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Texas Republicans squeezed between tariffs and immigration

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The list of things that have failed to dent Texas Republican officials’ loyalty to Donald Trump is long and until now, apparently unshakeable. But that fealty doesn’t seem to extend to tariffs on Mexican goods that most of those Republicans see as an attack on the state’s economy.

The president has threatened to start 5% tariffs on goods coming out of Mexico on Monday, unless that country stops immigrants who are coming to the Mexico-U.S. border. Apprehensions of immigrants are surging, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection; that agency said 133,000 migrants were either apprehended or surrendered on the border last month — an increase of 32% from April.

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The president’s ultimatum is designed to put Mexico into a vise. But Texas Republican officeholders — especially the ones who’ll be on the ballot next year — are caught in the same squeeze play.

As University of Texas/Texas Tribune pollsters James Henson and Joshua Blank wrote this week, those GOP politicians are parked between their strong support for stricter immigration enforcement and their strong support for business.

That duality is evident in most Republican officials’ comments about the situation. They like the border part and they don’t like the tariffs.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is running for reelection in 2020, has said through aides that he “supports the President’s commitment to securing our border, but he opposes this across-the-board tariff which will disproportionately hurt Texas.” The Dallas Morning News quoted the senator putting it more colorfully: “Tariffs are a useful tool, but they’re not great policy. That gun kicks just as hard as it shoots.”

His Texas colleague in the Senate, Ted Cruz, has said the ultimatum would be great if it works and awful if it doesn’t. According to The Washington Post, he told emissaries from the White House to go back to work with a message from the Senate: “You didn’t hear a single yes.” The Texas Tribune’s Julián Aguilar talked to business people and analysts on the border and elsewhere who said the economic impact of tariffs could be devastating.

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Gov. Greg Abbott put the blame on Congress for not fixing the immigration system, but also put some daylight between his position and Trump’s: “I’ve previously stated my opposition to tariffs due to the harm it would inflict on the Texas economy, and I remain opposed today,” Abbott said. “Nevertheless, the president is trying to address this emergency.”

Not everyone sounded that one-hand-on-the-other-hand note. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in an interview this week, was solidly with Trump. “This is sending a loud and clear message to Mexico: You better help us out,” Patrick said in an interview on Odessa’s KOSA-TV. “And so, I understand why he did it, and I think they’ll come to the table, quite frankly, long before the tariffs last very long.”

Patrick isn’t on the ballot in 2020. Neither is Abbott, nor Cruz. Cruz won by just 2.6 percentage points in November, but doesn’t have to worry about it for a while; he won’t be on the ballot again — if he runs again — until 2024, when we’re in the next presidential election. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Texas by almost 9 percentage points. In 2018, Abbott did better against Lupe Valdez, winning by more than 13 percentage points; Patrick’s win over Democrat Mike Collier last year was under 5 percentage points. Those numbers don’t really explain any of their takes on immigration and tariffs.

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Proximity to the next elections — or, if you prefer, vulnerability — does a better job. Republican members of the Texas delegation, who’ll be on the ballot with Cornyn and the president in 2020, are calling the tariffs a tax that would be particularly hard on Texas. They obviously don’t want to be responsible if tariffs prompt voters next year to vote their pocketbooks — against incumbents.

But they don’t like the immigration problem, either, which leaves them in that political quandary: Loyal to Trump, against the immigration surge, against those tariffs on Mexico — and holding their breath as the deadline looms.

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Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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