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Abortion ban, permitless carry, elections bill: The week that solidified Texas' hard right turn after the 2020 election 

click to enlarge Flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, and House Speaker Dade Phelan, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference at the Capitol on June. 16, 2021. - TEXAS TRIBUNE / SOPHIE PARK
  • Texas Tribune / Sophie Park
  • Flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, and House Speaker Dade Phelan, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference at the Capitol on June. 16, 2021.
Two years ago, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was on the radio explaining why he was not championing the so-called “heartbeat bill” to block abortions as early as six weeks, as he pushed for a series of other anti-abortion measures that legislative session.

“On the ‘heartbeat bill,’ to be candid with you, there was a lot of discussion in the pro-life arena … and it was not something that was the highest priority,” Patrick said in the May 2019 interview.

On Wednesday, a similar proposal became the law of the land in Texas.

“I pray that every other state will follow our lead in defense of life,” Patrick said in a statement Thursday morning.

Texas’ new near-total abortion ban, one of the most restrictive in the nation, punctuated a week that brought into stunning relief just how far the state’s political pendulum has swung to the right since the 2020 election. Another law long sought by hardline conservatives, allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license or training, also went into effect Tuesday. A day later, lawmakers sent to Gov. Greg Abbott the elections bill that caused House Democrats to shut down the Legislature in protest for nearly six weeks, putting the state on the precipice of having the toughest voting laws in the country. All the while, a slew of other conservative proposals championed by state Republican leaders continued to advance in the Legislature, including a bill that nearly triples previous state spending on border security that will contribute to the building of a state-funded border wall.

A year ago, the state was in a much different place politically. Democrats were optimistic they were on the verge of a historic breakthrough in a Republican bastion, hopeful that President Joe Biden would flip the state, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn would lose reelection and that they would pick up multiple congressional seats and capture the state House majority. They came up woefully short on each front.

“It was a pretty rough election in 2020, but we won and we won pretty big, frankly, with the level of opposition that we faced, and now was the time to do what we said we were gonna do,” said state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

There have been at least a few factors driving the hard right turn since November 2020. A new House speaker who let through bills that his predecessors resisted. A governor more eager than ever to appease his right flank. And Republicans in office everywhere who have been less encumbered with fears about the coming election than they were ahead of the 2020 election, when they used the session to prioritize bread-and-butter issues like public education and property taxes.

For Democrats, the barrage of conservative policy this year has been especially devastating considering what could have been.

“It is so deeply disappointing that, had we made gains [as Democrats], we might not see the worst of what is happening right now,” said Joanna Cattanach, the Democrat who ran and lost in what was supposed to be one of the most flippable state House districts in Dallas last year. “This isn’t the state that I recognize.”

In another gut-punch to Democrats who spent a dramatic summer fighting the bill, Republicans ultimately prevailed in their effort to further tighten the voting rules in a state where they are already notorious for their strictness. The final bill, which Abbott is expected to sign in the coming days, would prohibit local efforts to expand access to the ballot, like drive-thru voting and the universal distribution of mail-in ballot applications.

The conservative crusade at the Capitol has played out while Texans grapple with issues that transcend politics, including the aftermath of the winter storm disaster that left millions without power and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Abbott has largely sought to put the state response to those two crises in the rearview mirror, declaring that the Legislature did all it needed to respond to the power outages during the regular session and insisting that Texas is “past the time of government mandates” when it comes to COVID-19.

Texans have been left “dour and divided,” University of Texas pollsters said Thursday as they unveiled their latest survey. The University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll found 52% of Texans believe the state is headed in the wrong direction, the worst measure of that since the poll started in 2008. Abbott’s approval rating was also at a record low in the poll, with 41% of voters approving of his job performance and 50% disapproving.

There was some good news for Republicans, though. On the top legislative issue of the summer — the elections bill — voters said they supported it by a margin of 14 percentage points and disapproved of Democratic quorum break over the legislation by an 11-point margin.

Rodney Ellis, a former Democratic state senator from Houston who is now a Harris County commissioner, said he has seen the erosion of a bipartisan tradition in the Legislature that stemmed from a “respect for the institution” which he thinks is lacking today.

“[Lt. Gov.] Bill Hobby, [Lt. Gov.] Bob Bullock, Gov. [George W.] Bush had a healthy respect for the institutions and I think what’s happening now is people are being driven by blind ambition,” he said. “People let their personal ambition get ahead of the institution.”

Abortion and guns

If there are two issues that epitomize Texas Republicans’ rightward tack this year, they are abortion and guns. For multiple legislative sessions, GOP lawmakers had been chipping away at abortion access in Texas, but one of the most extreme proposals had not gained traction: a bill that would ban abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

That changed this spring, when the Legislature easily passed the ban on the procedure that made no exception for rape or incest.

Republicans had on their side something they did not the last time they met: a newly solidified conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court with last year’s addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The new 6-3 makeup meant that Texas’ anti-abortion laws, which often are the subject of extensive legal battles, would have a decisively more receptive audience with the highest court in the land.

John Seago, legislative director of the anti-abortion Texas Right to Life, said the new Supreme Court composition removed the last justification that many reluctant lawmakers had for not supporting the abortion restriction — that it would face a certain fate in the courts. Their faith in the newly expanded conservative majority was affirmed this week when the court declined to block the abortion law for now.

“They ran out of excuses,” Seago said, “and so they knew they had to do something big and bold.”

The change in the House speaker, however, was “really the most important shift politically,” Seago said, referring to Beaumont Republican Dade Phelan’s ascension to the job in January. Phelan, a Catholic, had supported restrictions on abortion in the past, including efforts to defund groups like Planned Parenthood for providing abortions and bills penalizing doctors who fail to care for infants born after abortions — an extremely rare circumstance.

Phelan also has been cited as a decisive factor behind the success of a law allowing permitless carry of handguns which, like the abortion legislation, stalled for multiple sessions before a breakthrough this year. Phelan supported permitless carry as a member, appointed another supporter of it to chair the committee it would go through and allowed it to come up for a vote on the floor. It passed with even several Democrats voting for it and put pressure to act on the Senate, where Patrick overcame his longtime antipathy toward the proposal and was able to fashion a version that satisfied some concerns from law enforcement groups.

Jerry Patterson, a Republican who served in the Senate from 1993 to 1999 and authored the state’s law allowing concealed carry of firearms, said a law allowing the permitless carry of a handgun would have been “virtually impossible” before today.

“There would have been absolutely no way that we would have passed constitutional carry in the ’90s or the 2000s,” said Patterson, who also served as land commissioner from 2003 to 2015. “Today’s a different day.”

More to come

Not content with the staunchly conservative regular session that ran from January to May, GOP lawmakers have continued to push right in the two special sessions that followed. The governor alone gets to set the agenda for the special sessions — and Abbott has seized the opportunity to tackle unfinished business from the regular session and add on conservative issues of the day that have cropped up since then.

More than at any point in his governorship, Abbott appears most responsive to criticism on his right, whether it be from Patrick — long an animating conservative force — or the fellow Republicans challenging him for reelection. He has attracted at least three primary challengers, including former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and Allen West, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas — both of whom have cast Abbott as lacking conservative bonafides.

Weeks after Huffines began campaigning on Texas building its own border wall, Abbott announced the state would do so. After some conservatives complained the ban on teaching “critical race theory” that passed during the regular session was watered down, Abbott told lawmakers to make it tougher in the special sessions. And amid persistent criticism from primary challengers that he was not cracking down on gender-affirming care for transgender Texas children, Abbott took it on, getting the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to deem the treatment child abuse.

One of the more recent pressure points on Abbott has been a proposed audit of the 2020 election in Texas, even though Trump comfortably won the state and Abbott’s own secretary of state at the time said it was a smooth affair. The Senate jumped to life on the idea this week, hastily passing legislation Thursday that would open the door to county audits of the 2020 election.

To Democrats, it is just the latest example of Republicans going all out to address baseless concerns that the election was stolen.

​​“I’m just somewhat amazed at the length that somebody will go to continue to clog up the system and create doubt on our elections because someone has concerns, someone believes this, someone believes that,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, during the Senate debate. “We cannot be changing the law every time someone or some person thinks, ‘Well, I don’t feel confident in our elections.’”

Abbott has not said where he is on the audit bill, but at least one primary challenger has been agitating for it.

“I have always been in favor of election audits,” Huffines tweeted Thursday afternoon.

In another sign of the kind of pressures that Abbott is up against on his right, his three best-known primary challengers have all RSVP'd for a November town hall hosted by a Texas secessionist group, the Texas Nationalist Movement. The group says Abbott has declined.

2022 election

Republicans are brimming with confidence as they approach the 2022 election. They control the redistricting process, giving them the power to draw more favorable state and federal legislative districts. It will be the first midterm election under a new president, which historically favors the party out of power. And they are newly playing offense in South Texas, where Biden underperformed last year.

“I am extremely confident that we’re gonna gain seats in the … Texas House,” the new Texas GOP Chairman, Matt Rinaldi, said in a recent interview. “I’m extremely confident we’re gonna gain seats in the U.S. Congress. I’m extremely confident it’s gonna be a great election for Republicans all around.”

Democrats are still missing a serious candidate for governor, an absence that became more glaring this week with all eyes on Texas Republicans. Many are waiting to see whether former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke runs, though he has suggested he will not make that decision until he sees through the current voting rights battle in Washington, D.C., an ambiguous timeline. In the meantime, he has stayed politically active, raising money for the state Democrats who were fighting the elections bill and registering voters across the state.

“I don’t know what Beto is doing but that sure as heck looks like a campaign to me,” Cattanach said.

Beyond O’Rourke, the bench of potential Abbott challengers is thin.

One Democrat who has already stepped up to run statewide is Mike Collier, who is challenging Patrick for lieutenant governor after coming within 5 percentage points of him four years ago. Once O’Rourke makes up his mind, Collier said, he is “highly confident we’ll have a very strong governor candidate in a timely manner,” whether it is O’Rourke or somebody else.

Collier said the odds of a Democrat winning statewide next year have “gone up dramatically in just the last two weeks.”

“They don’t feel like they have any competition, so they just keep lurching rightward, rightward, rightward,” Collier said of Texas Republicans. “I’ve always known the day would come that they would go so far to the right that they couldn’t come back and win a general election.”

Correction, Sept. 4, 2021: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the version of the six-week abortion ban passed into law this year was the same one considered in 2019. The 2019 legislation would have been enforced with a criminal penalty, which is not included in the current law.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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