Vice President Joe Biden is leading President Donald Trump in several of the latest Texas polls. On the surface it seems like an about face for the traditionally red state, but a closer look at the state’s shifting politics reveals growing daylight between the conservatives’ self-isolating grassroots movement and the average Texan.
Every now and then the stark contrast becomes clearer and the ugly underside of Texas’ far right movement has its moment in the sun. The well-funded network of “think tanks” backed by the Koch brothers and fossil fuel magnates has lost considerable clout since the glory days of the Tea Party. Two of the more infamous groups, Empower Texans and Texas Public Policy Foundation, are filled with some pretty mean-spirited dudes that have made more headlines this summer for their toxic commentary than their policy positions.
In mid-June, two podcasting employees for Empower Texans were caught on (their own) tape making fun of Gov. Greg Abbott for being in a wheelchair, calling him a “revolting piece of shit,” and emphasizing how much they “hate him.” For these two, Abbott just wasn’t conservative enough, in his response to COVID-19 among other things. Their callous language earned rebuke from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the same man who claimed he was ready to sacrifice grandmothers for their grandkid’s economy. Patrick himself has put significant daylight between himself and Abbott over COVID-19 but has called the offending duo “persona non grata” for their comments about the governor.
They may have unintentionally aired their true feelings about Abbott but Empower Texans’ online platform regularly oscillates from attacking “radical left” local officials to promoting the MAGA agenda of cruelty and division. They use their “Scorecard” to keep conservative members in check, but their influence has waned considerably in recent years. The political sand box they like to play in looks more like quicksand every cycle for the candidates they back. The number of “conservative leaders” that they highlight on their website has fallen each consecutive year from 18 in 2014 to just 11 in 2019. And in 2018 they lost half of the 34 primary races they invested in.
Their ideological twin, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, tries to peddle influence by making the economic case for less government regardless of the issue. They have close ties to the Trump White House including what appears to be a retroactive ethics waiver “on broad policy matters and particular matters of general applicability.” The group’s chief economist Vance Ginn, and subject of the waiver, served in the Trump Administration as associate director for Economic Policy of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and “provided in-depth analysis throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.” When Texas revised its own data to reveal gaps in demographic reporting Vance tweeted a tone-deaf racially-charged argument for reopening schools that it was “mostly elderly and Hispanics dying.” Vance just couldn’t resist the unholy trinity of dehumanizing immigrants, downplaying the virus and neutering the government’s ability to address the needs of its constituents.
These flare ups are a symptom of the conservative purity test that has led to a gutting of the GOP from the middle of the political spectrum. Instead of putting GOP officials in their place, the uncompromising politics of these groups have resulted in legislators speaking out on the noxious culture they have formed around the Capitol that is increasing in contrast with the state’s changing profile. It is not an uncommon belief that these groups are doing lasting damage to the conservative movement, with one GOP state representative referring to Empower Texans as the “Antifa of the right” and accusing them of destroying the Republican Party from the inside. He’s not wrong. This is the same group responsible for the scandalous tape that led to the Republican Speaker of the House announcing his early retirement.
These groups still exert considerable influence by investing in GOP primaries and controlling the policy conversation on the right. But that could backfire. Greg Abbott’s approval of his handling of COVID-19 is down to 38 percent and Trump himself is underwater in Texas, so rank and file Republicans are having to second guess their lock-step messaging strategy.
Texans are opening their eyes and beginning to see that the policy priorities of hardline conservatives have left their health and their economy vulnerable. As the election heats up it will be interesting to see how many Texas Republicans still try to tie themselves to Trump, because if they do, that will be one place they find plenty of common ground with Democrats.
Photo: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images