As Donald Trump mounts his 2024 presidential bid, his support among Texas politicos is waning

Once a political force of nature with Texas Republicans, former President Donald Trump’s influence appears to be waning in the state as he mounts a 2024 presidential campaign and the state’s legislative session gets underway.

About two months into his comeback bid, few prominent Texas Republicans have endorsed Trump — and some are showing more willingness to cross him publicly. His recent blaming of abortion restrictions for Republicans’ midterm election losses sparked disagreement across the Texas GOP spectrum, and state Republicans have disregarded his preferences as they navigated the races for U.S. House speaker and Republican National Committee chair.

The developments are a notable shift from the last several years in Texas, where Trump has had a deep pool of loyal political allies. State Republicans went all-out to praise his presidency, and they enthusiastically courted his endorsement in their own campaigns. If any disagreed with him, they mostly kept it to themselves, fearful of retaliation from primary voters — or Trump himself.

Trump, the only president to be impeached twice, picked up little support in Texas beyond the usual suspects after he announced his reelection bid for the White House in mid-November. He got the endorsements of two predictable loyalists: Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who had already endorsed Trump for a comeback campaign about a year ago, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, whom Trump has teased as a potential U.S. attorney general if he wins the White House again.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been silent on the former president’s candidacy. Abbott, a potential 2024 candidate himself, got Trump’s endorsement in his primary last year but kept his distance during the general election, skipping an October rally in Texas.

Meanwhile, Trump’s two-time campaign chair in Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has signaled support for Trump’s comeback bid but stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.

Notably, a large majority of the Texas Republicans in the 118th Congress — 20 out of 25 — got Trump’s endorsement in the 2022 election. Of those members, only three have returned the favor and backed Trump for 2024: freshman U.S. Rep. Wesley Hunt of Houston, Rep. Troy Nehls of Richmond and Rep. Ronny Jackson of Amarillo, Trump’s former White House doctor. Texas’ U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have signaled openness to supporting someone beside Trump, and Cornyn has said he would like to “see some new blood.”

Heading into the legislative session, state House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has become notably outspoken against Trump after staying out of the fray since he took over the gavel in 2021. After Trump’s candidate Herschel Walker lost the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia last month, Phelan tweeted that “having the best candidate actually matters” and retweeted other users making the same point. Then, on New Year’s Day, after Trump made a social media post saying it was the “abortion issue,” not Trump, that caused Republicans to underwhelm in the midterms, Phelan responded with his most direct criticism to date.

“GOP has lost control of the Senate THREE cycles in a row & it was not the fault of the pro-life movement,” Phelan tweeted, addressing Trump. “It was your hand picked candidates who underperformed & lost ‘bigly’. May 2023-24 bring the GOP new leadership PROUD to protect the unborn.”

Phelan has faced little backlash inside his party for speaking out. To the contrary, more state House Republicans have taken his side, sharing his posts in displays of support and agreement.

“New leadership is necessary to restore the GOP to civility—and will be essential in preventing handing the White House back to the Ds (as Mr. Trump did last time),” state Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, said in a tweet. “I'm proud of Speaker Phelan speaking up and wish the rest of GOP state Speakers and Legislators would follow suit.”

Phelan’s team declined to comment beyond his recent tweets. A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Phelan was not the only prominent Texas Republican to object to Trump’s message about the midterms. Matt Rinaldi, the Texas GOP chair who hails from a further-right wing of the party than Phelan, also sent out a tweet disapproving of Trump’s take. Rinaldi argued Republicans did well in states like Texas that “effectively ended abortion” after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Dobbs wasn’t the problem,” Rinaldi said.

Trump has endured a number of setbacks within his own party. After taking heat for the GOP’s lackluster performance in November, a U.S. House select committee referred him for criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice for his role instigating the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. In December, Trump called for rules, including “those found in the Constitution” to be terminated in order to rehash the 2020 election. That post led to recriminations from Republicans across Capitol Hill, including from Cornyn, who called it “irresponsible.”

Polling suggests Trump remains popular with Texas Republicans — but not as much as he once was. He registered a 75% favorability rating among GOP voters in a December poll from the University of Texas at Austin, down from 82% in October and 85% in February 2021 after he left office.

More interesting has been the drop in intensity of GOP support for Trump, according to the same poll. The percentage of Republican voters who said they had a “very favorable” opinion of Trump was 39% in December; it was 50% in October and 58% in February 2021.

Chris Sacia is a conservative pollster who has been tracking Texas primary voters’ 2024 preferences every month. He noted that before the November election, Trump was averaging a 22-percentage-point lead, but in his latest poll, his advantage was down to 1 point, virtually tied with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“While President Trump’s direct support has noticeably declined, it’s clear that primary voters are not interested in transitioning back to the pre-Trump GOP,” Sacia said in a statement.

Indeed, DeSantis has supplanted Trump as a kind of a new North Star among Texas conservatives, and the next legislative session could feature several proposals that mimic new Florida laws. Patrick has already said he wants the Legislature to pass a version of Florida’s law prohibiting classroom discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity, which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Patrick and Trump have long enjoyed a close relationship, and it came on most vivid display in 2021. Patrick leveraged his friendship with Trump to bash Phelan and build pressure on the Texas House to pass an election audit. He also convinced Trump to make a host of primary endorsements that have allowed Patrick to enter the 2023 legislative session, which started Tuesday, with his most loyal Republican caucus yet.

Yet Patrick responded to Trump’s 2024 launch with a four-sentence Facebook post that praised his announcement speech but did not make a clear endorsement. Trump’s campaign sent emails to reporters afterward flagging Miller’s and Paxton’s statements as endorsements; there was no such email on Patrick’s statement.

Patrick aides did not respond to a request for comment on whether he was endorsing Trump for 2024.

Patrick gave an awkward answer when asked about his Trump support in a podcast interview posted Sunday.

“If he’s running 2024 — I say ‘if he’s running’ — he’s announced he’s running, so I assume he’s running. I have not talked to him since he announced, but we do talk, have talked often,” Patrick said. “If he’s running, I’ll be there supporting him. I think he’ll win the primary, but that’s how we sit here today in January. Who knows what’s ahead.”

In the fight over the U.S. House speakership, three Texas Republicans helped block Kevin McCarthy’s candidacy for days despite Trump’s support of McCarthy, which Trump reiterated emphatically amid the chaos. The three Texas Republicans — Reps. Michael Cloud, Chip Roy and Keith Self — all hail from solidly red districts where opposing Trump could be a vulnerability in a primary, but they seemed unfazed.

While McCarthy credited Trump with helping close the deal on his speakership late Friday night, the Texas trio had already come off the fence hours earlier after they believed they had extracted enough concessions from McCarthy.

There is no love lost between Roy and Trump — they clashed in a previous House leadership election, and Trump declined to endorse Roy for reelection last year despite backing virtually every other GOP member of the Texas delegation. But it was a more consequential decision for Cloud and Self, an incoming freshman who ran as a more pro-Trump Republican than the incumbent he challenged. Trump endorsed Cloud in his 2022 primary as he was drawing a growing group of challengers; Trump endorsed Self after he emerged as the GOP nominee in his district.

Trump’s backing of McCarthy drew open criticism from Michael Quinn Sullivan, the far-right ringleader in Texas politics.

“Why is Donald Trump sticking with this massive loser / swamp-thing?” Sullivan tweeted after McCarthy lost another round of speaker balloting last week.

Texas Republicans’ indifference to Trump has also surfaced in the race for chair of the Republican National Committee. In December, the State Republican Executive Committee unanimously passed a resolution expressing no confidence in Ronna McDaniel, the current RNC chair, who has been a Trump loyalist.

Neither the resolution — nor the SREC’s short discussion of it — made any mention of the former president. Trump has since weighed in on the race, saying he likes both McDaniel and one of her challengers, Harmeet Dhillon.

When it comes to Texas donors, Trump could also be losing steam. Roy Bailey, the Dallas business owner who helped lead Trump’s joint fundraising operation with the RNC, told The Dallas Morning News last month that many contributors are waiting to see if DeSantis enters the 2024 presidential primary.

“There’s no denying that Ron DeSantis’ political star is on the rise, and that’s why you have a primary process,” U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Sherman, said in a TV interview last month. “I’m looking forward to that process, and I think the two heavyweights right now are Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump.”

But who is Fallon supporting? “It’s too early to tell right now,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/11/donald-trump-texas-endorsements/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

The Texas Legislative session begins today. Here are 6 things we’re watching.

Jan. 10, 2023

Lawmakers returned to Austin today for their biennial assembly to pass new laws and decide how to spend the state’s money for the next two years.

Republicans maintained their nearly 30-year dominance over Texas politics in last November’s midterm elections, growing their majorities in both legislative chambers and keeping their grasp on every statewide elected office. That means Texans can expect the Legislature to continue to swing conservative on both fiscal and social matters.

Just how conservative they go will be the main question, as the battle between far-right, socially conservative Republicans and business-oriented GOP legislators, who have tried to move away from fights over social issues, continues within the party.

Democrats, who have been in the minority in both chambers of the Legislature for 20 years, will have limited tools to fend off Republican advances and will have to choose their battles wisely.

With a record-breaking budget surplus, lawmakers will be putting out their hands for funding for their pet projects across the state, and top leaders will no longer have the ready excuse of limited means. But with rising costs due to inflation, lawmakers will also have to factor in how much more they’ll have to spend in the state budget to cover infrastructure and staffing costs that keep the state running.

Texas has seen major challenges since the last time lawmakers assembled in Austin in late 2021: a school shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, higher inflation hitting Texans in their pocketbooks, a record number of migrants attempting to cross the state’s southern border, the outlawing of abortion following a U.S. Supreme Court decision and parents who have grown increasingly agitated about what public schools are teaching their children about gender, sex and race.

With major issues at play in the Capitol, here are six things we are watching as Texas’ 88th legislative session kicks off.

How to spend the budget surplus

The biggest topic of conversation heading into today is how to spend the state’s $32.7 billion budget surplus, and everyone — including top legislative leadership — is chomping at the bit over how to use that cash.

“It’s always easiest to spend other people’s money, so everyone is going to try to get their pet projects done,” said Brian Smith, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

The surplus, or one-time money that was left over from the previous budget cycle, is historic in its enormousness. But not all of it is up for grabs. A share of it is reserved for highway funds, and some of it will flow into the state’s rainy day fund, also called the Economic Stabilization Fund.

Gov. Greg Abbott promised during his campaign to deliver “the largest property tax cut in the history of the state.” He said he wanted to use half of the budget surplus to deliver on that promise. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another property tax relief hawk, has introduced a note of caution, warning the Legislature could not spend half of the surplus without busting its self-imposed spending cap. (The Legislature can vote to spend beyond the cap.)

Patrick, whose railing against property taxes swept him into the Senate in 2007, has said he is committed to cutting property taxes but wants to move cautiously to ensure the state has enough money left over in its rainy day fund for emergency spending and for other state priorities.

In the House, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has suggested allocating some of the surplus to one-time infrastructure spending. That plan carries the advantage of not having to reproduce that spending in the budget every two years, like with property tax relief, which is a recurring state cost.

But there are also other factors to consider. A property tax cut, for example, would more directly benefit homeowners rather than renters. And since a considerable chunk of the surplus comes from an increase in the revenue generated by sales tax, some lawmakers have raised the question about the fairness of rewarding only homeowners when that money has come from Texans across the board.

It’s also unclear how much homeowners would even notice a property tax cut in the form of a homestead exemption. In 2021, lawmakers increased the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, which would save the average homeowner of a $300,000 home about $175 a year.

Lawmakers will also have to weigh additional costs to running the state. Because of inflation, the costs for state services will be more expensive, and state employees will be lagging behind without a cost-of-living adjustment in their salaries.

“Spending is not keeping up with inflation. So we need to do something about what we pay state workers and how we deal with the agencies,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst at Every Texan, a liberal think tank.

“Parental rights”

Republican leaders and lawmakers have targeted “parental rights” at the center of their agendas this session. They want to give parents more say in their children’s education, whether it be the school they attend or the books they read.

How exactly that goal manifests itself in the session remains to be seen. Abbott campaigned for reelection on a “parental bill of rights” that, among other things, seeks to increase the transparency of school curricula and crack down on what he’s called “pornographic” materials in books available to schoolchildren. In some ways, it is a continuation of GOP efforts from 2021 that led to restrictions on how teachers talk about race and gender in classrooms in an effort to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools.

A more divisive concept inside the GOP could be the revival of an effort for school vouchers, or redirecting tax dollars to let parents take their kids out of public schools and send them to other kinds of schools. Abbott voiced his clearest support yet for the idea during his campaign, but it has historically run into opposition from rural Republicans in the House.

Patrick, who oversees the Senate and has considerable power over legislation, has long supported the concept. In a podcast interview posted Sunday, he said he sees it as part of this session’s focus on “parental freedom.”

“Those who oppose school choice, [they say], ‘Oh, vouchers are terrible!’ No, parents deserve the freedom to decide where their kids go to school,” Patrick said.

But in a sign that voucher supporters know they need to try a different tactic this session, Patrick has pitched “bracketing out” rural Texas in any proposal, hoping to appeal to GOP lawmakers in those areas who are fiercely protective of their public schools.

LGBTQ issues and women’s health

Social conservatives are also attempting to crack down on LGBTQ rights this session. Around three dozen bills targeting LGBTQ people had been filed as of last week.

These bills vary from putting restrictions on drag shows to restricting gender-affirming care for transgender children and even criminalizing it. Such care is recommended by major medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, but socially conservative legislators have decried gender-affirming care as “genital mutilation” and “child abuse.”

Still, major leaders like Abbott have supported the push by conservatives to launch child-abuse investigations of parents who provide such care to their children.

Backlash against drag shows has also grown, with far-right groups targeting the shows and accusing performers of “grooming children” — a trope that has historically been used against LGBTQ people.

Lawmakers will also have to figure out how to tackle access to abortion in the state after the procedure was outlawed in Texas law following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case last summer.

Before the November elections, some Republican candidates and lawmakers had expressed an openness to creating exceptions to the state’s abortion ban in cases of rape or incest. But after Republicans maintained their dominance in state politics on Election Day, Smith said he does not see a political motivation for GOP leaders to revisit the issue.

Patrick has been noncommittal about revisiting the restrictions but has suggested he does not see a “groundswell” to do so among Republicans.

“We may see them be proposed and discussed, but they won’t be moving,” Smith said. “And I think the same is true about guns.”

Border security

Last session, the Legislature allocated a record $3 billion toward border security efforts, including Abbott’s highly touted border mission, Operation Lone Star, which has sent thousands of state troopers and National Guard service members to the Texas-Mexico border. Some of that money has also been used to build a border wall, the first in the country funded by state coffers.

But with a record number of migrants trying to cross into the country — U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 2.4 million attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2022 — the funding could not keep up with the large number of resources sent to slow the crossing of migrants.

State lawmakers had to transfer another $1 billion to keep Abbott’s border mission going through 2022, often taking money from underfunded state agencies like the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. More money — ranging from hundreds of millions of dollars to another billion — is expected from the state to continue the effort until the end of the fiscal year in August, DeLuna Castro said.

Still, the number of migrants crossing the southwest border has remained stubbornly high, and state lawmakers will have to decide whether they want to continue spending multiple billions of dollars on an effort that has failed to produce a resounding success.

Patrick has answered in the affirmative, saying the state must continue its spending on border security because Democrats in Washington have abandoned their responsibility on the issue.

“People say, ‘Well, they’re still crossing.’ Yes, they’re still crossing because of President Biden,” Patrick said at a news conference unveiling his legislative priorities. “Without our DPS, without our National Guard, without the state doing what we’re doing, the situation would be far worse ... so we have to keep that up until we get a new president in the White House who hopefully will make border security No. 1 in 2024.”

The issue was also central to Abbott’s governing strategy and his reelection campaign, so he’s expected to also support continued spending on border security.

But there could also be other ramifications and questions lawmakers will attempt to respond to legislatively. As Abbott ramped up the mission to deploy 10,000 service members to the border in the fall of 2021, troops began complaining about poor living conditions, a lack of pay and no sense of mission. The mission has also seen the deaths of 10 troops tied to Operation Lone Star, including five suspected suicides and the death of Bishop Evans, a servicemember who died in the Rio Grande while trying to rescue drowning migrants. The migrants survived.

“Who signs up for the Texas State Guard if you think you’re going to get sent [away for a long time] and not come home?” DeLuna Castro said. “Who signs up for that?”

The “Big Three” dynamic

Sessions always hinge on the relationship among the Big Three — the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker. This time around, there is ample cause for tension from the outset of the session.

The two chamber leaders do not like one another, especially after the marathon of sessions in 2021. Patrick repeatedly criticized Phelan’s management of the House after Democrats broke quorum over the GOP’s priority elections bill. And then Patrick wielded his clout with former President Donald Trump to try to gin up primary opposition to Phelan, who ultimately ran unopposed.

“We have to get along to do the business of the state,” Phelan said in September before dryly adding, “and I have to tell you, our staffs get along very well.”

Phelan, speaking at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin in September, added it had “been a while” since he talked to Patrick.

Abbott and Patrick are also a duo to watch. Like Phelan, Abbott saw Patrick meddle in his primary and took note. And more recently, they are especially at odds when it comes to the fallout from the 2021 power grid collapse.

After Abbott declared later that year that lawmakers had done all they needed to do to fix the grid, Patrick campaigned on improving the grid and has named it a top priority for this session. He wants to build more natural gas capacity, a topic on which Abbott has been silent.

Patrick has sought to downplay any leadership tensions on the issue.

The grid is “fixed for now, but we need to fix it forever,” Patrick told Spectrum News in December.

Democratic strategy

Democrats are returning to the Legislature with very similar numbers — 64 members in the House and 13 in the Senate. But in the House, they have a new caucus chair, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, who is known as more sharp-elbowed than his predecessor, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

“Trey is a much different leader,” Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said in a recent interview. “I anticipate there’ll be a more aggressive nature when combating Republicans on the issues.”

House Democrats already showed a new willingness to fight in 2021 when they broke quorum for weeks in protest of new voting restrictions. Martinez Fischer has not ruled out doing that again as a last resort for trying to derail Republican legislation.

Democrats in the House are also watching to see how much of a seat at the table they get as Phelan faces pressure to do away with committee chairs from the minority party, a longtime tradition. Phelan is highly unlikely to give in, as he has defended the practice as one that sets the Legislature apart from the gridlock in Washington. But he could take other steps to reduce Democratic influence in the House.

If there is any floor fight over committee chairs, it would come on the second day of the session — Wednesday — when the lower chamber typically considers its rules for the session.

House Republicans have a new leader, too. On Monday, their caucus elected a new chair, Rep. Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, previously the treasurer of the caucus. The chair during the 2021 sessions, Rep. Jim Murphy of Houston, did not seek reelection to the House.

Disclosure: Every Texan 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/10/texas-legislature-2023/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas GOP votes unanimously for a new national leader after disappointing midterms

Frustrated with the outcome of the midterm elections, the executive committee of the Texas GOP voted unanimously Saturday to call for new leadership at the national party.

By a vote of 62-0, the State Republican Executive Committee passed a resolution saying it had lost confidence in the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel. The resolution said she “must be replaced” but did not endorse a challenger.

“Under Chairwoman McDaniel’s leadership, the GOP lost both houses of Congress and the White House, and seriously underperformed in 2022 by further losing ground in the Senate and only barely winning a majority in the House,” the resolution said, adding that new leadership is necessary to “address deficiencies in fundraising, messaging, GOTV and election integrity.”

The resolution puts the state party on the front lines of those agitating for a new RNC chair after the Nov. 8 election. Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi had already endorsed a potential challenger to McDaniel, New York U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, though Zeldin announced last week that he would not run.

Texas Republicans generally had a good election, defending all statewide offices by decisive margins. But SREC members cited disappointment with the results nationwide as Republicans captured the House majority by a smaller-than-expected margin and failed to flip the Senate.

Texas Republicans get three votes when the 168-member RNC meets next month for its chair election: Rinaldi, the state party chair; Toni Anne Dashiell, the state’s Republican National Committeewoman; and Robin Armstrong, the state’s Republican National Committeeman. Dashiell is one of 101 RNC members who have already backed McDaniel for reelection, more than enough to win another term.

More opposition has emerged since then, including California RNC member Harmeet Dhillon and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

McDaniel has kept the RNC aligned with former President Donald Trump, who some Republicans have blamed for the party’s underwhelming performance in the midterms. While the Texas GOP has generally embraced Trump — Rinaldi said in January they were the “bold party of Donald Trump” — the executive committee did not offer any commentary Saturday on his role in the midterms.

The anti-McDaniel resolution was offered by Rolando Garcia, an SREC member from Houston, and it generated a short discussion before the unanimous approval. Garcia said “anyone with a pulse would be better than” McDaniel.

“The issue is, why was it that we only had a trickle in the House and we lost control of the Senate, or at least 50-50 in the Senate?” said Francisco “Quico” Canseco, a former congressman from San Antonio who serves on the SREC. “Something is desperately wrong when we cannot energize the American public when the issues are so, so strong.”

Rinaldi acknowledged that he had publicly backed Zeldin but did not say who he would support now that Zeldin has declined to run. He estimated he has received as many as 1,500 emails related to the RNC chair race and said all but one support new leadership.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick diverge ahead of the legislative session on property taxes, power grid

Dec. 6, 2022

"Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick diverge ahead of the legislative session on property taxes, power grid" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The legislative session is more than a month away, but fault lines are already emerging between Texas’ top two Republican leaders on two major issues.

Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick want to use the state’s massive budget surplus to deliver property tax relief, but they appear split on how far to go — and how to pay for it. And in a starker contrast, Patrick has deemed it a top priority to continue fixing the power grid, while Abbott has declared the issue resolved.

“Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott famously said after the 2021 regular legislative session.

Patrick, by contrast, said Wednesday that making the grid more reliable was “the most important thing this session besides managing our money.”

[Texas lawmakers have a $27 billion surplus, but a spending cap complicates their goal of lowering property taxes]

The dueling approaches are coming into focus as lawmakers prepare to return to Austin for the session, which begins Jan. 10. Patrick, who presides over the Senate with enormous influence, is coming back after a decisive reelection win. So is the governor, who will lay out his agenda in his State of the State speech during the opening weeks of the session.

In his race against Democrat Beto O’Rourke, Abbott regularly promised voters on the campaign trail that he would use at least half of the state’s $27 billion surplus toward property tax relief.

On Wednesday, however, Patrick held a news conference at the Capitol where he began to outline his legislative priorities. It came shortly after the Legislative Budget Board, a panel of lawmakers led by Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, voted to allow legislators to spend about $12.5 billion more in the next budget than last cycle — short of the amount Abbott has promised for property tax relief. To spend more, lawmakers would have to bust a constitutional spending cap, and Patrick said he opposed that, saying it “sets a very dangerous precedent.”

At the press conference, Patrick cast doubt on the reality of spending half of the surplus on property taxes, but he suggested there could still be a path.

“I’ve heard some people say we should spend half the [surplus] money on [property tax relief], which would be about $13 billion, but that would bust the spending cap, unless we find some creative ways to do it, and I think we can,” Patrick said. He declined to put a number on the size of any property tax cut but emphasized he wants it to be “robust,” while also laying out a number of other priorities he would like to see funded.

The next day, the governor held firm on his promise.

“More than any other candidate, I campaigned prolifically and daily on saying we would use at least half of the surplus to give back to the people whose money it is in the first place,” Abbott told reporters after an event in Houston, calling it the “most prolific way” to help taxpayers. “We’ll need to get into session to figure out which strategy is the best strategy to use, but the people who deserve that money are the taxpayers of the state of Texas.”

It is unclear if Abbott supports busting the spending cap for property tax relief — a move that would require majorities in both chambers to vote to exceed the set cap for one budget cycle.

Abbott has not floated other ways to meet his campaign promise. Neither Abbott nor Patrick’s office responded to requests for comment.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who specializes in property tax issues and is one of the Senate’s staunchest advocates of property tax relief, downplayed the notion Abbott and Patrick were at odds.

“We’re still in the early stages of this, and right now … maybe it’s not a difference more than a distinction,” Bettencourt said.

The tension is an extension of a general election, in which Abbott and Patrick ran different campaigns when it came to property taxes and the grid. Abbott vowed to deliver the biggest property tax cut in Texas history by returning at least half of the surplus to taxpayers. When the surplus was first revealed in July, Patrick pitched a more modest set of property tax proposals, including $4 billion in property tax relief and upping the homestead exemption to $60,000.

Patrick repeatedly said Wednesday he was concerned about using the surplus for property tax relief that is not sustainable, and he called raising the homestead exemption “something we can afford and maintain.”

On the power grid, Abbott avoided the issue as much as possible in his campaign as his opponent blamed him for the blackouts in 2021 that left millions of Texans without power in a freezing winter storm. When he was asked about it over the past year, he exuded confidence. During his only debate with O’Rourke, Abbott said the grid was “more resilient and reliable than it’s ever been.”

On the other hand, Patrick actively campaigned on his ongoing commitment to fixing the grid. He boasted about how he successfully demanded the resignation of Abbott’s appointees overseeing the grid and he plainly said there was more work to do in the next session.

Patrick said Wednesday he would fight hard during this session to ensure Texas builds more natural gas plants, which he argues will prevent another grid collapse like the one in 2021 that left millions without power.

“We can’t leave here next spring unless we have a plan for more natural gas power,” Patrick said.

Patrick’s news conference came a day after the head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas warned that the grid is still vulnerable to extreme winter weather conditions. ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission, which regulates electricity infrastructure, are currently working to redesign the state’s power market, but a plan they released earlier this month has not gone over well in the Senate.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators released a letter that effectively pumped the brakes on the plan, saying it does not “guarantee new dispatchable generation in a timely and cost-effective manner.”

The PUC chair, Peter Lake, argued during a committee hearing Monday that the current plan would cause more natural gas power plants to be built. But amid lawmaker concerns that they would have enough time to make changes to the proposal, he suggested it was in limbo, saying the PUC did not plan to move forward with implementing the plan "until we receive guidance from the Legislature.”

Abbott and Patrick make up two-thirds of what is known as the “Big 3,” the other member being the state House speaker, Phelan. The Republican speaker has not been as aggressive in shaping pre-session expectations, but he has expressed caution about deploying the surplus for property tax relief in a way that cannot be sustained beyond this session.

During a speech last month in Houston, said he wants to see property tax relief but warned that the surplus will not be as big two years from now. Plus, “no one’s even considering how much more expensive it is gonna to be to run government next cycle,” he said, referring to increased costs that the Texas Department of Transportation is facing due to inflation.

Phelan has generally been seen as more aligned with Abbott on grid issues, if only because he has not been outspoken on it since the last time the Legislature met.

Phelan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Erin Douglas contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/06/greg-abbott-dan-patrick-power-grid-property-taxes/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Republican loser requests recount after loss in South Texas battleground race

Republican Adam Hinojosa requested a recount Wednesday in his hard-fought race for a state Senate seat in South Texas.
Hinojosa lost the race for Senate District 27 after finishing 659 votes behind Democrat Morgan LaMantia, according to official results that were released Monday. There were 175,415 total votes in the election.
“In any election with such a small margin of victory, even very small mistakes in the counting of the vote could have enough impact to change the final result,” Hinojosa said in a statement.

He added he was asking for a recount in three counties “in which there were large numbers of paper or mail-in ballots.” His recount petition says the three counties are the ones at the highly populated southern end of the district in the Rio Grande Valley: Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties.

LaMantia said in a statement that Hinojosa’s recount request was “democracy taking its course” and that she was confident her win would be upheld.

Senate District 27, where Democratic incumbent Eddie Lucio Jr. is retiring, was part of Republicans’ push to gain new ground in South Texas in the Nov. 8 election, which produced mixed results.

Hinojosa had the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former President Donald Trump.

LaMantia led by 569 votes coming out of election night. She declared victory then.

Under Texas law, a candidate is eligible to request a recount if their deficit amounts to 10% or less of the winner’s numbers of votes. The deadline to request a recount is 5 p.m. Wednesday.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/30/south-texas-senate-district-27-recount/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Republicans in tight races open to rape and incest exceptions to abortions

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

Some Republican candidates in competitive down-ballot races are talking about adding rape and incest exceptions to Texas’ near-total abortion ban. But the man who signed the ban into law — Gov. Greg Abbott — has repeatedly declined to say if he supports them.

In some battleground state legislative races, Republicans have said they are open to revising the ban to include the exceptions — and even voiced confidence that the Legislature will do so when it reconvenes in January. That has drawn deep skepticism from their Democratic opponents, who are mounting campaigns centered on abortion rights.

“I fully envision we’re gonna come back and tweak the current bills and make it more reasonable,” state Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, said at a candidate forum earlier this month, predicting that a proposal to add rape and incest exceptions would get a committee hearing.

State Rep. John Lujan, another San Antonio Republican, said during a recent forum that he is “almost positive” the next Legislature will consider such exceptions and that he would vote for such a bill. Adam Hinojosa, running for an open state Senate seat in South Texas, has referred to rape and incest as “commonsense exceptions that we may consider.” And Jamee Jolly, running for an open state House seat in Collin County, has suggested the need for a “conversation” next session about the exceptions.

Yet such statements are complicated by Abbott’s own reluctance to talk about the topic. He has declined to say whether he supports adding such exceptions, only saying that he wants to clarify the law’s existing exception to protect the life of the pregnant patient.

Any legislation that lacks the governor’s support is unlikely to make it far in the Legislature — he holds veto power, and the GOP majorities generally try to align with him on policy.

It is not just the battleground candidates talking about the rape and incest exceptions. Both state House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, have raised the possibility of addressing the exceptions next session, with Patrick predicting there will be “a lot of discussion.” And two GOP state senators have already expressed support for at least a rape exception.

To Democrats, the Republicans’ comments are empty pre-election talk. They are noting the GOP candidates have already established anti-abortion records and are not proactively advocating for exceptions, anyway.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that my opponent refuses to commit to fighting for exemptions for rape, incest, and life of the mothers, while Texas is in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis,” Jolly’s Democratic rival, Mihaela Plesa, said in a statement. “We need a representative who will be strong in their convictions; not a representative who is only willing to have a conversation about an issue that impacts the lives of so many Texans.”

While Plesa faces Jolly, Democrat Frank Ramirez is challenging Lujan, Democrat Morgan LaMantia is up against Hinojosa and Democrat Becca DeFelice is running against Allison. All the Democratic candidates have made abortion rights central to their election campaigns.

The Republican candidates declined to comment further to The Texas Tribune on their positions.

To be clear, the exceptions in question would do little to expand abortion access in Texas given how rare it is for a woman to seek an abortion due to rape. A 2004 study from the Guttmacher Institute found that 1% of women who got an abortion said it was because they were a victim of rape, while less than 0.5% attributed their decision to being a victim of incest.

In the states that do allow such exceptions, the process to qualify can be onerous, sometimes requiring a police report or doctor’s certification. The vast majority of sexual assaults are never reported to police; for people experiencing domestic violence, it can be difficult or dangerous to report to authorities.

At least 13 states have banned abortion in most cases since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and only a few have exceptions for rape or incest.

But the lack of exceptions has become the most discussed aspect of the abortion law ahead of the Nov. 8 election. Abbott’s Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, has hammered the governor over the lack of exceptions, calling it an extremist position and often pointing to polling that shows it is deeply unpopular.

An Emerson College/The Hill poll released Monday found that two-thirds of likely voters in Texas support abortion being legal in cases of rape or incest.

The debate over exceptions extends to noncompetitive races — where it has shown how Republicans risk alienating their own party. One safe-seat GOP state senator, Robert Nichols, has said he would support a rape exception, as has another, Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston.

Nichols was the first to do so and subsequently saw the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life suspend its endorsement of his reelection campaign. Nichols did not return a request for comment at the time.

“How politicians view exceptions reveals whether they have a consistent ethical principle motivating their pro-life views, or if its kind of a surface value,” Texas Right to Life’s president, John Seago, told the Tribune at the time.

It would be a remarkable turnaround if the Legislature revised the abortion ban in their next meeting. Virtually every Republican in the Legislature voted for Senate Bill 8, which banned nearly all abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy starting last fall, as well as House Bill 1280, the “trigger” ban that went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

One of those Republicans, state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, had a change of heart and subsequently filed a bill providing rape and incest exceptions to SB 8, but it garnered only four GOP joint authors and went nowhere. When Abbott was asked in a TV interview if he would sign the bill, he said the question was a “hypothetical that’s not going to happen because that bill is not going to reach my desk.”

Asked in recent media appearances about rape and incest exceptions, Abbott has been noncommittal.

Abbott has said he is instead focused on clarifying the existing exception that allows for abortions to protect the life of the pregnant patient. He has expressed concern that some doctors are declining to treat certain situations where the pregnant patient’s life is at risk.

“There’s going to be things ranging from just across the board with regard to different proposals, addressing abortion, and we’ll see what comes up,” Abbott said in a Houston TV interview earlier this month, reiterating his interest in “doing more to protect the life of the mother.”

“Those are the kinds of laws that I’m going to be looking to advance, and we’ll see where the others land.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/10/26/texas-republicans-abortion-exception-rape-incest/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Trump to hold rally in South Texas two days before early voting

Former President Donald Trump is holding a rally in Texas two days before early voting starts for the November election.

The rally will be Saturday in Robstown, outside Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast. Republicans are targeting districts in the area as they try to take over South Texas’ congressional seats.

The rally will start at 7 p.m. at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds, according to a media advisory. It said speakers in addition to Trump would be announced later.

The advisory said he would speak “in support of his unprecedented effort to advance the MAGA agenda by energizing voters and highlighting the slate of 33-0 Trump Endorsed America First candidates in the Great State of Texas.” The 33-0 figure refers to his endorsement record in the Texas primaries and runoff earlier this year, which included some incumbents who faced nominal or no opposition.

Among Trump’s endorsees is Gov. Greg Abbott, who is fighting against Democrat Beto O’Rourke for a third term. Abbott’s campaign did not immediately say whether he would be at the rally.

In South Texas, Trump has endorsed Monica De La Cruz, a Republican running for an open seat that runs from the Rio Grande Valley up to outside San Antonio.

Karl Rove says Texas’ abortion law is too extreme

Sept. 24, 2022

"Karl Rove says Texas’ abortion law is too extreme" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove said Saturday that Texas’ abortion law is too extreme, underscoring an increasingly public discomfort with the measure among Republicans.

Rove made the comment during an exchange at a Texas Tribune Festival panel about elections following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. He said voters in Kansas had defeated an “extremist measure on abortion,” defining extreme as “essentially no abortion, no exceptions.”

“Do you think Texas is too extremist?” Tribune CEO Evan Smith asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Rove replied. “I think it’s gonna create a real problem for Republicans in the Legislature next year when they have to deal with it.”

Texas lawmakers passed a “trigger law” last year that automatically went into effect soon after the Roe decision and banned abortion without exceptions for rape or incest. Polls show very few voters support the lack of exceptions, and the law has complicated an election cycle that has been trending in Republicans’ favor on other issues.

Rove is not the only prominent Republican voice to express misgivings with Texas’ abortion ban. The speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan, said Friday at the Tribune Festival that his chamber might revisit the law, saying he has heard from members who are also concerned about the lack of exceptions for rape or incest. Also speaking Friday at the Festival, state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he would support a rape exception.

However, Rove noted that he supports the court’s ruling and that decisions on abortions should be left to elected officials.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/24/robert-gibbs-karl-rove-texas-tribune-festival/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Beto O'Rourke has no regrets after interrupting Greg Abbott's Uvalde press conference

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for governor, said Saturday he was taking the latest polls putting him behind Gov. Greg Abbott by mid single digits with a “grain of salt.”

O’Rourke spoke for an hour Saturday with The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright during the third day of The Texas Tribune Festival. His appearance came with less than two months until the November election, when he is challenging the Republican incumbent.

O’Rourke is currently behind Abbott by 7.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. A Spectrum News/Siena College survey released Wednesday found O’Rourke losing to Abbott, 50% to 43%, among likely voters.

Speaking with Wright, O’Rourke repeated the age-old political maxim that the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. He also pointed out that in his blockbuster 2018 U.S. Senate race, he outperformed polls by finishing within 3 percentage points of Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“I take these polls with a grain of salt,” O’Rourke said of the latest surveys.

O’Rourke said he’s betting on a big turnout of voters who disagree with Texas’ recent abortion restrictions in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. He pointed out that voters have been energized by the issue of abortion rights in places like Kansas, which held a referendum on abortion rights in August and gave Democrats a win by an unexpectedly large margin.

O’Rourke doesn’t regret confronting Abbott in Uvalde

Responding to an audience question, O’Rourke suggested he did not regret interrupting an Abbott news conference in the days following the Uvalde school shooting in May.

“No, I don’t regret being there,” O’Rourke said. “I wanted to fight for those families in Uvalde, for our families across the state. The best time to stop the next school shooting is right now.”

At the May 25 news conference, O’Rourke stood up and walked toward the stage as he blamed the shooting on Abbott’s refusal to consider new gun restrictions. The confrontation drew an angry response from the Republicans onstage with Abbott, including Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, who called O’Rourke a “sick son of a b*tch.”

O’Rourke has campaigned heavily on reining in gun violence after the Uvalde massacre. He has focused most intently on raising the age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21, a proposal that Abbott has argued would be “unconstitutional.” Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said Friday at the Tribune Festival that his chamber will not pass any proposal to raise the age, saying the “votes aren’t there.”

O’Rourke promises Democrats he won’t let them down in South Texas

Democrats got a wakeup call in 2020 in South Texas, a predominantly Hispanic region where President Joe Biden underperformed significantly. O’Rourke said Republicans “showed up with a very strong, compelling economic message” and former President Trump offered a “false choice” between keeping businesses closed and reopening them during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What did we have on our side? Nothing,” O’Rourke said. “Candidate Biden didn’t spend a dime or a day in the Rio Grande Valley — or really anywhere in Texas, for that matter — once we got down to the homestretch of the general election.”

O’Rourke said Democrats also erred by campaigning remotely during the pandemic while Republicans stumped in person.

Now Republicans are aggressively targeting South Texas, both in the governor’s race and down-ballot contests.

“I am making sure that we do not commit the same sin as some Democrats before me have committed, which is take voters of color — Black voters and Latinos — for granted,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke noted that his fluency is Spanish is a “competitive advantage,” promising to participate in a fully Spanish debate regardless of whether Abbott shows up.

US Rep. Ronny Jackson, prominent Trump ally, weighing US Senate run in 2026

Sept. 19, 2022

U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, recently launched Spanish-language TV ads in his reelection campaign — an unexpected use of campaign resources given that he is sitting in one of this election season’s safest congressional districts in the state.

Jackson, best known as the doctor to former President Donald Trump, launched the TV spots last week in a bid to introduce himself to Latino voters. While his rural, Panhandle district is predominantly white, his campaign says it is an effort to grow his appeal with an ascendant voting bloc statewide.

That could be because he’s interested in running for a higher office. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is not up for reelection until 2026, but Jackson is already considering running for the Senate seat, according to two people familiar with his thinking who were not authorized to speak on the record. Jackson did not respond to a request for comment, and Cornyn’s campaign declined to comment.

Cornyn has taken a hit with Republican voters in the state after he led GOP negotiations on the bipartisan gun restriction bill that Congress passed after the Uvalde school shooting in May.

Since his election two years ago, Jackson has wasted little time making allies in the Texas congressional delegation, and his well-known association with former President Donald Trump has strengthened his stature. He has doled out endorsements, cut checks and hosted events in competitive races, lending a Trump-backed credibility to candidates eager to court the former president’s most loyal supporters.

At the same time, Jackson has emerged as one of the top fundraisers in the delegation, collecting $3.8 million so far this election cycle — a hefty amount for a member in a safe seat.

Armed with Trump’s backing, Jackson weathered a storm of controversy during his first race for the 13th Congressional District in 2020. Much of it stemmed from when Trump nominated Jackson to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2018, which surfaced workplace misconduct allegations against him, including that he drank too much on the job and improperly handled medication. He denied the allegations but withdrew from consideration for the job.

In May, congressional ethics investigators announced they had found “substantial” evidence that Jackson had misused campaign contributions to pay for a private dining club in Amarillo. Jackson did not cooperate with the investigation, but his lawyer challenged the findings, saying Jackson complied with all campaign finance regulations.

Jackson’s Spanish-language TV ad, which started airing last week, is mostly biographical, calling Jackson an “America-first firefighter” and recapping his background as a U.S. Navy rear admiral and doctor to three presidents.

Jackson is currently spending about $27,000 on the TV buy through Oct. 25, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.

“Dr. Ronny Jackson will always fight back against the Democrats’ radical policies that are destroying our country,” a narrator says, “and he will fight to put America — and Texas — first.”

Cornyn has been unapologetic about the gun bill, which all but one Texas Republican in Congress opposed. He got booed at the state party convention while the bill was under negotiation, and polls began to show his approval rating declining with GOP voters.

Jackson was especially vocal about the legislation. After President Joe Biden signed it into law, Jackson tweeted a video of himself clutching two guns and daring Biden to “come and take it.”

Few other names have come up publicly as potential Cornyn challengers in 2026, if he runs for reelection. One name is Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has sparred with Cornyn over Paxton’s personal legal troubles and who has criticized the gun bill. An anti-Cornyn group, Defend Texas Liberty PAC, polled a hypothetical Cornyn-Paxton race in July and found Paxton comfortably ahead.

Jackson, meanwhile, is set to cruise to a second term in a district that voted for Trump by 46 percentage points in 2020. He was unopposed in his primary, and his Democratic opponent is Kathleen Brown. His redrawn district notably picked up some of Denton County in the Dallas suburbs, giving him more of a presence in the state’s largest media market.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/19/ronny-jackson-john-cornyn-ad-launch/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Not so fast: Greg Abbott, Texas Republicans face a complex election landscape after abortion ruling, Uvalde shooting

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Last year, Texas Republicans were pumping out red-meat laws in a marathon of special legislative sessions, preparing to lock in their dominance for another decade with redistricting and salivating at a midterm environment that historically should have favored them.

Things have gotten a little more complicated since then.

While the environment in Texas still favors the GOP, it has been upended by two issues in which public opinion has trended sharply against them: gun control and abortion rights. Now, as Republicans emerge from the traditional election turning point of Labor Day, they are set to try hard to recenter the conversation on issues that are more favorable to them.

“The No. 1 issue by far in the state of Texas is the border,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a radio interview Friday when asked to frame the fall campaign. He went on to offer differences with his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, on issues related to the border, as well as police funding and the oil and gas industry.

“The contrast on those issues [is] gonna be prolific and it’s gonna be the contrast on those issues that’s gonna ensure my reelection,” he said.

Abbott is facing his toughest November opponent in O’Rourke, and the two are poised to commence an unrelenting TV war after Labor Day as they try to turn out their bases and persuade the few remaining undecided voters. But it will come after Abbott got a three-week head start on O’Rourke, airing a pair of positive biographical ads since mid-August, an acknowledgment that the two-term incumbent’s image needs some buffing.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference with nine other governors regarding the southern border at Anzalduas Park in Mission on Oct. 6, 2021.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference with nine other governors regarding the southern border at Anzalduas Park in Mission on Oct. 6, 2021. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Polls show voters remain in a sour mood, with majorities saying the state is on the wrong track. And while Abbott’s approval rating has rebounded from its record lows last year, gone are the days of the kind of broad popularity he enjoyed when he was last on the ballot four years ago and cruised to a second term.

Abbott has steered the state sharply to the right since then, including on the two issues that Democrats now see as some of their strongest assets for November: abortion and guns. Abbott signed a “trigger law” that has banned virtually all abortions in the state following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to end the nationwide right to abortion. And he has resisted supporting any new gun restrictions following the Uvalde school shooting in May — including raising the age to buy an assault-style rifle, which he argued last week was not workable because courts have found such an age limit unconstitutional.

Polls regularly show that Texas voters, often by wide margins, oppose outlawing all abortion and want stricter gun laws. Democratic candidates have been increasingly explicit about how central they believe the issues will be to the November election.

“This is one of the few truly unifying issues in the state of Texas right now,” O’Rourke said during a news conference in late August marking the effective date of the trigger law. In a subsequent TV interview, he called the election a “referendum on whether we’re going to go back literally half a century or whether this state is going to move forward.”

Both parties — up and down the ballot — aim to woo women voters

The same day the trigger law went into effect, O’Rourke released his first general election TV ads. Both criticized Abbott over abortion.

In Harris County — which includes Houston and is the state’s largest county— Democrats see so much upside in the issue that the county judge, Lina Hidalgo, started airing TV ads in early August accusing her Republican challenger of being silent on abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s decision. The challenger, Alexandra del Moral Mealer, did not respond to The Texas Tribune’s request for comment on her position.

Republicans are still trying to find a rebuttal. Rather than defend the laws he has signed, Abbott has sought to argue O’Rourke is the one with extreme views on abortion, noting his longtime refusal to say whether he supports any limits on the practice. When he has had to address the laws, including the lack of exceptions of rape victims, Abbott has made awkward comments like his suggestion Friday that victims can take emergency contraception to prevent a pregnancy.

Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Beto O’rourke speaks at a rally in support of abortion rights in East Austin on Jun. 26, 2022.

Democratic candidate for governor Beto O’Rourke speaks at a rally in support of abortion rights in Austin on June 26, 2022. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

At the same time, Texas Republicans have been making not-so-subtle appeals to women voters. Last month, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican from Houston and the top budget writer in the Senate, abruptly announced their support for repealing the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, an idea Abbott quickly endorsed. Women also have factored prominently into his TV ads so far, the first of which was narrated by his wife, Cecilia Abbott.

Democrats face headwinds, too: O’Rourke’s 2020 run, Joe Biden

As for O’Rourke, Abbott’s campaign has made little secret that it plans to hammer him over comments he made around the time of his failed 2020 presidential campaign, saying he would take border walls down, expressing support for the Green New Deal and praising activists who were pushing to “defund the police.” The issue of police funding is the topic of Abbott’s first negative TV ad against O’Rourke, which started airing Monday.

O’Rourke has denied that he supports defunding the police — a term with an ambiguous meaning to many — but said in 2020 that he “really love[d]” the idea of taking money away from “over-militarized” police departments and reinvesting it in social services.

When it comes to police funding, Republicans have found a fresh wedge in Harris County. Last month, Hegar accused county commissioners of violating a new state law to stop local governments from cutting police spending, an accusation that Abbott swiftly amplified. The county has denied the charge and is challenging the comptroller in court.

In addition to GOP efforts to change the topic from abortion and guns, Democrats also will have to contend with a president from their party, Joe Biden, who remains very unpopular in Texas. The state Democratic Party is seeking to counteract that, announcing Friday that it is launching a four-week tour after Labor Day to tout the administration’s accomplishments.

Nationally, Democrats have felt some relief from the tough political environment as Congress has proven unusually productive for an election year, passing a landmark health care and climate spending package last month. And they have been encouraged by recent election victories in Kansas, Alaska and New York where abortion was a leading issue.

Cliff Walker, a partner at the progressive consulting firm Seeker Strategies, said Texas Democrats have increasing reason to be optimistic due to “unprecedented national action” on important issues, combined with “unprecedented state failure” like the 2021 power grid collapse.

“This is a much better hand to play than anyone would have imagined, not just a few months ago, but at the start of the election cycle,” Walker said.

Republicans eye South Texas, Democrats seek rural, suburban edge

It all points to a more complex environment than Republicans had anticipated. The emergence of abortion and guns as top-of-mind issues has thrown up new obstacles in the suburbs, where they had hoped to regain territory they lost under former President Donald Trump. One major example of that is Texas House District 70, a new open seat in the Dallas suburbs that represents one of the few pickup opportunities for either party in the lower chamber post-redistricting.

Republicans are also conceding they cannot take rural Texas, a long-time firewall, for granted, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently launching a 131-stop bus tour targeted at rural voters. O’Rourke has been barnstorming rural Texas, and Patrick is in a rematch with his 2018 Democratic opponent, Mike Collier, who performed better than O’Rourke that year in rural counties.

Republicans are still upbeat about their chances in South Texas, which they are targeting more seriously than ever after Biden underperformed there in 2020. In addition to the three congressional races there they have long been targeting, they are getting more serious about flipping an open state Senate seat in the Rio Grande Valley, which also happens to be the only competitive state senate seat on the November ballot after redistricting.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, speaks at the Pro Life America's Hopeful Future conference in McAllen on July 9, 2022. Flores, recently sworn into office after a special election, faces an uphill battle in November as she competes against Democrat Vicente Gonzalez for the Texas CD-34 seat.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, speaks at the Pro Life America's Hopeful Future conference in McAllen on July 9, 2022. Credit: Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

The top super PAC aligned with the U.S. House GOP leaders, the Congressional Leadership Fund, recently announced it was reserving $3 million in TV ads to reelect U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, who flipped the Rio Grande Valley seat in a June special election. The committee announcement was the most serious signal yet that national Republicans are committed to her November election, despite her running in a district redrawn to be more favorable to Democrats.

“South Texas continues to represent some of our best pickup opportunities nationwide,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesperson for the Congressional Leadership Fund.

The most competitive race in South Texas remains the open seat in the 15th Congressional District. Seeking to show how committed Democrats are to defending the seat, their nominee, Michelle Vallejo, released a list of over 100 endorsements from across the state Friday. It came with a statement criticizing Republican nominee Monica De La Cruz for her “extreme and radical views” on abortion, among other things.

De La Cruz, unsurprisingly, is talking about something else in her campaign. Her first TV ad features her flying over the Mexican border in a helicopter, landing and telling voters about “Biden’s border crisis” and the economic pressures under his administration.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/06/texas-2022-election-greg-abbott-beto-orourke/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Rep. and his wife defied property tax law for eight years

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and his wife ran afoul of property tax law for at least eight years as each claimed homestead exemptions on properties they separately owned.

They fixed the issue last year, when his wife, Lorena Saenz Gonzalez, removed the homestead exemption on her property. But from 2014 to 2021, Hidalgo County records show that Vicente Gonzalez was claiming a homestead exemption on a property in McAllen valued this year at $527,054, while his wife was also claiming one on another property in the city valued this year at $287,131. That saved them at least $2,300 in property taxes on the second property, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

In Texas, married couples generally can claim only one such exemption, which is meant to provide some tax relief on properties considered “principal residences.” Homestead exemptions cannot typically be claimed on commercial properties, second homes or income properties.

Gonzalez said the second property is one that his wife owned prior to their marriage in 2008 and that she forgot to remove the homestead exemption on it until last year.

”It was a simple oversight that was voluntarily corrected as soon as she found out,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

After the Tribune inquired, Gonzalez spokesperson James Rivera said the congressman has spoken with the county appraiser’s office and intends to pay any back taxes that are owed.

Gonzalez’ wife removed the homestead exemption from her property in October 2021, a county appraiser said.

“We are currently reviewing this case further and we will be doing what is statutorily required within the law,” Jorge Gonzalez, the assistant chief appraiser for Hidalgo County Appraisal District, said in an email.

Gonzalez is facing his most competitive race yet in November as he seeks another term in the nationally targeted 34th District, where U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, is the incumbent.

A homestead exemption shields a portion of a property’s appraised value from being taxed.

All Texas homeowners enjoy a homestead exemption on their primary residence that can be applied toward their school property tax burden — which typically makes up the largest part of a local property tax bill. This year, that homestead exemption was set at $40,000, after voters in May approved a constitutional amendment raising the amount. Previously, the exemption was $25,000 for school property taxes dating back to 2015. Before that, it was $15,000.

Some Texans, like those who are elderly or disabled, are eligible for additional homestead exemptions.

The application for a homestead exemption in Hidalgo County tells applicants they are eligible only if “you and your spouse do not claim a residence homestead exemption on any other property.” The application warns that anyone who makes a false statement on the application “could be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor or a state jail felony.”

Generally, taxpayers do not have to reapply for a homestead exemption after they initially receive it. But they must let the appraisal district know if they move or if their eligibility changes.

Gonzalez is a lawyer with his own firm, while his wife is a former teacher and school administrator in McAllen and Edinburg.

Gonzalez, who currently represents the 15th Congressional District, is in a hotly contested battle for reelection after redistricting prompted him to seek reelection in the neighboring 34th District. Flores became the incumbent there earlier this summer after flipping the seat in a special election that attracted national attention, most notably from Republicans looking to make new inroads in South Texas.

The redrawn version of the 34th District that is on the November ballot is more favorable to Democrats than it was in the special election, but the GOP hopes Flores can beat the odds.

Property-tax experts agreed that the Gonzalezes’ situation was problematic, but not unheard of.

“Typically one family, one homestead,” said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, speaking generally about the law.

“Married couples may only claim one homestead exemption, which must be on their principal residence,” said James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin. “To do otherwise likely violates the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law.”

Craymer said the law is “very difficult to enforce,” noting appraisal is done at the local level in Texas’ 254 counties and “there’s no sort of central composite database where appraisers can double check.”

Homestead exemptions have tripped up Texas politicians before. In 2009, then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said he would repay $183 in property taxes after media reported that he got a homestead exemption on a home near Texas A&M University where his daughter was living while attending the school.

The issue has also cropped up in the past for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a vocal GOP crusader against property taxes. When he was a radio host in 2005, the Houston Chronicle reported he had to pay $595 in back taxes after he got homestead breaks on two separate properties in the city’s suburbs.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Public Policy Foundation and Texas Taxpayers and Research Association have been financial supporters 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.


The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/19/vicente-gonzalez-property-tax-homestead-exemption/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

A new MAGA: Mothers Against Greg Abbott mobilizes against the incumbent governor seeking a third term

A little over a year ago, Nancy Thompson, an Austin mother of three kids, stood alone for two and half hours in front of the Texas Capitol with a sign that said “Mothers Against Greg Abbott.”

She was most upset about the governor’s ban on mask mandates, worried about her son who was medically vulnerable to COVID-19 after being hospitalized for another virus that had “infected all his organs,” she said.

“Honestly, I just didn’t give a shit anymore,” Thompson said. “I was just done. I was so done.”

Now, her protests are not so lonely. Her “Mothers Against Greg Abbott” effort has grown into a potent political force in the governor’s race, with a membership of over 50,000 on Facebook. The group has recently caught more attention after releasing professionally made ads that have gone viral on social media.

They have earned the backing of Abbott’s Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, who told the group Monday their work is “the talk of the town” no matter where he is.

“It’s absolutely transforming what’s possible in Texas right now, and there’s literally not a day that goes by that Amy or I or someone on our team do not get asked, ‘Have you seen that great Mothers Against Greg Abbott ad?’” O’Rourke said, addressing the group virtually along with his wife, Amy.

O’Rourke has long had an advantage with women in his uphill battle against Abbott, leading the governor by 6 percentage points among likely female voters in the latest public survey. But Thompson is working to rally a more specific group: mothers like herself, a onetime Republican who did not get deeply involved in politics until recent years. The group has naturally drawn many Democrats, but Thompson wants it to be as inclusive as possible, and its website calls it “a mix of Democrats, Moderate Republicans and Independents who are ready to work together for change for Texas.”

“We’re just trying to organize the army and make it super accessible to everyday Texans like me, who may not be super involved in politics — until you’re super involved in politics,” Thompson said.

Now Thompson is trying to take the group to the next level for the final three months of the race, organizing chapters throughout the state and endeavoring to put ads on TV. On Monday, it announced it had put up five billboards across the state criticizing Abbott over his response to the Uvalde school shooting.

Abbott’s campaign declined to comment on the group.

Campaign finance records show the group raised $170,000 through June 30, garnering over 2,400 mostly small donations. Thompson said the group has raised at least $200,000 more since then, as its ads blew up online in July. That is a notable amount for such an upstart group, though it still pales in comparison to the eight-figure campaign accounts that both Abbott and O’Rourke have to spread their messages.

While the group has been in existence since last year, it has garnered the most attention yet for the ads it has released this summer. One of them, titled “Whose Choice,” depicts a fictitious scence in which a doctor is counseling a woman about a pregnancy she may need to terminate due to a “catastrophic brain abnormality.” The doctor tells her there is “only one person who can make this choice” — before abruptly picking up a phone and calling Abbott. The ad has gotten over 7 million views on Twitter since it was posted July 25.

O’Rourke called the ads “amazingly effective” Monday.

Thompson is a mother of three from Austin whose professional career has mostly been in marketing. She said she considered herself a Republican — serving as a delegate to the 1988 national convention, for example — until President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. She began to vote Democratic going forward but did not get more actively involved in politics until more recently.

It was not until after Thompson made her initial protest sign last year that she realized it had carried the same acronym as former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. But she laughed it off to herself and stuck with it.

Someone took a picture of Thompson’s protest that day, and it started spreading on social media. Noticing how many people seemed to relate, Thompson created a private Facebook group a few days later using the same name, and by December, it had over 20,000 members.

Thompson noticed membership spiked around major news events involving Abbott, like when the state’s six-week abortion ban went into effect in September. Another jump in membership came in February, when Abbott ordered state agencies to investigate gender-affirming care for transgender kids as child abuse.

“It just seemed like every single time Greg Abbott opened up his mouth, we gained thousands of followers every single time,” Thompson said. “He just spent the last year making enemies of so many Texans.”

The next year, as the group continued to swell and Thompson was looking for volunteers, she met the filmmaker Michelle Mower. Mower offered to help — and to connect Thompson with fellow filmmakers — and before long, they were all holding weekly meetings.

The group’s first ad, “Breaking Bread,” came out April 15, and it depicted three pairs of women who had been driven apart by politics agreeing to reconcile and hash out their differences. Everyone donated their time for the ad, which cost only $600, covering meals and equipment rentals, Thompson said. It would largely remain that way going forward.

Nancy Thompson, founder of Mothers Against Greg Abbott, poses for a portrait at the Texas Capitol on August 4, 2022.

Mothers Against Greg Abbott founder Nancy Thompson in front of the Governor’s Mansion on Aug. 4. Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

Thompson continued to work with Mower and Chelsea Aldrich, an actress and writer. But she also realized she had a valuable resource next door — literally — in her neighbors, David Wolfson and Lauren Sheppard, co-founders of Spoon Films. The company had worked for a political action committee in 2018 that opposed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz when O’Rourke was challenging him — Fuck Ted Cruz PAC — and had leftover footage they were willing to share. Spoon Films ultimately produced ads for Mothers Against Greg Abbott featuring Cecile Richards, O’Rourke’s national finance chair and the daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards.

Along the way, Thompson also met fellow likeminded mothers like Cheryl Richard, a retired oil and gas executive from Austin. Richard said she first started talking to Thompson last year when Richard was thinking about challenging Abbott herself.

Richard ultimately provided $3,000 in seed funding to help make an ad called “Nothing Changes,” in which several mothers speak to the camera about overcoming political apathy in Texas. Richard also lent her horse, Ivan, who has a cameo in the ad.

Richard, 66, has twin sons and five grandchildren, with another on the way. Four of her grandchildren are girls. She said she identified as Republican her whole life until “around 2016,” when Trump was elected president and she realized how much the GOP had drifted away from her on some issues. She supports abortion rights and “reasonable” gun control, she said, like raising the age to buy an assault rifle to 21.

“I don’t feel like I left the Republican Party as much as it left me,” Richard said. “I’ve always been a moderate. I’m still a moderate. … And I think there are a lot of moderates out there, particularly women, who feel left behind and for the same reasons I felt left behind.”

Richard acknowledged that beating Abbott is “not just about putting out ads.” The “much tougher” mission, she said, is turning out more voters.

After all, the ads produced by the anti-Cruz PAC garnered plenty of clicks and media coverage, but O’Rourke still lost to Cruz by 3 percentage points.

Thompson appears aware of the challenge. She is working to expand the group’s advertising, filming more ads for the web, hoping to eventually air them on TV, and putting up the billboards, which spotlight Abbott’s statement after theUvalde shooting that it “could’ve been worse.” But she is also helping establish MAGA chapters across the state, including places as far-flung as Alpine in far West Texas and Palestine in East Texas.

The group has grown so much that she recently had to bring on two part-time employees, an accountant and a fundraiser.

While O’Rourke addressed the group for the first time Monday, Thompson has made sure to operate it independently of his campaign, mindful of campaign finance regulations. In fact, Thompson said, it was not until the last week of July that O’Rourke started following her on Twitter.

Disclosure: Facebook 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.


The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/11/mothers-against-greg-abbott-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

To stay in Congress, Mayra Flores bets Democratic South Texas is ready for an outspoken conservative

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

When Mayra Flores won the special election for Texas’ 34th Congressional District last month, she became the first Mexican-born woman to serve in Congress — and one of a few Republicans to ever represent the Rio Grande Valley in Washington, D.C.

That was the easy part.

Flores’ special-election victory gave Republicans a shot of momentum as they try to make a new battleground out of South Texas, a predominantly Hispanic region long dominated by Democrats.

“She is the beacon of hope right now,” said Adrienne Peña-Garza, the Hidalgo County GOP chair who helped introduce Flores to local politics just a few years ago.

[How Mayra Flores flipped a Rio Grande Valley congressional seat and gave Republicans hope for a new era in South Texas]

Now the 36-year-old Mexican immigrant, who spent her childhood summers working in the cotton fields of Tennessee, faces a tougher election in a bluer district that could quickly cut short a promising political career.

After arriving in Congress a little over a month ago, Flores quickly carved out a profile unlike that typical of battleground incumbents, leaning into political fights and eschewing the ideological center. She cheered on the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voted against the bipartisan gun control law and opposed legislation protecting same-sex marriage.

She remains vocal about the three values that centered her campaign — faith, family and country — and makes little apology about her politics.

“I’m conservative and have strong values, and that’s why we were successful in the special election,” Flores said in a recent interview.

In each of her recent votes, she sided with a majority of her GOP colleagues, though she is not just any Republican in the House. The district where she is running for a full term in November — covering a populous swath of the Valley and two counties north of it — would have been carried by President Joe Biden by 16 percentage points. It is a challenging landscape even in a national environment that favors Republicans.

If she wins in November, Flores could put the biggest exclamation point yet on Republicans’ drive to turn South Texas red. But if she loses, her monthslong stay in Congress could go down as the special-election aberration that Democrats are hoping for, especially after watching her first month in office.

“She’s made no bones about the conservatism in her faith and that she would be a firm conservative” if elected, said Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “And I think that’s something that’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition come November.”

Growing up

Flores was born in 1986 in Burgos, Tamaulipas, Mexico, a small town about 150 miles south of the Texas-Mexico border. She remembers walking to school, growing close to her grandparents, attending countless family gatherings — and learning that her family would be going to the United States when she was 6 years old.

“I remember the kids in the school being happy for me the last day,” Flores said. “I clearly remember our teacher made the class aware that I was going to be going to the otro lado, meaning the other side, and everyone just looking at me, like, ‘Wow, you’re going to the other side.’”

Her family moved to the Rio Grande Valley but later became well acquainted with another part of the country: Memphis, where they spent summers working in the cotton fields. Flores said she started at an early age — 13 — and spent summer days hoeing the fields surrounded by all kinds of family.

One of those family members was Elda Flores, her dad’s cousin who lived in the Memphis area. Elda Flores said Mayra Flores was a “go-getter” who did not let anything stop her, like when she was teased for having “garage-sale clothes.”

After working all day in the fields, the two girls were “still full of energy,” Elda Flores recalled, and would ride their bikes to the swimming pool.

Still, it was not all fun. Mayra Flores recalls waking up in pain at 4 in the morning and her mother rubbing Icy Hot on her sore hands.

“I still remember her getting emotional and telling me, ‘You don’t have to do this,’” Flores said. “And I remember saying, ‘No, I can.’ Because I knew that my parents couldn’t afford being able to buy needs, clothing and the school supplies.”

Flores graduated from high school in San Benito in 2004. Ten years later, she received an associate degree from South Texas College’s respiratory therapy program, and in 2019, got a bachelor’s degree from the school’s organizational leadership program.

Her time at the school overlapped with a growing interest in politics, and faculty saw a student emerging with the “potential to be a great leader,” said Ali Esmaeili, who chairs the organizational leadership program.

“She was thinking about her community, what she can do to provide to her community and transform her community, the region,” he said. “She had a long-term vision.”

Becoming politically involved

Growing up, Flores said her family never really talked politics. She was raised with “very conservative” values, she said, but when it came time to vote, her family defaulted to Democrat by tradition. When she asked her dad who to vote for in the 2008 presidential election, he told her Barack Obama.

“He’s conservative himself, but he voted Democrat because … that’s what we were told to do,” Flores said. “But we didn’t know what these parties stood for.”

Elda Flores, who has long considered herself a Republican, remembers one “heated debate” with Mayra Flores over her support for Barack Obama back then. They were hanging out at a friends’ house, and Elda Flores said the argument got so bad she “actually had to take a breather and go outside.” They agreed to stop talking about politics afterward.

Mayra Flores points to 2010 as the year she realized the true differences between the parties and “walked away” from the Democrats. The most clarifying issue, she said, was abortion, saying she saw how Republicans “fought for the unborn” compared with Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, meets with supporters after the Pro Life America's Hopeful Future conference in McAllen on July 9, 2022. Flores, recently sworn into office, faces an uphill battle in November as she competes against Vicente Gonzalez for the Texas CD-34 seat.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, meets with supporters July 9 after an anti-abortion conference in McAllen. Credit: Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

Still, several years passed before Flores got involved in politics more formally. It happened during the federal government shutdown of late 2018 and early 2019, when the Hidalgo County GOP was holding an event to help wives of Border Patrol agents impacted by the shutdown. The wife of a Border Patrol agent, Flores went to the event and got to talking with the county party chair, Peña-Garza, about getting more involved.

Days later, Peña-Garza offered Flores the job of Hispanic outreach chair, a volunteer position, and Flores took it on with zeal. She spoke on behalf of the party in the media, block walked, phone banked, helped recruit candidates and worked with them on their social media, and opened and closed the office. Peña-Garza said there was no job too small for her.

Peña-Garza said Democrats in the Valley had “done a really good job of making us the villains.” But with her immigrant story and fluency in Spanish, Flores proved to be a “bridge for Hispanics,” the county chair said.

“I could see that for first-generational Hispanics especially, people that are not happy with the open borders, not happy with where the country is right now, but maybe they need a different messenger — that was Mayra,” Peña-Garza said.

At the same time, Flores built her own following on social media. When Flores started working for the county party, Peña-Garza said she had asked Flores to start her own Facebook page to share more of her story and opinions — and “not hold back.” Flores gladly obliged.

Flores posted videos discussing the news of the day, but she would “throw in her twist, the little flavor she has,” recalled Joacim Hernandez, chair of the Texas Young Republicans who hails from the Valley.

“I think she had a good feel, a good pulse, for what was the hot topic that the culture down here could relate to and switch the narrative up,” Hernandez said.

Special election and November

Flores’ eventual transition from activist to candidate was helped by another Hispanic GOP woman in the Rio Grande Valley: Monica De La Cruz. Flores took inspiration from De La Cruz’s 2020 campaign against U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, in the 15th District, which drew little attention until she came within 3 percentage points of winning — and helped fuel new GOP optimism throughout the region.

While Biden carried the 15th District by just 2 percentage points, he also underperformed in the neighboring 34th District, making it an additional GOP target heading into the midterms. Flores jumped into the race early, assuming she would be taking on the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville. But then he announced he would not seek reelection, creating an even more enticing pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Then, redistricting happened. While it made the 15th District more favorable for De La Cruz, it made the 34th District more blue. Flores had traveled to Austin to beg the Republican mapmakers to reconsider, but they stuck with the map.

With Vela retiring, Gonzalez decided to seek reelection in the safer 34th District, and suddenly, Flores’ uphill battle seemed steeper than ever.

The twists and turns in South Texas politics were not over yet, though. A few months after redistricting was done, Vela announced he would step down early, prompting a special election to fill his seat under the previous, more competitive boundaries. Flores hardly waited to declare her candidacy for the special election.

Republicans from Brownsville to Washington, D.C., went all in on the special election, while national Democrats spent a small fraction of the GOP investment. Democrats argued it was not worth it for a seat that would likely remain in their column come November, when Gonzalez is the nominee in the bluer 34th District.

The special election was not even close. Flores scored an outright victory over the candidate Democrats had to rush to field, Dan Sanchez, 51% to 43%.

National and state Democrats brushed off Flores’ win as a fluke that would be irrelevant come November. But local Democrats saw it differently.

In his concession statement, Sanchez faulted the national party for not taking the special election more seriously. And days later, a coalition of county party chairs across South Texas sounded the alarm, noting how organized and unified Republicans had been.

“If these missteps continue, and South Texas continues to be ignored by national Democratic committees,” the county chairs said in a joint statement, “we risk losing South Texas to Republicans.”

First month in Congress

Flores’ first month in Congress was anything but uneventful. She was sworn in three days before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that she celebrated without hesitation as polls showed it was unpopular in Texas.

“Honestly, this is a dream come true for me,” Flores said on Fox News shortly after the ruling came out.

The news obscured a more politically sensitive matter looming that morning for Flores, at least in her view. The Senate had just passed a bipartisan gun control bill, the first significant one in a generation, partly in response to the Uvalde school shooting in May. The House vote on the legislation would be Flores’ first major vote in Congress, and she had declined to tell a CNN reporter the night before how she would vote.

She ended up joining most of her GOP colleagues in voting no, even as the full House approved the bill and sent it to Biden’s desk. She issued a statement afterward saying the proposal did not provide enough money for school safety and that the process was too rushed.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, speaks at the Pro Life America's Hopeful Future conference in McAllen on July 9, 2022. Flores, recently sworn into office after a special election, faces an uphill battle in November as she competes against Democrat Vicente Gonzalez for the Texas CD-34 seat.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores speaks at an anti-abortion conference in McAllen on July 9. She has said that the overturning of Roe v. Wade was “a dream come true for me.” Credit: Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

Gonzalez promptly criticized her for opposing the bill, noting in a statement it was “crafted by our state’s senior senator, John Cornyn” — a Republican. Speaking days later at a Hidalgo County GOP dinner, Flores seemed to acknowledge it was not an easy decision.

“In only one week that I was there, I remember I was going to be voting for a very controversial bill, and I was praying that morning that Roe vs. Wade would get overturned so the attention would be on that,” Flores said jokingly.

The controversial votes did not end there, though. With Democrats looking to codify same-sex marriage and birth control access after the Roe ruling, Flores voted against bills to do both of those things. She said the birth control bill “creates a back door to abortion.”

While most Republicans opposed the bills, few of them are in districts as competitive as Flores’ in November. And when it came to the legislation on guns and gay marriage, Flores split with a fellow South Texas Republican who had campaigned for her, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde.

The votes have all given Gonzalez’s campaign fresh fodder for the November election. The campaign issued a news release Monday saying that Flores has “already made her far right-wing views clear” after one month in office.

But Flores has been handed plenty of political opportunities herself, fueling viral tweets and a steady stream of Fox News appearances bashing Democrats as increasingly out of touch with Hispanic voters.

After her swearing-in ceremony, a clip went viral that showed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., nudging one of Flores’ daughters while posing for a photo. The New York Times published a story about Flores — and other Hispanic Republican women running for Congress in South Texas — titled “The Rise of the Far-Right Latina.” And earlier this month, first lady Jill Biden visited San Antonio and told a Latino civil rights group that the Hispanic community is “as unique as the breakfast tacos” in the city.

Gonzalez also has not done himself many favors. He disparaged Flores’ immigration story in a Newsweek interview, arguing he knows the district better because he was born in Texas. And most recently, it was uncovered that Gonzalez’s campaign has been paying a local blogger for advertising who has been slinging racist slurs at Flores.

“Vicente Gonzalez can’t handle running against a strong, accomplished Latina like Mayra Flores,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, denouncing Gonzalez’s “xenophobic and sexist attacks.”

Beating the odds in November

All the national attention following Flores could reach an abrupt end on Nov. 8.

Not only is the 34th District bluer thanks to redistricting, but turnout will be higher than the 7% seen in the special election. And she faces a more established Democratic opponent in Gonzalez, who had $1.4 million cash on hand at the end of June. By contrast, Flores had $114,000 cash on hand, her funds depleted by the special election.

Democrats say Flores can also expect far more scrutiny, and their opposition research file is well known.

As Hispanic outreach chair for the Hidalgo County GOP, she made multiple social media posts with a long list of hashtags that included some related to the QAnon conspiracy movement. She has said she never supported QAnon and that she was actually arguing against QAnon, though her campaign has yet to provide evidence of that claim.

She also made posts casting doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election and suggesting that President Donald Trump won. She has refused to address those posts and declined to entertain questions about the validity of the 2020 election, saying she is focused on future elections.

Flores gave a shoutout to Trump in her special-election victory speech.

“We have to state the facts that under President Trump, we did not have this mess in this country,” Flores said.

But it is unclear how much she plans to embrace him going forward, especially as the Jan. 6 hearings continue to tarnish his public image. In an interview, she was relatively restrained when asked about his impact on the Hispanic vote.

“I think that Hispanics just started seeing that they had more money in their pocket,” Flores said. “The Hispanic community was doing a lot better under the previous administration.”

Republicans are optimistic Flores can hang on despite the longer odds in November. They note Biden is only growing more unpopular, including among Hispanic voters, and economic concerns are not receding among voters.

And for all the talk of Gonzalez being a stronger opponent, they point out that he has already had ample missteps in his campaign.

In the special election, “it was a perfect storm,” said Macarena Martinez, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “It’s even more of a perfect storm now.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Facebook and The New York Times have been financial supporters 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.


When you join us at The Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, you’ll hear from changemakers who are driving innovation, lawmakers who are taking charge with new policies, industry leaders who are pushing Texas forward and so many others. See the growing speaker list and buy tickets.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/27/mayra-flores-congress-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas AG Ken Paxton bans staff lawyers from speaking at state bar events, escalating feud sparked by 2020 election

Attorney General Ken Paxton is escalating his feud with the State Bar of Texas by banning his office’s lawyers from speaking at any events organized by the bar.

Paxton’s office also will not pay for any attorneys to attend bar-sponsored events, according to an internal email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The state bar is suing Paxton over his 2020 lawsuit challenging the presidential election results in four battleground states. Paxton has denounced the lawsuit, which alleges professional misconduct, as political harassment.

The internal email — sent Monday by Shawn Cowles, Paxton’s deputy attorney general for civil litigation — references the lawsuit, calling it “just the latest instance in the Bar’s ongoing evolution into a partisan advocacy group.”

“Let’s be clear: these are politically motivated attacks that violate separation-of-powers principles and offend our profession’s values of civil disagreement and diversity of thought,” Cowles wrote.

The new office policies are effective immediately. The state bar declined to comment.

A disciplinary committee for the state bar filed the lawsuit against Paxton in May, seeking to sanction him over his high-profile challenge to the 2020 presidential election results, which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear. The professional misconduct lawsuit alleges that Paxton misrepresented that he had uncovered substantial evidence of voter fraud when he tried to block Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin from casting decisive Electoral College votes that handed Joe Biden his victory over Donald Trump.

Paxton’s efforts, the state bar wrote in its lawsuit, “were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding, and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the Court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law.”

The state bar has separately sued Paxton’s first assistant attorney general, Brent Webster, over the 2020 election lawsuit.

Paxton has publicly bashed the lawsuits as politically motivated, and late last month, he asked a a district court in Collin County to dismiss the suit against him. Paxton has gotten backup from fellow statewide Republican officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The state bar is an agency of the judiciary that licenses lawyers to practice in Texas and hosts regular training and networking events around the state.

The policy that Paxton’s office announced Monday is not the first strike it has aimed at the organization outside the courtroom.

Earlier in May, after Paxton got word that the state bar would sue him, he announced an investigation in to the Texas Bar Foundation for “facilitating mass influx of illegal aliens” through its donations to various advocacy groups. The foundation raises money to provide legal education and services, and it is separate from the state bar, which is an administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

Paxton is running for a third term in November after easily winning a primary runoff in May against Land Commissioner George P. Bush. The Democratic nominee is Rochelle Garza, a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Ken Paxton is being sued by the Texas Bar for his lies and attempts to overturn the 2020 election,” Garza tweeted. “So now he’s trying to muzzle state employees to avoid accountability. He deserves to be disbarred.”

Disclosure: The State Bar 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.


When you join us at The Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, you’ll hear from changemakers who are driving innovation, lawmakers who are taking charge with new policies, industry leaders who are pushing Texas forward and so many others. See the growing speaker list and buy tickets.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/25/ken-paxton-texas-bar/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.