GOP stumbles give Democrats new hope in Texas

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Republicans have endured a rocky start to the year, raising hopes among Lone Star State Democrats that they can regain momentum after a disappointing 2020 cycle.

The power grid failure during a rare polar vortex that led to a humanitarian crisis last month drew attention to the GOP’s leadership in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly a quarter century.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrio of Senate Republicans urges Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia next week MORE’s (R-Texas) brief trip to Cancun during the crisis ignited anger and severe blowback, potentially doing further damage to a political career that had been hobbled by his involvement in challenging the Electoral College vote count on the day of the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill.

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Last week — on Texas Independence Day — Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and fully reopening the economy, despite Texas lagging in vaccination rates and carrying a higher coronavirus infection rate than the national average. That move provoked a blistering response from President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE, and even drew criticism from fellow red state governors.

Texas Democrats are still licking their wounds after a dismal 2020 showing.

But the choppy two months in the national spotlight for Texas Republicans has Democrats fired up about 2022 as they seek to win the swing districts they lost in the last cycle and potentially even the governor’s mansion in a state that is slowly becoming more purple.

“People in the Democratic circles I run with, and the people that are the activists in the state, see that Republicans have been seriously wounded in this whole debacle,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “The final straw was the lifting of the restrictions just before Spring Break. It’s caused a lot of people in the state, from Democratic activists to ordinary citizens, to question the leadership and the sanity of the people at the top.”

Republicans aren’t sweating it yet.

Heading into 2020, Democrats in Texas were talking big about picking up additional House seats, taking the state legislature, and potentially even pushing Biden over the top in a state that hasn’t voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in 45 years.

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Despite seeing a surge of new voters, Democrats did not pick up any of the House seats they targeted. Democrats underperformed among Latino voters, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley, and failed to cut into the GOP majority in the statehouse. Former President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE carried Texas by nearly 6 points and Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Data reveal big opportunity to finish the vaccine job MORE (R-Texas) cruised to reelection by more than 9 points.

A 2020 autopsy by the state Democratic Party largely blamed the pandemic, saying it prevented Democrats from making in-person contacts with Hispanic voters.

To be sure, Republicans are troubled by their own weakness in the Texas suburbs, which are among the fastest growing in the country due to an influx of economic migrants from blue states. Texas could be a plurality-Hispanic state in the near future.

But Trump did surprisingly well among Latino voters in 2020. There are massive institutional advantages the Republicans have here, underscored by the tens of millions of dollars the party raised for a last-minute voter registration and get-out-the-vote drive that swamped the underfunded Texas Democrats.

There’s also a cultural hurdle for Democrats to overcome. Texas is a fiercely independent state and Republicans say that Democrats here are dragged down by the national culture wars on everything from immigration to cancel culture and woke orthodoxy.

“For about 10 or 15 years, Republicans were asleep, but in the last cycle Republicans became aware that needing to defend the state from a Democratic takeover is a real issue,” said George Seay, a Dallas businessman and top GOP fundraiser in the state. “But the truth is, it’s just not there for Democrats for as long as 40 percent of Hispanics are voting for Republicans. It may be in their future if Republicans nominate career political hacks, but if we nominate decent people, it will be tough for Democrats.”

Abbott’s decision to be ahead of the curve in lifting the mask mandate and reopening the economy is a risk that could have public health and electoral consequences if it goes wrong.

At the moment, Texas Republicans are cheering the news in a state where many feel the federal government has overreached during the pandemic.

Other conservative governors are being more cautious, including Kay IveyKay IveyAlabama mother says she regrets not getting vaccinated after losing son to COVID-19 Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines Overnight Health Care: St. Louis reimposes mask mandate | Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry MORE in deep-red Alabama, who extended the mask mandate into April.

Many private businesses will continue to require masks. The H-E-B grocery store chain, a cultural institution in Texas and one of the largest privately owned companies in the country, says it expects patrons to continue to mask up.

“I don't know what the big rush is to get rid of the masks. These masks save lives," Jim Justice, the Republican governor of West Virginia, said on CNN this week. “We’re going to do the smart thing in West Virginia. We’re not going to do the thing that’s politically correct.”

Abbott, who has said he’ll run for reelection in 2022, is believed to harbor presidential ambitions.

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“Abbott is not by nature a risk-taker. He consulted experts, and he felt comfortable with the advice and of course one important piece was the understanding that people in Texas don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do,” said Bill Miller, a prominent lobbyist in Texas who has consulted for both Republicans and Democrats. “That’s the nature of the state, and he felt good about the advice he was getting after the storm and felt like he could impart some good news on a state that had just been hit hard by the storm.”

The power and water outages from the storm created a political and humanitarian disaster in Texas. There was an effort on the right to blame the Green New Deal and windmills that froze, even though natural gas and thermal power failures are believed to be the primary culprits behind the outages.

Republicans say most of the blame is now falling on the leaders of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the independent organization that runs the electrical grid.

They say that other than Cruz, most GOP leaders in the state comported themselves well through the crisis and that the state legislature will move quickly to address the shortfalls.

“It was bad, but the governor and the state legislature actually did a good job of getting ahead of things and communicating and we had state lawmakers that just did tremendous work,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist. “Cruz definitely took a blow, but it was a polar vortex. Voters will cast ballots here based on the economy, which is booming and now we’re opening up.”

Still, Democrats have reasons to be optimistic.

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They increased turnout here in 2020 by more than 30 percent over 2016. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) near-miss against Cruz in 2018 showed Democrats can be competitive in statewide races. O’Rourke could be gearing up to challenge Abbott in 2022.

Hinojosa said Democrats are looking at Georgia, and the voter registration efforts led by Stacey Abrams there, as the model for how to turn Texas blue.

But he said the effort will require financial support from national Democrats after the Biden campaign declined to invest serious money in Texas in 2020.

“This kind of an effort requires recognition from national Democrats,” Hinojosa said. “Texas is so big the only way to get us over that last hump we need to get over is by investing national money here.”