AUSTIN – A scuffle on the Texas House floor. Protesters flooding the state Capitol. Gun threats.
Monday’s combative end to the Republican-controlled 85th Texas Legislature capped a contentious session that saw passage of some of the most conservative bills seen in years, including a law that punishes so-called “sanctuary cities” for not cooperating with federal immigration agents, abortion restrictions and stricter rules on voter IDs.
A proposal that would restrict transgender Texans from using the bathroom of their choice sparked some of the loudest debates and could come up at a special session next month. The slew of bills have drawn protests by immigration and LGBT advocates, business leaders and even moderate Texas Republicans.
That blow-back came to a head Monday when chanting protesters filled the Texas Capitol on the session’s final day, protesting SB4, the sanctuary cities bill Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law earlier this month. In the heat of the protests, one lawmaker, state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, said he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the protesters, causing a kerfuffle with some of his Democratic colleagues. When confronted by an opposing lawmaker, Rinaldi told him he would “shoot him in self-defense,” according to a statement Rinaldi later posted on Facebook.
But as Texas tilts further to the right, state Republicans face a long-term problem: How to maintain its conservative trajectory and not alienate Latino and other minority voters deemed crucial to its longtime survival.
“They’re laying the groundwork for setbacks in the future,” said Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “We don’t know if it’s short-term, medium-term or long-term. But they’re going to suffer on account of this.”
The push toward a more conservative agenda has been led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a radio talk show host turned politician who represents Tea Party interests in the state. In Texas, the lieutenant governor leads the Senate. Patrick’s agenda underscored a fissure among Texas Republicans, as some of his bills were refuted by more centrist Republicans. House leader Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, considered more moderate, effectively stalled the bathroom bill. Abbott will decide in the coming days if that issue is included in a June special session.
Trump’s ascension to the White House also paved the way for Patrick, who supported Trump, to align at least part of his agenda with Washington’s, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist. The sanctuary cities bill, for example, had been proposed unsuccessfully before in Texas but rose to prominence here after Trump made it a cornerstone of his campaign, he said.
Despite widespread protests, including mariachi bands blaring in protest outside Abbott’s mansion earlier this week, the law passed both chambers and is scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1.
“Trump created a context that made it easier for Lt. Gov. Patrick to push that through,” Jones said.
The conservative push spawns from redistricting of congressional maps by Republican leaders dating back more than a decade, Jones said. The redrawn districts virtually guarantee that a majority of the legislators in both the House and Senate remain Republican.
That means Texas Republicans tend to be more concerned with the hard-line issues that could get them past the primary rather than more general policies representing a broader array of voters, Jones said. “Their real focus is on the Texas Republican primary,” he said.
But Republicans’ tilt toward more conservative issues and alignment with Trump could marginalize Latino and other minority voters, Sabato said. The state Republican Party in recent years has invested a lot of time and money in recruiting more Latino support – efforts that could be erased by Patrick’s trajectory, he said.
“The gerrymandering finally is backfiring on Republicans who drew the districts,” Sabato said. “It’s making the nominees more and more conservative which will eventually drive the electorate in the other direction.”