, to those making national policy.
Paul Nolette, a professor at Marquette University who studies federalism, said he expects Texas to be “at the top of the heap” among Republican attorneys general challenging the new administration in court.
According to Nolette, the number of multi-state lawsuits against the federal government skyrocketed from 78 under eight years of Obama to 145 during just four years of Trump.
“Republican AGs will take a very aggressive multi-state approach,” Nolette predicted. “It’ll happen quickly.”
It should be noted that a lot of those lawsuits were not successful. I don’t know what the scoreboard looks like, and some of those suits are still active, so write that in pencil and not in Sharpie. It should also be noted that the goal of some of these lawsuits, like ending DACA and killing the Affordable Care Act, are not exactly in line with public opinion, so winning may not have the effect the GOP hopes it would have. And of course AG Ken Paxton is under federal indictment (no pardon, sorry), leading a hollowed-out office, and not in great electoral shape for 2022. There’s definitely a chance Texas is not at the front of this parade in 2022.
My point is simply this: There’s a lot of ways the next two years can go. I think the main factors look obvious right now, but nothing is ever exactly as we think it is. I think Democrats nationally have a good idea of what their goals are and how they will achieve them, but it all comes down to execution. Keep your eye on the ball.