The middle is intriguing but uncrowded in Texas politics

In a state that has been closely tied to conservative politics for decades, some Texas politicians are edging into a political desert: the middle.

by Ross Ramsey, Texas Tribune

Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.  Bob Daemmerich

It’s a bit much to suggest that the middle in Texas politics is blossoming into a giant political force, but there are signs of life outside the most progressive and conservative corners of the electorate.

Some of it is rhetorical, as in Joe Strausrecent essay on LGBTQ rights in Newsweek. The former Texas House speaker was writing to say the U.S. Supreme Court should side with those who believe civil rights protections include LGBTQ Americans.

“This may not be a common public position for a Texas Republican politician, but it reflects majority opinion in the state, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, and people of every race and every major faith tradition,” he wrote.

He recalled his opposition to the so-called bathroom bill in 2017 — legislation intended to require people to use the public restrooms that correspond with their sex at birth.

The monthslong debate over that legislation was unusual for a social and cultural issue in Texas, pitting not only Republicans against Democrats, but also socially conservative Republicans against socially moderate members of their own party.

In a moment for the middle, that legislation failed. And it was clear the social conservatives in elected office heard the crowd; no serious attempt was made to revive the battle in this year’s legislative session.

During his 10 years as speaker, Straus regularly found himself taking positions to the left of some very conservative state leaders. He’s conservative — but was rarely conservative enough for the likes of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and the socially conservative activists in the GOP.

But the middle isn’t as lonely as it once was. During the most recent session, Abbott and Patrick, along with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, focused legislators on public education and property taxes, generating major bills on those subjects that many of their party’s most fervent activists nevertheless considered too moderate.

What the leaders and lawmakers considered a win, some of those Republicans considered wishy-washy: too much increased spending on public schools and no real tax cuts for homeowners and others seeking property tax relief.

Another win for the middle, or if you prefer, for the less conservative of the available conservative options.

Gun laws offer another peek, as The Texas Tribune’s pollsters recently pointed out in detail. The voters haven’t made major changes in their positions, but the opinions of more voters are being considered as the state becomes politically competitive. Winning a Republican primary no longer guarantees a November victory, and those independent, middle-of-the-road voters who don’t show up for primaries have more clout now.

Republican state leaders are talking about things that, for reasons of fear or belief, they didn’t talk about before. “Red flag” laws that allow judges to temporarily take guns away from people who are dangerous to themselves or others are under discussion in this strong Second Amendment state. So are expansions to background checks to include firearm sales between individuals who don’t know one another.

And there will be some early tests of this on the left as well. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has filed to run in a Texas Democratic primary for president. That will give Texans a chance to say which sort of liberals they favor, choosing from a field that includes mayors, senators and others who range from moderate to progressive.

The results might be surprising. In 2018, Democrats won a dozen seats in the Texas House away from Republicans, and in several cases, the political swings were dramatic.

Instead of jumping from a Republican to a moderate Democrat, some districts hopped from deep red to deep blue, choosing progressive Democrats to replace conservative Republicans.

Voters in those places reacted dramatically, taking an abrupt change in direction. Perhaps their political views flipped. Maybe they were just mad at their incumbents. It’s possible they were looking for middle ground and just couldn’t find any company there.

Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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