Debate preview: What ails Texas ails the nation

WHY WE’RE A PRIME STATE TO HOLD THE SEPT. 12 PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE
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It’s not just the 10 Democrats going under the national klieg lights of a presidential debate later this month in Houston. The State of Texas will be on display — and in play.

There’s a lot to show off beyond our warm temps and BBQ. The Texas economy is, for now, strong, thanks to the entrepreneurship and grit of workers and business leaders (not Republican policies, who oddly wanted to raise taxes this year). Fortune 500 companies and start-ups checker the state, employing tens of thousands of diverse people, many of whom were educated at top in-state universities. All of this and more is why 1,000 people move to the Lone Star State every day.

There’s also something disruptive going in our politics. Polls show President Trump’s support in Texas, historically one of the most stubbornly Republican states, has dropped 15 points since he took office. He’s statistically tied with or trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and in other polls, with former congressman Beto O’Rourke. The major cities –Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio– are not trending blue; they are blue. In 2018, several Democrats came within spitting distance — two to three points –of winning statewide elections; 12 Dems won at the state House level. Black Girl Magic in Houston stole the show during judicial elections.

What gives the upcoming presidential debate a B-12 shot is Texas’ new battleground status. We haven’t been competitive since 1976. This is data-driven happy talk — not pie-in-the-sky gibberish. 

But Texas, like any state, faces difficulties. We’re at the epicenter of at least three of the nation’s toughest public policy challenges defining the 2020 presidential campaign. 

Gun violence: The Lone Star State has been through five horrendous mass shootings in two years — the latest being the attacks in El Paso and Odessa. Still, the conservative lock on state government continues to prevent any reasonable gun safety reforms from seeing the light of day. In Washington, Trump and GOP senators, like John Cornyn, are too cozy with the National Rifle Association to show any backbone on gun violence legislation.

Health care: Houston is home to the world-renowned Texas Medical Center, with some of the best physicians, medical care, and research on the planet. Yet under Republican leadership, the state has the dubious distinction as the uninsured capital of the country. The cost of care is sky-high and health outcomes are poor. Still, the GOP refuses to expand Medicaid, much less do anything — even a conservative solution — to bring costs down and protect pre-existing conditions. That rank inaction goes against what even the GOP base wants. 

Immigration/border crisis.  This one needs no explanation. President Trump’s family separation and migrant detention center policies, worsened by the administration’s incompetence, have played themselves out on the ground here in a state that shares more than 1,200 miles of border with Mexico. About 120,000 Dreamers live in Texas, and an overwhelming majority think they should remain here. Our attorney general, who has been indicted on securities fraud, wants them gone.

The three-hour marathon of a debate, hosted by ABC News and Univision, at Texas Southern University, a historically black university, won’t disappoint. Not only are Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro on the debate stage, so will the epic prospect of Texas’ 38 electoral votes going to the Democratic nominee. But there’s a caveat.

“While the GOP is very likely to have President Trump at the top of their ticket,” writes well-known Houston political scientist Richard Murray, “any one of a dozen Democrats could end up being nominated in Milwaukee next summer. And will that nominee opt for a strategy that includes contesting Texas? Republicans must win Texas. Democrats have other options.”

If the Democratic nominee doesn’t contest Texas, the party will have to wait until 2024. But it’s precisely because Trump is accelerating the GOP’s demise that makes now the time to take Texas.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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