Opportunities and Dangers for the Texas GOP

Dr. Malcolm Cross

A Republican victory in a special election to choose a new member of Congress showed growing Republican strength among Hispanics.  But a new public opinion poll on the race for governor and gun control and the display of a rift between conservative and moderate Republicans at the state GOP convention show potential weaknesses within the GOP which could diminish the chances for electoral victories in the future.

The best news for the GOP was the victory of Mayra Flores in a special election to fill a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives vacated by a Democratic congressman who resigned to become a lobbyist.  Congresswoman-elect Flores is noteworthy partly because she is the first woman born in Mexico to win election to Congress.  But what makes her election especially important to the GOP is that she won in a solidly Hispanic district.

As noted in earlier columns, the most important question in Texas party politics today is how much of the Hispanic vote the GOP can win.  The GOP’s strongest supporters are Anglos, who typically vote Republican by a 2-1 margin.  But Anglos are shrinking as a percentage of the electorate, and are now outnumbered by the more rapidly growing Hispanic population.  The GOP cannot retain its dominant role in Texas government and politics without winning a large and growing percentage of the emerging Hispanic vote. 

In 2020 then-President Trump surprised political analysts by winning about 45% of the Hispanic vote to soon-to-be President Biden’s 55%.  Trump had emphasized support for the fossil fuel industry (a major supplier of jobs for Hispanics), law and order and opposition to abortion (which played well with Catholic and culturally conservative Hispanics) and opposition to illegal immigration—a stand apparently popular with Hispanic American citizens and immigrants who are here legally and who resent those trying to illegally butt into line rather than wait their turn.  The election of Mayra Flores to Congress may show that Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing as a Republican in 2020 was not a fluke.  Continuing Republican emphasis on the issues Trump raised and the positions he took, as well as the nomination of more Hispanics to run for office as conservative Republicans, may be the key to the Republicans’ long-range success among Hispanic voters and the maintenance of its political dominance in Texas.

No doubt the best news for Texas Democrats last week were the findings of the latest prestigious Quinnipiac University poll, which shows the race for Texas Governor to be tightening:  48% of those polled said they favored the re-election of Governor Abbott while 43% said they supported the election of Beto O’Rourke.  Last December, the same poll reported that those polled supported Abbott over O’Rourke 52%-37%.  

The latest poll was conducted shortly after the Uvalde murders, and may reflect the growing popularity of gun control measures, even in Texas.  CBS News, analyzing the poll results, said that, “By a margin of 93% to 6%, Texas voters support requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Voters also support raising the minimum age nationwide to purchase a gun to 21, 73%-25%.”  

On the other hand, the party platform adopted by the GOP at its convention in Houston expresses opposition these measures.  One section says:  “We support all legislation and policies that reduce restrictions on legal gun owners age 18 and over to purchase, own, or carry any type of gun, ammunition, accessory, knife, or other weapons, and oppose all legislation and policies that hinder the same.”  Another section says:  “We oppose any measure that would deprive someone of their right to possess firearms without being convicted of a crime or found mentally incompetent by a medical psychiatric professional, or that would cause gun owners to be investigated by law enforcement or appear before a judge when there is no reasonable cause of a crime committed. This includes state legislation such as red flag laws, social media monitoring that targets gun owners, expanded background checks…”  Little wonder that for his own efforts to forge a bipartisan gun control bill, Senator Cornyn was loudly booed at the convention.  So whatever the respective merits of the various proposed gun control policies the Texas GOP has clearly put itself on the less popular side of the issue, Which Beto O’Rourke could exploit to Democratic advantage this fall.

Texas Republican Chair Matt Rinaldi has dismissed the poll as insignificant—only a single marker in an election over 4 months away.  He may be right.  By November memories of Uvalde and demands for more gun control may have sufficiently dimmed to allow a surge in support for Governor Abbott.  But Rinaldi, having presided over the state GOP’s convention in Houston, no doubt saw other signs of GOP weakness—specifically a rift between conservative Republicans who supply the party activists—including state and local convention delegates—and the more moderate suburban Republicans but who are otherwise less active in party affairs.

The local Sunday morning news shows devoted to Texas politics noted that Governor Abbott chose not to speak at the convention.  While Abbott easily won renomination in the March primary, his popularity among the hardcore activists who typically dominate state conventions as delegates is not as great as he might like.  Many consider him ineffective in supporting border security and gun owners’ rights, and supported his more conservative primary challengers, Don Huffines and especially former GOP chair Alan West.  There’s no possibility that the hardcore conservatives will support O’Rourke in November, but how enthusiastically they’ll get out the vote for Abbott remains to be seen.  Less enthusiasm among activists in getting out the vote this fall may diminish Abbott’s support at the polls.

So the GOP has every right to remain hopeful that it can win a growing share of the Hispanic vote which, together with its hold on Anglos, will be the key to the party’s efforts to maintain its political dominance.  But should the issue of gun control remain important, and should the rift between conservatives and moderates within the party worsen, Republican hopes for the future may be undone not by the Democrats, but by Republicans themselves.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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