South Texas was already a political battleground -- but new maps could alter game plans

The initial redistricting maps released this week are raising fresh questions about Texas Republicans' hopes of flipping seats in South Texas.

After President Joe Biden underperformed there last year, national and state Republicans charged into the 2022 election cycle determined to show they can make inroads in the predominantly Hispanic region. Speaking Thursday in Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott predicted “a very red future for the border communities in the state of Texas."

While the proposed maps hold some good news for Republicans targeting South Texas, they also introduced a number of uncertainties.

Chief among them is whether U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, will stick with a reelection bid in the 15th District, which he currently represents, or switch to the neighboring 34th District, where U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, is retiring. Under the proposed congressional map, Gonzalez's 15th District would become more competitive for Republicans, while the open 34th District would become safer for Democrats.

Gonzalez told The Texas Tribune this week that all options were on the table with regard to his political future. And in a statement Friday that was first reported by Politico, Gonzalez said he will “very seriously" consider running in the new 34th District if those are the final boundaries. Gonzalez would have the support of Vela, Vela confirmed to the Tribune after first telling Politico.

All the maps released this week are initial drafts and subject to change, either before they reach Abbott's desk — or after, as they face an all-but-guaranteed barrage of legal challenges. But they have already set off a burst of speculation among political insiders.

If Gonzalez switches races, he would encounter a Democratic primary in the 34th District that already includes at least one prominent contender in Rochelle Garza, a former staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. Besides Gonzalez, another potential Democratic candidate for the 34th District is state Rep. Alex Dominguez of Brownsville.

Dominguez is “seriously considering" a run for higher office, including for the 34th District, according to a spokesperson, Logan Davidson. Davidson said that Dominguez is currently focused on redistricting as it relates to his state House seat, but that he has already hired a consulting team to help with whatever he may do next.

Gonzalez has been under new national GOP scrutiny since he had an unexpectedly close race last year, winning reelection by just 3 percentage points while Biden carried the district by less than that. Gonzalez's 2020 Republican challenger, Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, is running again with the support of the top Republican in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.

The current 15th District is one of three in South Texas that the National Republican Congressional Committee said in February it would target this cycle. The other two were the 34th District and the 28th District, currently held by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.

While Biden won each of those districts by 4 points or less, the map proposal makes only the 15th District more competitive for the GOP, at least based on margins in the last presidential election. The new 15th District would go from one that Biden won by 2 points to one that Trump would have won by 3. Meanwhile, the open 34th District would transform from one that Biden carried by 4 points to one where he would have performed with a margin nearly four times that. And Cuellar's 28th District would go from one where Biden also had a 4-point margin of victory to one where he would have had a 7-point margin.

Asked Friday if the NRCC still considered the three districts competitive, a spokesperson did not exactly say.

“Every Democrat is vulnerable because of their record of complete and total incompetence that has created a border crisis, caused the cost of goods to skyrocket and made communities less safe," the spokesperson, Torunn Sinclair, said in a statement.

The best-known Republican candidate for Vela's seat, Mayra Flores, has no plans to switch races — but is not pleased with the proposed bluer district. She traveled to Austin on Thursday to testify against the map proposal, telling GOP lawmakers it seems they are “sending the message of not really caring about the conservative Hispanics in South Texas."

“We have worked very hard in District 34, so I don't understand why the Republican committee … sets us back," Flores told the Senate Redistricting Committee. She added she did not want candidates of either party to have the seat handed to them and implored lawmakers to revise the proposed district.

The GOP chair of the committee, Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, praised Flores for her heartfelt testimony but didn't indicate whether a revision would happen.

State legislative races

The proposed maps also brought new intrigue for state legislative contests in South Texas. Some Republicans have openly speculated that redistricting could force Democratic state lawmakers in South Texas to switch parties, with Land Commissioner George P. Bush saying last month that he “suspect[s] during redistricting you're gonna see a lot of announcements of conservative Democrats come over to our side."

There were no immediate signs of that after the initial maps came out this week.

The Senate map proposes a less blue 27th District for Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, a moderate Democrat favored by the Senate's hard-right presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But Lucio, who survived a brutal primary challenge from his left last year, is showing no signs of backing down from fighting for another term in his current party.

Lucio announced in June that he would seek reelection to his current district, and a spokesperson, Ruben O'Bell, confirmed Friday that was still the plan, with Lucio running in the Democratic primary for Senate District 27 next year.

Biden's underperformance in South Texas also rippled through state House districts there, giving Republicans in Austin new pickup opportunities. The Associated Republicans of Texas, the deep-pocketed group aligned with House GOP leadership, announced in June it would target six districts in South Texas.

However, only one of those districts moved significantly in the GOP's direction under the proposed map released Thursday. The district, represented by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would see a striking swing in favor of Republicans, morphing from a district that Trump already carried by 13 points to one he would have routed by 25.

Guillen's office has not responded to requests for comment on his 2022 plans.

One of the targeted South Texas districts — that of state Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass — actually becomes bluer under the proposed map, but is still competitive. It would transform from a district that Trump won by 8 points to one that Biden would have carried by 1.

Morales intends to run for reelection in his current district regardless of redistricting, according to his office.

“ART remains confident in our strategy and efforts to win seats in 2022," the group's vice president, Aaron De Leon, said in a statement.

There is a newly open seat in South Texas after state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville — the son of the state senator — announced Friday morning he would not seek reelection. However, that seat looks like an uphill climb for Republicans. Biden carried it by 15 points, and the proposed map gives the district the same Biden margin.

Eddie Lucio III said in a statement Friday morning he was hoping to “start this next chapter in my life with a focus on family, friends, and business." His spokesperson, Sergio Cavazos, later made clear the outgoing state representative would not participate in any of the political musical chairs in South Texas, saying he is “not planning on running for any other elected office this cycle."

Abby Livingston contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Politico 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/2021/10/01/south-texas-political-maps/.

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

Trump adds fresh pressure to Greg Abbott over demand for a forensic election audit

Gov. Greg Abbott is failing to appease some inside his party — including former President Donald Trump — with the "forensic election audit" that the state announced Thursday.

Trump released a letter to Abbott on Thursday urging him to add audit legislation, which could allow a review of mail-in and in-person ballots across the state, to the agenda for the current special session agenda. Instead, the secretary of state's office announced later that day that it was already starting to audit the 2020 election results in four of the state's biggest counties.

In a new statement to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, Trump said it is "a big mistake for Texas" not to pass the audit legislation, House Bill 16 by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

"By allowing the Democrats to do what they do, it will make it much harder for the Governor and other Republicans to win election in 2022 and into the future," Trump said. "Texas is a much redder state than anyone knows, but this is the way to make sure it turns blue."

There has been no evidence of widespread election fraud in Texas, where Trump defeated President Joe Biden by 6 percentage points. After the November election, a secretary of state official said Texas' election was "smooth and secure," and nationwide, Trump's own Attorney General Bill Barr said there was no fraud detected that could have changed the outcome of the election.

Asked for comment on Trump's latest statement, Abbott's office defended its current course of action.

"Texas is conducting the largest forensic audit in the country to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election, as well as the integrity of elections going forward," Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement, also noting the new elections bill that Abbott recently signed into law. "We have all the tools necessary to conduct a full, comprehensive audit, and that process will address any irregularities and ensure all valid votes are counted."

There was initially not much detail about the announcement from the secretary of state's office, which promised a "full forensic audit" in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties. But on Tuesday night, the office released a document explaining the parameters of the review, showing the scope of the effort may be more limited than promised — and include measures that counties are already required to take after an election that focus primarily on reviewing procedures and protocols. The state's audit could also include reviews of records of voting machine accuracy tests, rosters for early voting, forms detailing chain of custody for sealed ballot boxes and other election materials maintained by the counties.

Even then, the review announced by the secretary of state's office is not the same as what Trump demanded from Abbott — the addition of HB 16 to the special session call. That bill would allow state or county party chairs to request audits of the 2020 election that could result in the forming of election review advisory committees that would review ballots from randomly selected precincts. It would also outline a process for candidates and party chairs to ask for reviews in future elections.

"Texas needs you to act now," Trump told Abbott. "Your Third Special Session is the perfect, and maybe last, opportunity to pass this audit bill. Time is running out."

The pressure from Trump, who is still a dominant GOP leader, puts Abbott in an awkward position as he continues to battle attacks from his primary opponents that he is not conservative enough, while touting Trump's endorsement in the race. Trump has endorsed Abbott for reelection next year, but his push for HB 16 mirrors that of the challengers.

Abbott's opponents say the announcement by the secretary of state's office is no alternative to HB 16.

"It's not sufficient," Allen West, the former Texas GOP chair, said in a statement. "I support the election audit legislation proposed by Rep. Steve Toth."

Another Abbott primary challenger, former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, said Trump "was very clear in what he asked Greg Abbott to do: pass House Bill 16."

"Greg Abbott is refusing that request and obfuscating the issue by pretending to audit four counties," Huffines said in a statement. "It's just the latest example of his failed leadership."


Not just abortion: This was the week that solidified Texas' hard right turn after the 2020 election

Two years ago, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was on the radio explaining why he was not championing the so-called “heartbeat bill" to block abortions as early as six weeks, as he pushed for a series of other anti-abortion measures that legislative session.“
On the 'heartbeat bill,' to be candid with you, there was a lot of discussion in the pro-life arena … and it was not something that was the highest priority," Patrick said in the May 2019 interview.

On Wednesday, that exact proposal became the law of the land in Texas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abortion and guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022 election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day's news, curated by The Texas Tribune's award-winning journalists. Learn more.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/03/texas-abortion-bill-guns-elections-republicans/.

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

The threats of state troopers arresting Texas House Democrats have yet to materialize

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

More than a week after Republicans in the Texas House voted to authorize arrests of their quorum-busting Democratic colleagues, no such roundup has come to fruition.

As of Wednesday, there were no known cases of absent Democrats being arrested, and the chamber was still shy of the 100 members it needs for a quorum to conduct official business. That is despite its Aug. 10 vote to proceed with the arrests, Speaker Dade Phelan's signing of 52 warrants later that day and his announcement two days later that the House sergeant-at-arms had deputized state law enforcement to track down the missing Democrats.

So far, it appears that their bark is worse than their bite: Grand Prairie Rep. Chris Turner, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that "the only thing that [he's] aware of is that the House sergeant-at-arms has paid a visit to some members' homes."

Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said Wednesday that the House sergeant-at-arms and law enforcement had "already visited several major metropolitan areas" to try and locate absent members "and will continue to do so until quorum is reached."

But it's still unclear whether the situation will escalate to the point of actual civil arrests, which Rep. Jim Murphy of Houston, the chair of the House Republican Caucus, acknowledged during a caucus news conference on Monday at the Capitol.

"I don't know that they're gonna go to that level," Murphy said. "At this point it's more like a jury summons … a paper that's delivered, and that'll be another conversation down the line."

Law enforcement, Murphy added, is "still out there talking to people, visiting homes and businesses, and then hopefully we get enough of them to come back. We don't need all of them to come back, just more."

The House is not publicly tallying attendance every day, but the last time the chamber took a vote that revealed who was there, on Aug. 10, there were 93 members present — seven short of a quorum.

Unlike Murphy, some GOP leaders outside the chamber have used stronger language about securing a quorum, raising expectations for a more aggressive effort. Gov. Greg Abbott said at the beginning of the first special session that the Democrats would be "corralled and cabined in the Capitol," while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz argued there is "clear legal authority to handcuff and put [the quorum-breakers] in leg irons."

No such tactics have come to light so far. And if lawmakers were detained, they could only be brought back to the House chamber and would not face criminal charges or fines.

House leadership might be weighing the optics of physically detaining the quorum-breakers, many of whom are members of color. Democrats themselves have taunted House leadership over those optics, with Rep. Celia Israel of Austin saying leadership is "bluffing" and asking, "Do they really want to arrest a woman of color?"

Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, suggested concerns from his party about those images could be fueling the hesitancy to follow through on arrests.

"We have Republican leadership scared to actually arrest people and bring them back," Slaton said Tuesday. "The Democrats seem to have a lot of power over us."

While there has been a legal battle over the authority to arrest Democrats, the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday, ruling that the state Constitution allows the House to "physically compel the attendance of absent members."

One of the quorum-breakers, Rep. Vikki Goodwin of Austin, said a paper arrest warrant was left on her front porch last week. She said lawyers have told Democrats that if law enforcement tries to arrest them, they should not resist but should make clear they would not be willingly going to the House floor.

"I think it's just an intimidation tactic, trying to get members to come back because there is this outstanding arrest warrant," Goodwin said. "I think it doesn't really show well if they physically detain us."

A House sergeant visited the Houston home of another quorum-breaker, Rep. Jon Rosenthal, on Tuesday, according to his chief of staff, Odus Evbagharu.

Both Goodwin and Rosenthal have declined to share any details about their locations, other than that they are no longer in Washington, D.C. More than 50 Democrats fled to the nation's capital at the start of the first special session last month, protesting the GOP's priority elections bill.

The legislation would, among other changes to state elections, outlaw local voting options intended to expand voting access, further tighten the voting-by-mail process and bolster access for partisan poll watchers. Republicans have characterized the legislation as an "election integrity" proposal that would bring much-needed reforms to the state's voting system. Democrats and voting rights groups have argued the proposal would harm marginalized voters in the state.

The House first voted to authorize arrests when Democrats left for Washington last month. But it was not as consequential then because most Democrats were out of state, where Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction.

Now, the group in Washington has thinned out, and an untold number of Democrats are back home but still refusing to come to the House floor.

Last week, copies of the arrest warrants signed by Phelan were distributed in emails from Michael Black, the sergeant-at-arms, who offered to "assist" members in "making any necessary arrangements" to be present in the chamber. Black and other sergeants also delivered the warrants to members' Capitol offices.

Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that the warrants have not changed Democrats' minds over potentially returning to the chamber — and "in fact it's likely had the opposite effect in escalating the situation."

Meanwhile, Republicans have expressed a growing sense of frustration over their absent colleagues, with a number of GOP members pointing to House rules lawmakers adopted unanimously in January that outline the procedure for what the chamber can do to help secure a quorum.

Rep. Tan Parker, a Flower Mound Republican running for state Senate, increased pressure Tuesday on Phelan to make good on the arrests. In a statement, Parker called on the speaker to instruct the Texas Department of Public Safety "to use all means necessary to enforce the civil arrest warrants," saying "the time for niceties and cordiality has passed."

In the meantime, monotony continues in the House, where Republicans have become accustomed to showing up for a brief, formulaic meeting each day. The House comes to order, one of them says a prayer, they say the Pledge of Allegiance and after a lull, Phelan releases them for the day.

On Tuesday morning, the prayer was led by Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano, who invoked his missing colleagues and asked God to "provide them safe travels as they return to the state of Texas," whenever that may be. After the pledge, members sang "Happy Birthday" to one of the parliamentarians, Sharon Carter.

"All the parliamentarian wants for her birthday," Phelan said afterward, "is a quorum."

Texas Democrats at odds with one another as some return to Legislature while others stay in D.C.

Some of the Texas House Democrats who are still in Washington, D.C., did not hold back Monday as they watched more of their colleagues return to Austin and bring the chamber within single digits of a quorum.

"You all threw us under the bus today! Why?" Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos of Dallas said in a tweet addressed to three of her Democratic colleagues who came back to Austin.

The House had as many as 95 members on hand at one point Monday afternoon, five members short of quorum but the nearest the chamber has gotten to being able to start business since most Democrats fled last month over the Republican elections bill. It was the third day of the second special session, and the GOP-led House again issued a "call of the House," procedural move to lock the doors of the chamber and prevent members from leaving without permission.

The 95 members who were present included at least four new Democrats: El Paso-area Reps. Art Fierro, Mary González and Joe Moody, as well as Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock. Moody is the former speaker pro tem, a title that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, stripped from Moody in retaliation for the quorum break during the first special session.

Talarico was the most open about his return, announcing it on Twitter and issuing a statement explaining his decision, saying he was coming back to work on "real issues Texans face" after a productive time in Washington.

The House met hours after a state district judge in Travis County issued an order blocking the arrest of House Democrats who broke quorum by leaving the state. The Democrats who remain in D.C. cited that order Monday afternoon as they criticized their colleagues who left the nation's capital.

"I've said this before… it's a Team Sport… now we see who plays what positions on the Team," Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas tweeted. "The fact that some of us secured a Temporary Restraining Order to protect ALL of us, yet some are trying to please the Governor and His OPPRESSIVE Agenda?! JUST WOW!"

While the quorum-busting Democrats were able to maintain a largely united front during the first special session, which ended Friday, it was clear they reached a fork in the road when the second special session began a day later. A group of them released a statement saying that 26 House Democrats would be staying behind in Washington to keep up their fight to pass federal voting rights legislation in Congress.

Another House Democrat still in D.C., Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin, also scrutinized the Democrats who returned Monday afternoon on Twitter, calling out Fierro, González, Moody and Talarico as the House was waiting to see if it could still reach quorum for the day.

"Quorum is still not met," Hinojosa tweeted. "Praying no other Democrats willingly go to Floor."

Ramos appeared to be the most critical, tweeting at least four times about the Democrats who went back. In one of her tweets, she said the Democrats who returned were there to "sell us out."

In his statement explaining his return, Talarico claimed the Democrats had made progress on their lobbying for federal legislation, which remains a long shot on Capitol Hill.

"We have reinvigorated the national conversation about voting rights, and have pushed Congress closer than ever to passing voter protection legislation," Talarico said, also citing the mounting issues before the Legislature back home, such as the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.

Talarico represents a competitive district in suburban Austin, where he has drawn two serious Republican challengers since leaving the state. One of them, Caroline Harris, is a staffer for the Senate author of the elections bill, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

The scene Monday was a departure from the first special session, when the quorum-breaking Democrats were able to achieve unity. The core group of 57 who went to Washington saw only one of them, Rep. Philip Cortez of San Antonio, go home to Austin, and he returned to D.C. days later.

With special session’s end looming, Texas Democrats and Republicans mull their next moves

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Uncertainty is running rampant among Texas Democrats and Republicans as the final days of the special legislative session dwindle away.

The session officially ends Friday, and lawmakers are already gearing up for a second special session as House Democrats show zero interest in returning from Washington, D.C., and restoring quorum in the lower chamber for this session.

Abbott has promised to call a second special session to pass the GOP's priority voting bill, but the exact timing is uncertain. Abbott also has yet to detail what other items, if any, he intends to include on the agenda for the next special session. And House Democrats have not yet revealed what they have planned after the session ends this week.

At stake is the fate of the elections bill, which prompted Democrats who object to the legislation to leave in the first place, as well as the livelihoods of some 2,100 state workers and legislative agencies that are set to lose funding next month.

Here is how some of the top players are approaching the final days of the first special session:

Gov. Greg Abbott

Abbott has promised to call as many special sessions as needed to pass the elections bill and his other priorities. He has said he would call a second one to begin the day after the first one ends, though as of Tuesday, it was unclear if he will follow through on that.

If the first one goes all 30 days allowed under the Constitution, it would end Friday, and the next day would be Saturday. Past special sessions typically have started on weekdays.

An Abbott spokesperson confirmed Monday that he would call a second special session but declined to confirm the start date.

In any case, Republican legislators anticipate Abbott will want them back in Austin soon.

"I presume it's very quickly," state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, told reporters Tuesday. "I would imagine by next week we'll be back in session."

It remains to be seen if Abbott will add to this agenda in the second special session, though one thing is clear — he does not plan to curtail it. He has said he "will keep calling Special Sessions until we address every emergency item," referring to the 11 issues he laid out at the start of the first special session, such as pushing back against social media "censorship" of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

Texas House Democrats

The over 50 House Democrats who left the state in July have been discussing what next steps should be taken as a group as the current special session comes to a close, with members holding hourslong meetings over the past week to consider their options.

Democrats could take a number of routes: They could return to Texas but remain in their districts, head back to the Capitol in Austin, stay in D.C. for the time being or head to another state to continue to prevent a quorum in the lower chamber.

The caucus has remained largely united in both its messaging and numbers since members landed in D.C., where the group has pushed Congress to act on federal voting rights legislation. Since they've been there, only one known member of the core group that fled — Philip Cortez of San Antonio — has broken ranks and returned to Austin, only to head back to D.C. soon after.

Democrats have been optimistic about the progress they say they have made with both Capitol Hill and the White House on that voting rights bill, though they have yet to score a meeting with President Joe Biden and have not appeared to move the needle with senators who want to protect the filibuster.

But last week, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, said Democrats could potentially get around the filibuster blockade by integrating elements of the federal voting rights legislation into the reconciliation process of an infrastructure bill that is moving through Congress.

State Rep. Alma Allen of Houston told reporters Tuesday morning that the caucus likely will make a decision on its next steps based on what happens in D.C. over the next three to four days. And state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso emphasized that a lot could happen between now and Friday.

"I think we're gonna have a lot of success this week," he said.

If Democrats did again break quorum in the next special session, it's less clear what their specific goal would be in doing so. Abbott has said he will keep calling special sessions until the voting bill is passed, and Republicans hold majorities in both chambers.

There's also the question of whether members have the appetite or funding to carry out another potentially weekslong quorum break, which introduces a number of logistical hurdles for some, including time spent away from families and full-time jobs outside of elected office.

Regardless of what Democrats do next, some members say the caucus intends to stick together.

"The group is determined to stay together," said state Rep. Erin Zwiener of Driftwood on Tuesday. "When we return to the [House] floor, we will return together."

House Speaker Dade Phelan and Republicans

Perhaps more than any state leader, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has had to consider both sides in the debate that's ensued throughout the special session.

Phelan has fielded calls from his right flank to reprimand Democrats who broke quorum, such as stripping them of their committee chairmanships. Phelan has said that under current House rules, the speaker does not have the jurisdiction to remove them from such posts.

As punishment for the quorum break, Phelan did remove Moody, the El Paso Democrat, as speaker pro tempore, a position that performs the duties of the speaker in the speaker's absence. Democrats blasted the decision.

Another question facing House members is how the current impasse will impact funding for the Legislature, which is set to expire Sept. 1 thanks to Abbott's veto earlier this year in retaliation for Democrats' initial walkout over the bill.

While the Texas Supreme Court could weigh in, already one House Republican — Dan Huberty of Houston — has asked campaign donors to help pay for his legislative staff, writing that "it requires money in order to fund the budget of a fully-functioning office."

"I hope you will consider giving any amount you are able to help compensate my team," he wrote. "Your support is critical for their continued employment."

House Democrats are also bracing for a potential drop-off in funding. Zwiener, the Driftwood Democrat, told reporters Tuesday that lawmakers are "putting plans together to take care of our own staff," but urged Republicans to stand up to Abbott and ask the governor "to not use our staffs as a weapon against the Legislature."

"You don't negotiate with a bully," she said, "you stand up to them."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate

There is not much Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his Senate can do while they wait for House Democrats to come back to Austin.

A group of Senate Democrats initially joined their House counterparts in Washington, but the number of senators was not enough to break quorum in that chamber, and they have since returned.

The Senate has passed legislation related to Abbott's agenda, but it cannot make it to his desk without a quorum on the other side of the Capitol.

Like Abbott, Patrick is not in the mood for further negotiation on the elections bill and has said it will eventually pass "pretty much in the form that's in."

Frustrated with the standstill, Patrick has pitched lowering the quorum threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority and asked Abbott to add it to the next special session agenda. But the idea is a long shot — even if Abbott adds it to the call and Democrats show up for the second special session, the proposal would require a state constitutional amendment and thus a two-thirds vote to pass each chamber.


Trump-backed candidate loses GOP Texas congressional seat runoff in major upset

State Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie beat fellow Republican Susan Wright on Tuesday to succeed her late husband, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, and pull off a major upset against a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump.


With 93% of precincts reporting, Decision Desk HQ called the race for Ellzey late Tuesday, when he had 52.92% of votes to 47.08% for Wright, a longtime GOP activist.

Ellzey declared victory in a speech shortly after 9 p.m., addressing supporters in Ennis.

"One of the things that we've seen from this campaign is a positive outlook — a Reagan Republican outlook for the future of our country — is what the people of the 6th District really, really want," Ellzey said.

Susan Wright congratulated Ellzey in a tweet later Tuesday night.

The special election runoff was to finish Ron Wright's term in the 6th Congressional District, a Republican-leaning district in North Texas. Ron Wright died earlier this year after contracting COVID-19.

"I will never forget the kindness the people of #TX06 have shown Ron & I for so many years. Thank you," Susan Wright said in the same tweet in which she wished Ellzey well.

Susan Wright and Ellzey came out on top of a May 1 special election that featured 21 other candidates. She finished first with 19% of the vote, while Ellzey got 14%.

Trump endorsed Susan Wright in the final days before the May 1 election. He got more involved in the runoff, issuing three statements reiterating his endorsement, starring in a robocall for her and headlining a telephone rally for her on Monday night.

Ellzey relied on support from former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, a fellow Navy veteran who came off the sidelines in the runoff. Perry and other Ellzey allies suggested Trump had been misled into endorsing Susan Wright.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who had stayed out of the race, issued a statement congratulating Ellzey on his "hard-fought victory."

National attention on the race dimmed after Democrats narrowly missed the runoff, a disappointment for the party in a district that Trump won by only 3 percentage points last year. But Ellzey kept things competitive in the intraparty matchup, significantly outraising Susan Wright during the latest campaign finance reporting period and rallying his supporters against a barrage of attacks from the pro-Wright Club for Growth.

The Club for Growth said Tuesday morning that it had poured $1.2 million into the runoff, easily making it the top outside spender in the overtime round. In its advertising, the national group emphasized Trump's endorsement of Susan Wright and hammered Ellzey over his attendance record in the Texas House and accused him of voting for a tax hike there, which he denied.

Wright's campaign expressed confidence in the homestretch, though there was a late increase in outside spending on her behalf, including from a Trump-aligned super PAC. Ellzey's campaign, meanwhile, appeared to appeal to Democrats with last-minute texts that touted him as “pro-public education" and noted his opponent's Trump backing.

During the rally Monday night, Trump stressed that Susan Wright was the “only one" he had endorsed in the runoff and boasted about the Democratic lockout after the May 1 election.

“Susan, Ron is looking down on you," he said, “and he's very, very proud right now."

Ellzey's victory is the latest chapter in a complicated history between him and the Wrights. He first ran for the congressional seat in 2018, battling Ron Wright in a primary runoff and losing by a small margin. They appeared to bury the hatchet, though, when Ron Wright, after getting elected to Congress, gave Ellzey an early endorsement in his successful 2020 campaign for the state House. But things seemed to sour again when Ellzey did not give the late congressman's widow a pass and jumped into the special election to replace him within weeks of being sworn in to the Texas House.

Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day's news, curated by The Texas Tribune's award-winning journalists. Learn more.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/07/27/susan-wright-jake-ellzey-texas-6-congressional-seat/.

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

Gov. Greg Abbott says he won't impose new mask mandate despite increasing COVID-19 cases

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

"There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear," Abbott told KPRC in Houston on Tuesday. "There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity."

It would be "inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask," Abbott said.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors in most settings, the World Health Organization is still encouraging everyone to wear masks while inside.

As the delta variant has spread, some key pandemic indicators have increased in Texas. On Sunday, the state's positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — went above 10% for the first time since February, a threshold that Abbott has previously identified as dangerous.

As of Sunday, 43% of Texans were fully vaccinated.

Abbott lifted the statewide mask requirement in March.

Two months later, he announced he was banning government entities — including public schools — from mandating masks. Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

"Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school," Abbott said. "They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks."

George P. Bush outraises Attorney General Ken Paxton in primary challenge debut, though Paxton has bigger war chest

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush kicked off his attorney general campaign by outraising the incumbent, fellow Republican Ken Paxton, and another primary challenger, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. But Paxton has more money saved up for the battle than both of his opponents.

According to campaign finance reports released Friday, Bush raised $2.3 million over the last 10 days of June, while Paxton took in $1.8 million and Guzman collected $1.1 million. The campaigns had announced those figures earlier in the week, making clear Bush would be the fundraising leader for the period.

The filings that came out Friday, though, showed Paxton with a clear cash-on-hand advantage — $6.8 million in reserves. Bush reported $2.7 million in cash on hand, while Guzman disclosed $611,000.

The GOP primary for attorney general is shaping up to be one of the hottest statewide contests of the election cycle, with Paxton facing the two opponents amid an FBI investigation into claims that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor and a long-running securities fraud indictment. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Making the primary even more dramatic is the fact that former President Donald Trump has teased an endorsement in the race.

The 2022 gubernatorial race has also drawn early interest. Gov. Greg Abbott already faces at least three primary rivals, including former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, the most recent entrant. West announced his campaign July 4, which came after the period covering by the latest filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Huffines announced his Abbott challenge in early May, and his campaign claimed last week that he "raised over $9.1 million since entering the race." However, his report shows that was a misleading claim — his campaign had $9.1 million in receipts, but $5 million of it came via Huffines himself. He directly loaned himself $500,000 and secured a bank loan of $4.5 million that he guaranteed.

Abbott, meanwhile, announced last week that he raked in over $18.7 million during the last 10 days of June and had $55 million cash on hand, a massive war chest even by the high fundraising standards Abbott has previously set. Huffines disclosed a cash-on-hand balance of $7.6 million.

Abbott's full report, including information on his donors, was not immediately available Friday morning.

Huffines, however, had a top contributor in his brother, Phillip Huffines, who gave $2 million.

In the GOP primary for attorney general, Paxton's top donors included the Republican Attorneys General Association and Midland oilman Douglas Scharbauer. Each donated $250,000.

Bush got some of his biggest contributions in installments of $100,000 each from Dallas oil mogul Trevor Rees-Jones, Woodlands lawyer Arnulfo Eduardo Treviño Garza and H.H. 'Tripp' Wommack Ill, the CEO of a Midland oilfield services company.

Guzman's donor list was led by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the tort reform group that backed her quickly after she launched her bid. She got $200,000 from TLR, as well as $100,000 from its founder, Dick Weekley.

On the Democratic side of the race, the candidates include Joe Jaworski, a Galveston lawyer and former mayor of the city, and Lee Merritt, the well-known civil rights attorney from North Texas.

Jaworski raised $452,000 during the first half of the year, according to his latest TEC filing, and ended the period with a balance of $525,000. Merritt did not officially announce his campaign until Tuesday — after the period covered by the latest reports — though he has had a TEC account open since early June and reported $100,000 in donations from Real Justice PAC, a national group that mainly works to elect progressive prosecutors at the local level.


Texas Dems may walkout again during voter suppression special session: 'Everything is on the table'

Outnumbered and virtually powerless to block conservative priorities they oppose, Democrats in the Texas Legislature say they are keeping their options open as they prepare for a special session that is expected to revive the GOP elections bill they killed last month.

The line coming from Democrats across the spectrum: "Everything is on the table." That includes another walkout like the one that doomed Senate Bill 7 in the final hours of the regular legislative session when Democrats broke quorum. But this time, such a move could now imperil the pay of their staffers, since Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the funding for the legislative branch while telling lawmakers they could restore it in the special session that starts in less than a week.

"From a caucus perspective, since we're going into the unknown, we have to keep every option open, which includes denying quorum," said Rep. Jessica González of Dallas, vice chair of the House Elections Committee. "I think a lot of folks want to see what would be in [the elections bill] before making a decision."

She said House Democrats are "trying to get a sense of where the majority of our caucus is," but that consensus is "to be determined." Similarly, Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth said during a Texas Tribune event Tuesday that "right now, there has not been any type of resolution or concerted efforts."

"Everything is on the table," Collier said. "We're not going to remove any options at this point."

There are still a number of unknowns before Democrats can settle on a strategy, including what the full agenda will be for the special session, how Abbott will structure it and what the elections bill will look like. Abbott announced June 22 that the special session will begin July 8 but offered no other details, only saying the agenda would be announced before the session starts.

Democrats will also have to consider Abbott's veto of funding for the Legislature for the two-year budget cycle starting Sept. 1. That gives lawmakers an incentive to participate in the special session — or potentially sacrifice their staffers' pay. Abbott's veto was in retribution for the Democrats' walk out, but it affects more than 2,100 legislative staffers and individuals working at legislative agencies. (Abbott has acknowledged the lawmakers' salaries are protected by the state Constitution.)

Last week, Democrats and staffers sued over Abbott's veto, asking the state Supreme Court to reverse it. Abbott's office faces a Monday deadline to respond to the lawsuit.

The elections bill is unlikely to be the only proposal that Democrats will have to strategize against in the special session. In addition to vowing to bring back the voting legislation, Abbott has also said he would resurrect Republican priority proposals to crack down on "critical race theory" in Texas classrooms and punish social media companies for allegedly censoring Texans for their political views.

House Democrats sought to regroup for the coming battles during a meeting Monday at the Hotel Van Zandt in Austin. Roughly half of the 67-member caucus attended, according to three people who were present.

The head of the caucus, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, said members "had a productive meeting, discussing our litigation challenging Gov. Abbott's unconstitutional veto of the Legislature, as well as the upcoming special session."

"House Democrats are united and prepared to fight for all Texans, especially when it comes to defending the sacred right to vote," Turner said in a statement.

SB 7, the bill that Democrats derailed in the regular session, would have put new limits on early voting hours, local voting options and mail ballots. Critics of the bill have called it an attempt at voter suppression that disproportionately affects Texans of color.

Whatever Democrats decide to do, it could only cause another temporary delay in consideration of the election bill given that they remain in the minority at the Legislature and only one Republican — Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — has shown interest in splitting with his party.

Abbott's veto only further backed them into a corner.

Rep. Armando "Mando" Martinez of Weslaco, one of the Democrats who walked out, said in an interview Wednesday that Abbott's veto was "extremely juvenile" but that the potential loss of staff pay was "absolutely" weighing on him as July 8 nears. Still, he expressed optimism that Democrats would be able to navigate the conundrum.

"I think Democrats have always been resilient in the way that we use the rules to our benefit," Martinez said, adding that he was "very confident" that Democrats would ultimately coalesce around a strategy.

The special session also presents potentially tough choices for some Republicans, namely House Speaker Dade Phelan. After the walkout, he drew the wrath of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who charged Phelan with mismanaging the House calendar and allowing Democrats the opportunity to break quorum. Phelan has denied that.

At the same time, Phelan has said he will not resort to the most drastic of measures — locking the chambers doors and dispatching state police — if Democrats seek to abandon the chamber again. His office is nonetheless emphasizing its commitment to finishing the job on the voting legislation.

"If it takes a hundred special sessions, the Texas Legislature will pass an election integrity bill that instills further confidence in the accuracy of our elections," Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in a statement for this story.

Both Texas Republicans and Democrats will have to deal with more national attention than they did during the regular session. That is particularly true as voting rights battles shift even more to the states after Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked Democrats' far-ranging elections overhaul last week. Democratic state lawmakers in Texas had tried to leverage their walkout to force a breakthrough on the federal legislation, known as the For the People Act.

Among Democrats organizing outside the Texas Capitol, there has been virtually unanimous deference to lawmakers in the special session beyond voicing support for their everything-on-the-table approach. Beto O'Rourke, who spent weeks touring the state about voting rights after the walkout, said during a recent interview that Democratic legislators "have done so much so far, and I'm confident they're gonna do whatever it takes in any special session."

"There's nothing that they shouldn't consider," said Glenn Smith, senior strategist for Progress Texas, the Austin-based Democratic group.

One question for Democrats is how much they should work with Republicans on the elections legislation, especially after they were largely cut out of negotiations over the final version of SB 7 at the end of the regular session. Those talks produced a bill that GOP negotiators later admitted was flawed, saying they made mistakes with regard to the early voting window for Sundays and a process for overturning elections.

"Building that trust back would be a hard thing," Smith said, adding that he thinks Democrats "will talk [with Republicans], but I think we'll be very weary of what they're saying."

To be clear, House Democrats were not unanimous in their decision to break quorum over SB 7, and several appeared to stay behind, including a group of border-area representatives.

One of them, Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, said in a text message Tuesday that he "supported and will continue to support" fellow Democrats who walked out, but in his case, he felt it was best to remain on the floor with other Democrats from the border region and argue against the bill in person.

"As far as this special session goes," Morales said, "I need to visit with the rest of my colleagues and leadership to see what strategies we plan on using."

Gov. Greg Abbott says he’ll solicit individuals for donations to fund his plan for a border wall

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that Texas would build its own border wall, one of the immediate questions was who would pay for it.

Abbott has not fully detailed the plan yet, but he said in a podcast interview released Tuesday that the state will be soliciting donations from across the country to help fund the wall.

"When I do make the announcement later on this week, I will also be providing a link that you can click on and go to for everybody in the United States — really everybody in the entire world — who wants to help Texas build the border wall, there will be a place on there where they can contribute," Abbott said on the podcast, a show about Republican politics called "Ruthless."

Abbott made national headlines with his announcement Thursday in Del Rio that Texas would build its own wall at the Mexico border, though he provided no further details and said he would lay out the plan this week.

In the meantime, Abbott has faced threats of legal action and a bevy of questions about where, when and how such a wall could be constructed.

Abbott said in the podcast interview that the donations to Texas' border wall will go to a fund "overseen by the state of Texas in the governor's office." He promised "great transparency," saying "everyone will know every penny in, every penny out, but the sole purpose for those funds will be going to build the border wall."

Abbott's plan would not be the first attempt to crowdfund a border wall. There was We Build The Wall, a private fundraising effort that raised more than $25 million after originally planning to construct 3 miles of fence posts in South Texas. Last year, four people involved in We Build The Wall — including Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump — were charged with allegedly defrauding donors to the effort. Trump pardoned Bannon before leaving office in January.

A closer parallel to Abbott's plan may date to 2011, when the Arizona Legislature passed a law establishing a fund, complete with a fundraising website, to construct a fence along the state's border with Mexico. The fund received almost $270,000 by 2014, and a state border security advisory committee decided to give most of the sum to a county sheriff in 2015. The sheriff instead invested the money in border security technology such as GPS systems and binoculars, according to the Arizona Republic.

In a period of conflicts and crises, Gov. Greg Abbott goes all in on the border

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

When former President Donald Trump endorsed Gov. Greg Abbott for reelection last week, it was a boon to a governor who, by all appearances, has been working assiduously to neutralize any problems he may have in his next Republican primary.

But one line from Trump's statement in particular may have been the sweetest victory to Abbott.

"No Governor has done more to secure the Border," Trump proclaimed.

That is because there is no issue that Abbott has been more openly focused on this year — and competition has been stiff. There has been the coronavirus pandemic, the winter weather crisis and a host of Republican priorities at the state Capitol, including the elections bill that Democrats killed last month and Abbott has promised to revive in a yet-to-be-called special session.

Abbott's intense concentration on the border reached an apex Thursday evening, when he traveled to Del Rio to make several announcements related to border security — including that Texans would soon build its own border wall. He offered no details beyond that a plan would come next week, and many questions remain about where he'd get the money, land and authority to take such a drastic action. But the context was clear: Abbott is maneuvering to establish himself as a national Republican leader on border security — and the top foil to President Joe Biden on the issue.

Politically, the focus also comes as Abbott faces an electorate persistently worried about the border, a contested 2022 primary for reelection and the lead-up to a 2024 presidential race from which he still has not removed himself from consideration.

The border security summit that Abbott held in Del Rio capped months of ramped-up activity by the governor on the border. He fought with the Biden administration in March about letting in migrants with coronavirus. He ratcheted up the state law enforcement presence on the border through an initiative known as Operation Lone Star. He asked border-area counties to provide estimates of the financial stress they are under so he can request federal reimbursement. He called for the closure of San Antonio migrant shelter over what he said were complaints of child abuse.

Earlier this month, he ordered the state to revoke licenses issued to shelters that house unaccompanied migrant kids, drawing a threat of legal action from the Biden administration.

Abbott has sharply blamed Biden every step of the way, taking him to task for doing things like pausing border wall construction and ordering a review of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the "remain in Mexico" policy, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their hearings in U.S. immigration courts.

The number of people stopped by federal law enforcement at or near the border for trying to enter the country illegally has climbed sharply in the first year of Biden's term. The number reached 180,000 in May, which was the highest in more than two decades.

Democrats say Abbott is being hypocritical after not being nearly as outspoken about border problems under Trump.

"He did not seem too concerned about the border when Donald Trump was putting kids in cages and separating families and just doing the horrible things he did," said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "Given the great Christian man that he claims to be, he never cared one iota about the suffering that these children were going through, and that's just terrible."

In between all the border-related announcements, Abbott has become a more regular presence than ever on Fox News and other conservative outlets. After the border security summit, Abbott did an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham from the same stage at the Del Rio Civic Center.

In the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, conducted in mid-April, border security and immigration reigned supreme as the top concerns for Texans. Thirty-seven percent of voters picked them as the leading problems facing the state today. Among Republicans, the number was 65%, and no other issue came close. (Coronavirus got 3%.)

"It shouldn't surprise anyone that Greg Abbott is a border security hawk," said John Wittman, a former longtime spokesperson for the governor. "He ran on this in 2014 … and has continued to follow through on this."

Wittman argued Abbott was not playing politics but "being responsive to the current situation" under Biden.

Of course, Abbott's critics in both parties see it differently. Abbott primary challenger Don Huffines has been campaigning on Texas building its own border wall, and in a cheeky statement after Abbott's border security summit, Huffines thanked the governor for "joining my campaign."

"The wall should have been built years ago and the only reason Governor Abbott is now discussing it is because he's facing a primary challenge that threatens his political power," Huffines said in a statement for this story.

Allen West, the outgoing Texas GOP chairman who is considering challenging Abbott, also had a response to the governor Thursday evening. "Looking forward to Governor Abbott finishing the #borderwall for #Texas," West tweeted, sharing a video of him last month touring a border-wall section near El Paso.

Some of Abbott's critics inside his party noted that if he was serious about Texas finishing Trump's border wall, he could have supported legislation by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, to do so during the regular session earlier this year. The legislation, House Bill 2862, was referred to a committee in March but never got a hearing. In a Facebook post Thursday evening, Slaton urged Abbott to add the proposal to any special session agenda.

How competitive Abbott's 2022 primary will be remains to be seen, especially after Trump's endorsement. But it is hard to dispute that Abbott this year has been acting like an elected official acutely concerned with his right flank — not just due to his border security fixation, but also his embrace of hard-right legislative priorities like the permitless carry of handguns in which he had previously shown little interest.

Bryan Snyder is the chairman of the Republican Party in Maverick County, which is along the border and two counties over from where Abbott appeared for his border security summit. Snyder said the overall reaction from local Republicans to Abbott's border handling this year has been "very positive." He does not think Abbott's 2022 primary will be competitive, especially after Thursday evening.

"Honestly no, I really don't," Snyder said, "and I think this really seals the deal for him too."

Some suspect Abbott is looking beyond even 2022 with his intense focus on the border — and to a potential presidential campaign two years later. On Friday morning, the League of United Latin American Citizens issued a statement in which its president, Domingo Garcia, accused Abbott of "using refugee children as political piñatas to cynically launch his run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination."

Hinojosa said Abbott was politicizing "things that he feels will help him be in a better position to run for president."

In an interview last week, Abbott continued to keep a 2024 campaign on the table. He said he was still prioritizing issues from the regular legislative session and would only be focused on 2022 when he starts campaigning again — but did not rule out a presidential campaign after that when given the opportunity to do so.

Kamala Harris to host White House meeting with Texas Democrats who blocked voting bill

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Vice President Kamala Harris is hosting a meeting next week at the White House with Democratic state lawmakers who killed Texas Republicans' priority elections bill in the regular session.

The meeting will take place Wednesday, according to a statement from Harris spokesperson Symone Sanders. The White House did not immediately share which lawmakers would attend, but the House Democratic Caucus tweeted a list of 10 legislators who it said would be there.

Democrats in the Texas House staged a walkout late last month that doomed the legislation, Senate Bill 7, that would have brought sweeping changes to the voting process in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to bring it back in a yet-to-be-called special session.

SB 7 had caught the attention of President Joe Biden, who issued a statement the day before the walkout that denounced the legislation as "part of an assault on democracy." The bill included provisions to limit early voting hours, curb local voting options and further tighten vote-by-mail rules.

According to the House Democratic Caucus, the lawmakers who will attend the meeting include Reps. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, Rafael Anchia of Dallas, Jessica González of Dallas, Senfronia Thompson of Houston, Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio and Gina Hinojosa of Austin, as well as Sens. Carol Alvarado of Houston, Royce West of Dallas and Beverly Powell of Burleson.

Since the walkout, the Democrats have used the national spotlight to urge passage of federal voting rights legislation. Martinez Fischer reiterated that in a statement on the news of the meeting with Harris.

"We are deeply appreciative that Vice President Harris understands what is at stake and is leading the way to protect our democracy," Martinez Fischer said. "We are honored to stand with her, Congressional Democrats, and the entire Biden Administration."

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announces run for attorney general against Ken Paxton

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced Wednesday that he is running for attorney general, challenging fellow Republican Ken Paxton with a sharp focus on Paxton's legal troubles.

"Enough is enough, Ken," Bush said during a campaign kickoff at a downtown Austin bar. "You've brought way too much scandal and too little integrity to this office. And as a career politician for 20 years, it's time for you to go."

The 2022 matchup could be the marquee statewide primary of this election cycle, and former President Donald Trump already looms large. He said in a statement last week that he would issue an endorsement in the race — and do so "in the not-so-distant future." Bush told reporters after his announcement that he has asked Trump for his endorsement.

Both Bush and Paxton have histories with Trump. Bush — son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — was the only prominent member of his famous political family to support Trump in 2016, and Trump has praised him as the only Bush "that got it right." Paxton has positioned himself as one of the most pro-Trump attorneys general — especially after the November election, when Paxton led an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging Trump's reelection loss in four battleground states.

Paxton's campaign responded to Bush's launch by touting the attorney general as the "tip of the spear in protecting President Trump's America First principles."

Paxton has been under indictment on securities fraud charges for most of the time since he took office in 2015. More recently, he has come under investigation by the FBI over allegations from former senior aides that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

On Tuesday, Paxton asked a state appeals court to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit brought by the former aides. His lawyers argue that under state law, a whistleblower must believe someone has violated the law, but the aides only reported that "they expected laws might be violated."

"We need an attorney general stacking up mugshots of hardened criminals," Bush said, "not an attorney general that's stacking up mugshots of himself."

Paxton's campaign did not address the legal issues in its statement on Bush's announcement. The statement from Paxton campaign spokesperson Ian Prior said Texans "know Attorney General Paxton's rock-solid conservative record."

"Voters will also remember how General Paxton lead the effort to shut down Backpage, one of the largest human trafficking sites in the world, and even Mr. Bush publicly acknowledges there is no more conservative fighter than Attorney General Ken Paxton," Prior said, an apparent reference to Bush previously saying that he does not intend to challenge Paxton on conservative credentials but his integrity.

During his speech to supporters, Bush warned that Democrats are eager to face Paxton in November because they see him as "our weak link."

"They know that if he is our nominee again, they will have their first statewide elected office in close to 30 years," Bush said.

At least one Democrat, Joe Jaworski, has already launched a campaign for attorney general. Jaworski is a Galveston attorney and former mayor of the city. Lee Merritt, the nationally recognized civil rights lawyer from North Texas, has said he plans to challenge Paxton but has not specified which primary he would run in.

Despite the long-running indictment, Paxton faced no primary opposition for a second term 2018. He ended up having a closer-than-expected race in the general election, when the Democratic nominee, Justin Nelson, campaigned heavily on Paxton's legal troubles and finished within 4 percentage points of him.

Bush was first elected land commissioner in 2014 and won a second term four years later. He's received considerable pushback over his office's restoration project of the Alamo, the historical site in San Antonio that the General Land Office oversees.

In 2018, dissatisfaction with Bush's management of the Alamo project fueled three primary challengers to the land commissioner, most notably his predecessor, Jerry Patterson. Trump endorsed Bush in that primary, and he went on to win with 58% of the vote.

In recent weeks, Bush has taken heat in his job after his office gave Houston and Harris County $0 of the $1 billion available in the latest round of federal relief funding related to Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Under bipartisan criticism, Bush said last week he was asking the federal government to send $750 million directly to Harris County.

The Bush-Paxton matchup has the potential to splinter top Texas Republicans, or at least put them in an awkward position. The last time one statewide official challenged another in Texas was in 2006, when Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn unsuccessfully ran as an independent against GOP Gov. Rick Perry.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has already indicated he will not get involved in the Bush-Paxton primary, and in an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was not focusing on 2022 campaigns yet — but did offer praise for Paxton.

"I think everybody knows that I've had a very effective working relationship with the attorney general," Abbott said, adding that Paxton has been a "big help" to the governor's office. "I think he's done a very effective job in fights that we are waging together."

Democrats' defeat of Texas voting bill adds an asterisk to Republicans’ 'most conservative' legislative session

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Before Sunday, some Texas Republicans were declaring this legislative session the most conservative in the state's recent history.

They had notched long-sought breakthroughs expanding gun rights and restricting abortion, and while some argued even more could have been done, few disputed they had ample achievements to tout.

But a massive asterisk fell upon the session for Republicans late Sunday night, when House Democrats broke quorum and killed Senate Bill 7, a GOP priority bill to tighten election laws in the state, which opponents say would have restricted voting rights, particularly for people of color and the elderly and disabled. That move left several other bills that were pending final approval dead on the final day lawmakers could pass legislation, including a bill identified as a priority by Gov. Greg Abbott that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash.

"Texans shouldn't have to pay the consequences of these members' actions -- or in this case, inaction -- especially at a time when a majority of Texans have exhibited clear and express support for making our elections stronger and more secure," House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement.

The Democrats celebrated their victory on Sunday, but that could be short-lived. Republicans are now staring down a guaranteed special session to get the job done on SB 7 — and potentially a host of other issues that could further escalate intraparty tensions.

Democratic leaders said they know Republicans will try to bring the issue back in a special session and are preparing to fight it back again.

"We're outnumbered. There's no doubt about it. Republicans are in the majority," said Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. "Democrats are going to continue to use every tool in our toolbox to slow them down, to fight them, to stop them. What that looks like weeks or months down the road, I can't predict at this point, but we're going to fight with everything we've got."

SB 7 had been a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott, who named "election integrity" one of his five initial emergency items earlier this year. After the House gaveled out for the night, Patrick didn't hold back in comments from the Senate dais, criticizing the lower chamber for taking days off near the end of the legislative session as bill-killing deadlines approached.

"I can't even blame it on the other party for walking out," said Patrick, a Republican. "They got an opportunity to walk out because of the deadline."

Revisiting the topic a short time later, Patrick, who's been increasingly at odds with Phelan as the session wound down, said the "clock ran out on the House because it was managed poorly. That's the bottom line."

Phelan, a fourth term state representative from Beaumont, is in his first session as House speaker.

Even before Sunday night, Patrick and like-minded House Republicans were laying the groundwork to argue the session was not as conservative as it could have been. After three of his priorities died in the House last week, Patrick called for a special session to revive the proposals, including one that would ban transgender student athletes from playing on teams that correspond with their gender identity.

No Republican leader is now in more of a squeeze than Abbott, who on Saturday tweeted that the "most conservative legislative session in a generation is wrapping up." He will have to decide when to hold a special session and what all to put on the agenda to appease his right flank, just as the statewide primary season is beginning to heat up for the 2022 elections. Abbott expressed disappointment that both the sweeping voting bill and bail reform, two of his priorities for the session, had failed to get legislative approval.

"It is deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans that neither will reach my desk. Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas," Abbott said in a statement. "They will be added to the special session agenda."

Abbott did not say if he would call lawmakers back for a special session before a planned session in the fall to handle the state's decennial redrawing of political maps. But he said lawmakers would be expected to have worked out the details to both of those items by the time they arrived for a special session.

The House Republican Caucus, which had fueled the billing of this session as the "most conservative" the chamber has seen, said in a statement that it is "fully committed to taking all necessary steps to deliver on election integrity and bail reform." Most House Republicans who spoke out Sunday night echoed that sentiment, denouncing Democrats as obstructionists and expressing perseverance for the special session. "Ready to get back to work," tweeted Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, the House sponsor of SB 7.

But not all House Republicans were as willing to overlook their mishaps. Reps. Bryan Slaton of Royse City and Jeff Cason of Bedford, who regularly test GOP leadership, noted that Republicans had months to pass such an election bill in the House and waited until the last possible day, despite it being well-known that the minority party was dead set against the legislation.

"Democrats can only kill a bill that Republican leadership lets them kill," Slaton wrote on Facebook.

Democrats said at a news conference Sunday night at Mt. Zion Fellowship Hall in Austin that they had prepared to use procedural tactics to kill Senate Bill 7 by running out the clock until midnight, the deadline to accept bills worked out in conference committees. More than 30 Democrats were prepared with questions and points of order to delay the bill's discussion.

But when they were not allowed to ask questions on the floor or use the delay tactics they had prepared, Democrats resorted to the last tool they had left: breaking quorum.

The tactic is a legislative last resort and has been used rarely in recent memory, most notably in 2003 when Democrats in both chambers left the state to delay votes on redrawing political maps. The Democrats ultimately returned to the Legislature and, after three special sessions called by then-Gov. Rick Perry, passed the redrawn political maps, which cemented GOP dominance in the state.

On Sunday night, Democratic leaders got wind that Republican lawmakers had gathered the necessary 25 signatures to end debate on a bill and call for a vote.

At 10:35 p.m., Turner, the Democratic caucus chair, sent a text to other Democrats to take the keys to their voting machines and discreetly leave the chamber, and then, the building.

About 10 minutes later, when the House called for a vote on a procedural matter to excuse an absence for Rep. Joe Moody, D- El Paso, lawmakers confirmed that they no longer had a quorum to conduct business.

"We were determined. We know how to talk for a long time when we need to. That's what we were doing and it was working," Turner said at the news conference. "They were prepared to cut us off and try to silence us. We were not going to let them do that. And that's why Democrats used the last tool available to us, we denied them the quorum."

Democratic lawmakers said they had been frustrated by a session in which GOP leaders had pushed through controversial legislation on social issues. Republicans pushed through permitless carry of handguns, a near-total ban on abortion, penalties for cities that cut police budgets, a proposal targeting the teaching of critical race theory — even a Patrick priority to require that professional sports teams with state government contracts play the national anthem at the start of every game.

"Why is there so much legislation that's arguably hateful coming to the floor?" Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, told The Texas Tribune. "I've been here four sessions. I've never experienced a session where so many hateful bills have come to the floor. They always have been at the back of the line."

Romero said he was also upset by the lack of decorum in the House. Republicans, he said, jeered at Democratic lawmakers and had threatened to call for votes repeatedly throughout the session while the minority party was trying to use legislative procedures to stall on legislation their constituents opposed.

"I don't blame that on Dade Phelan, but on his lieutenants," Romero said. "They're not secretive about it. They're so disrespectful. And it has been so disrespectful all year long."

Turner also deflected blame from Phelan and pointed it squarely at Abbott.

"I hold Greg Abbott responsible. He's the governor of the state of Texas," he said. "He set in motion this entire process by demanding a vote suppression bill come to his desk. And why is he doing that? He's doing that because [of] the 'big lie.' Because Donald Trump has set this fever upon the Republican Party that the election was stolen."

Before Sunday, the mood among Republicans was general satisfaction with the session — and among Democrats, downright disgust. The laundry list of conservative priorities at times overshadowed the dual crises that lawmakers were confronted with toward the beginning of the session: the coronavirus pandemic and February winter storm that left millions of Texans without power.

"It's been a strong session for business, a strong session for pro-life, it's going to end up a good session for public education, and we had a good budget," said Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who has served in the Texas House since 1999. "All in all, there's some things I wish we'd gotten done, but there always is."

Rep. Ann Johnson of Houston, the only Democrat to flip a House seat last year, had a decisively different take in an interview Friday.

"This has been one of the hardest sessions, and it's felt painful for me," Johnson said. "When I talk to my older colleagues, they say this is the worst it's ever been. And so when you look at what we've seen happen, with Democrats being run over on social issues — and social issues that I don't believe the majority of Texans agree with — it's been gut-wrenching."

By Monday morning, Johnson had one less thing to worry about for now.

"I was proud to stand up for our democracy today," she said in a statement, "and walk out to kill SB 7 with my colleagues."

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Raw Story Investigates and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.