EL PASO, Texas — One Friday in early August, Nancy Thompson woke up and decided to protest Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. She had, in her words, been “stewing all night,” worried about sending her kids to school after a summer of rising Covid cases and Republican leaders’ resistance to mask mandates and other pandemic measures. A day earlier, Abbott also called a second special legislative session to pass a partisan election reform bill that Democrats had blocked earlier in the summer.
Thompson, an Austin-based mother of three, found a poster board and red and blue sharpies. When she finished writing, she realized her sign — which read, “Mothers Against Greg Abbott” — spelled out MAGA down the side. Thompson thought that was “cool and perfect.” She drove south from her home to the state capitol and stood on the steps by herself with the poster. Then, almost on a whim, she created a private Facebook group under the same slogan on her sign.
By Wednesday — after a week that saw more than 600 new Texas laws go into effect, including the country’s most restrictive abortion legislation — nearly 18,000 people had joined the group, and Thompson had to pause approval of new members and posts because of the torrent of requests. Thompson, whose experience in politics basically amounts to starting a political sign company last year and serving on a PTA committee, is now scrambling to channel the Facebook group’s frustration into voter outreach. She built a website and wants to start a political action committee.
“There are people who are mad,” said Thompson, who grew up supporting Republicans but started voting for Democrats after the United States invaded Iraq under President George W. Bush. Mad because they are sending their kids to school in the middle of a Covid surge with limited public health protections, and Texas is leading the country in pediatric Covid deaths. Mad that Texas law, which the Supreme Court allowed to move forward, now incentivizes private citizens to sue anyone who helps a women obtain an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy. Mad that Texas is now home to the country’s least restrictive gun law, no longer requiring a license or training course to carry a handgun.
“This,” Thompson said, “is what the GOP has unleashed.”
The Texas Republican Party’s hard tack to the right over the summer, culminating in the abortion law and election bill last week, has sparked a palpable backlash in the state. For the first time since Texas Democrats’ dreams of flipping the state leadership were dashed in 2020, many in the party are eyeing a path out of the political wilderness. As Abbott and other Republican state leaders work to appease their conservative base ahead of the 2022 state elections, Democrats see an opening to notch victories up and down the ballot.
The question is whether they can organize themselves to do it, which even some left-leaning strategists and organizers here doubt.
Many of the new measures in effect — on mask mandates, abortion, guns — are broadly unpopular in a state with a growing urban and suburban population. While Abbott so far has dominated the 2022 gubernatorial campaign, his approval ratings have dropped by double digits since June, hitting the lowest point in his tenure as governor, according to the Texas Politics Project. Fifty-two percent of Texans think the state is heading in the wrong direction as of August, the highest share since pollsters started tracking the trends in 2008. At some point last week, the hashtag #TexasTaliban was trending on Twitter.
The phrase “galvanizing moment” came up over and over again in recent conversations with Texas and national Democrats. Democratic groups and candidates say they plan to seize on the local outrage and national attention to raise money, mobilize their base, recruit candidates and make a case to voters for 2022. “This is a totally different playing field now after what happened with the Supreme Court,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “This just changes the entire complexion of the 2022 election.”
Still, even as the Texas GOP becomes a deeper shade of red in a state where the electorate is becoming more purple, it’s not clear the Texas Democratic Party can translate the momentary backlash — and anger — into liberal wins.
In states with a strong Democratic Party, like California and Virginia, the new Texas laws are already buoying liberal candidates. And the Biden administration reportedly is preparing to sue Texas over the abortion law. But in Texas, Democrats’ grassroots organizing ability, candidate pipeline and strategy pale in comparison with the GOP’s. A lot of last week’s activity has been decentralized. The Texas Democratic Party has been sending out a couple of emails a day in response to GOP moves this summer. Activists have flooded a website set up to catch people who get or aid abortions with spam. Donors are sending money to different liberal organizations and candidates. Various groups are protesting at the capitol. Moms have stumbled onto Thompson’s Facebook group.
At least one national Democratic strategist, who didn’t want to be named to avoid jeopardizing donor relationships, is advising clients not to sink money into Texas right now. To the strategist, Texas is both a “white whale” and “an albatross” for the left — an elusive obsession, as well as a drag on other Democratic efforts around the country. “It wouldn’t shock me that donors buy into the hype again in Texas,” the strategist said.
Perhaps most importantly, just 14 months before the 2022 elections, Democrats don’t even have a gubernatorial candidate they can pitch as an alternative to Abbott — a challenger who might have harnessed last week’s events into national media appearances, coordinated fundraising and clear messaging for candidates across the state. “There is nobody to rally around right now,” said Ed Espinoza, who heads the left-leaning group Progress Texas.
In the weeks ahead, political observers here are watching whether Texas Democrats actually capitalize on the discontent, which has touched independents and even some Republicans, or whether the Democrats’ infrastructure is just too lacking and the state just too conservative. Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who is considered Abbott’s most plausible potential challenger, might yet announce a gubernatorial bid. But by the time someone decides to take on Abbott or the Democratic Party’s plans come together, Espinoza worries the moment will have passed.
“It’s a missed opportunity for everyone,” he said.
The Texas electorate might be changing quickly. But Republicans still make up the majority of voters — a fact that is not lost on the politicians who pushed through this year’s new legislation. About 65 percent of Republicans in Texas agree strongly or somewhat with the state government’s handling of the pandemic, according to a June poll. More than 70 percent support outlawing abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser, who has been tracking social media sentiment on the right, said many Republican voters are “thrilled” by the recent culture war-style legislation. “For Republicans those are the bread-and-butter issues,” he said.
Still, there are signs that the abortion law, in particular, might have gone too far even for some Republicans.
Tessa Zavala, a GOP strategist who supports abortion rights, said she heard complaints from some Republicans during the legislative session that the enforcement mechanism in the six-week abortion ban was too extreme, opening up a potential torrent of lawsuits, and that the law should have allowed exceptions for rape or incest. In response to criticism of the law, Abbott said Tuesday that Texas would eliminate rapists — a comment that drew ridicule for its implausibility — and mischaracterized how long a women would have to get an abortion. Some GOP women, in particular, are breaking with their party for the first time behind the scenes on the issue of abortion and the mask mandate ban, Zavala said.
But, she added, no one she has spoken with is even close to abandoning the Republican Party for a Democrat right now. “It’s more like a dramatic eyeroll,” said Zavala, who previously worked for a female Republican state lawmaker. “Like, ‘I can’t believe what they did.’”
While Republican leaders have lost some support in recent weeks, James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, noted that the drop in Abbott’s approval ratings came largely from independent voters, who don’t reliably show up to vote. Republican politicians here appear undeterred by the recent poll numbers or social media backlash on the left and more motivated by their steadfast primary voters. Abbott already has called a third special legislative session starting Sept. 20, so the Legislature can draw new congressional and statehouse maps. Also on the docket are restrictions on transgender student athletes and a ban on vaccine mandates.
The national Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous argues that state Democrats are facing a number of hurdles at least partly of their own making: no consistent messaging that appeals to centrists and independent voters and the state’s growing share of Latinos, no strategy to overcome GOP control of elections, no large bench of candidates ready to take on Republican lawmakers. Thompson said she started her group because there was no obvious other place for her to go. “I wish,” she said, “there was an organization who could rise up against what is happening in Texas right now.”
Powered By People, Beto O’Rourke’s group that supports Democratic candidates, raised $200,000 in the past week, said Texas Democratic strategist Abhi Rahman. And much of that money will be used to register new voters and do candidate outreach. But most Democratic groups are still trying to figure out how to take advantage of the surge of energy and enthusiasm. “We’re trying to figure out what activism looks like,” said Chris Lazare, the organizing director of Real Justice PAC and an alum of O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign.
“Democrats are a little bit stunned,” added Mike Collier, who lost the lieutenant governor’s race in 2018 by 5 percentage points and is challenging the Republican incumbent, Dan Patrick, again next year. Texans are no strangers to conservative legislation, but usually the backlash is more muted. Collier said he has seen a recent fundraising boost in his campaign, and that he’s spent the week pushing out emails and tweets spotlighting the new Republican legislation and talking about issues like the state’s electrical grid failure this past winter and its spike in Covid deaths.
David Cohen, co-founder of Forward Majority, a national group that focuses on helping Democrats win statehouse seats, said he still hopes recent events can spur a new level of action: “What we have seen this last week underscores how critical it is for Democrats to wake up and get serious about building long-term and durable power in the state.”
Texas has been here before, of course.
In 2013, the state debated another restrictive abortion law that required abortion clinics to meet hospital standards. Back then, state Sen. Wendy Davis and her pink Mizunos became instant national celebrities for filibustering and blocking the bill. Although the bill eventually passed, Davis raised nearly $1 million in the days after her filibuster, tapping a network of small-dollar donors Democrats believed would transform the party and propel Davis over Abbott for the open governor’s seat.
But a series of missteps and bad timing — 2014 turned out to be a wave election year for Republicans — plagued Davis’ campaign. She lost to Abbott by more than 20 percentage points.
Davis told me earlier this week that she believes a lot has changed in Texas in the seven years since her loss. Texas has added millions of new residents in recent years, mostly in the state’s cities and suburbs. In 2018, Abbott and other Republicans lost Harris County, which includes Houston. Many of the provisions in the election bill Abbott signed on Tuesday, like a ban on 24-hour voting, directly target Harris County’s 2020 pandemic voting measures.
Abbott himself also has changed. When he first ran for office in 2014, he cut the figure of a moderate Republican — he was “a sleepy attorney general,” in the words of Thompson, who started the anti-Abbott group. “He just seemed so chill before.” But this past year, with the threat of multiple Republican primary challengers, the governor clearly has been focused on appealing to grassroots GOP voters.
Davis thinks there is an opening for Democrats to stay focused on the message that Republicans are catering to primary voters, while ignoring basic issues like curbing Covid cases or fixing the state’s power grid. “Will it be the case that this is a wake-up call for some independent and moderate Republican voters to decide differently about candidates they will support in the next election cycle?” asked Davis, who started a nonprofit in 2016 called Deeds Not Words to organize young women voters. “I certainly hope so.”
Texas state Rep. Chris Turner, the House Democratic caucus chair, sees a different historical parallel. In 2017, Texas Republicans again dove headfirst into the conservative culture war issues of the day, passing a partisan sanctuary cities law and more abortion restrictions and debating a law that would restrict transgender bathroom use. In 2018, Democrats — partly united by opposition to former President Donald Trump — had their best showing in years. They gained seats in Congress and the state House and Senate, knocked out Republicans in Harris County leadership and narrowed margins in statewide races. O’Rourke lost to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz by less than 3 percentage points. When 2019 rolled around, Republican state lawmakers stayed away from the most controversial legislation, instead focusing on curbing property tax increases and investing in education.
Next year, Trump won’t be on the ballot, but the new state legislation will be, Turner said. The Texas GOP “went too far in 2021, and they are at great risk for paying the price in 2022,” he said. He is “confident” Democrats will have a full slate of candidates ready to draw sharp differences between the parties next November; the filing deadline is still months away.
To Thompson, this moment feels different from previous years partly because of the national attention on Texas. In response to the abortion law, Women’s March organizers are planning events in all 50 states on Oct. 2. Hundreds of members of Thompson’s Facebook group responded to a post about the march, sharing information about local events across the state. She believes people in her group are ready to vote for any Democrat who runs against Abbott. “We are tired of losing,” she said.
But, Democrats say, the process to capitalize on the past week is just starting. They might simply have too much ground to make up, and there is a real chance 2022, especially with a Democrat in the White House, could turn out like past elections — perhaps Texas will continue to trend more purple, but without any major wins for Democrats to point to. “That is a slow build,” Cohen at Forward Majority said. “It’s not something that’s magic in a bottle, and it comes to fruition.”