by Abby M. McCloskey
The Senate isn’t the only place where Donald Trump’s presidency hangs in the balance.
In Texas, the nation’s biggest, most important red state, Trump’s disapproval rating has consistently lagged behind many of the 30 states he carried in 2016. This potentially puts the state — a must-win for the president if there ever was one — in play for 2020.
To think Trump’s unpopularity in Texas is because of Twitter, or Ukraine, or the media, or a smear job by the left is to underestimate the problem. The reality is that Trump’s signature policies are out of step with what most Texans want.
Take Trump’s threat of tariffs against Mexico as punishment for the flow of unauthorized immigrants across the border. While railing against Mexico might work at a campaign rally in the Midwest, Texans perceive it as a direct threat to their bottom lines. Mexico is Texas’s biggest trading partner, accounting for nearly 35 percent of state exports in 2018. In comparison, Mexico accounts for only 5.8 percent of exports for Ohio.
Polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin found that roughly half of voters believe that tariffs against Mexico would hurt the Texas economy. Only 16 percent of suburban voters and 18 percent of women — coveted 2020 voting blocs — think tariffs on Mexico would benefit Texas.
The president did eventually stop threatening to use tariffs to punish Mexico over immigration. But one wonders whether Texans will easily forget how carelessly their economic health was leveraged for political gain and dubious ends.
Trump’s immigration policy is also unpopular. While one might assume that the state with the longest southern border, the largest share of Mexican Americans, and one of the highest rates of illegal immigration would appreciate Trump’s hard-line immigration approach, the opposite is true.
Texas has maintained one of the nation’s most moderate stances on immigration. It is one of only seven states — and the only red state — to provide in-state tuition rates and state financial aid to undocumented immigrants. Those provisions were signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry and a Republican-controlled legislature. More recently, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called the Trump administration’s separation of migrant families at the border “disgraceful.
While the United States struggles to adjust to a changing demographic makeup, Texas has been “majority minority” for more than a decade, with Hispanics expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the next few years. Hispanics and non-Hispanics live by, work with, are friends with and go to school with each other, and this familiarity increases fondness. Which is why Trump’s fear and disparagement of immigrants — and Mexicans, in particular — falls flat here.
According to a Texas Politics Project poll, more Texans strongly disapprove of Trump’s immigration approach than strongly approve. Only 39 percent of Texans support additional federal spending on border barriers along the Mexican border, according to a November 2019 report by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center.
In the same poll, the majority of Texans — 60 percent — agreed that “We should find alternatives to immigration detention for families fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in the U.S.” And a majority, 65 percent, agreed that “unaccompanied children caught attempting to cross the border illegally should be placed into the care of child-welfare specialists, not border or immigration enforcement officials.” Turns out the cowboys are a bunch of bleeding hearts.
To be sure, there are many aspects of Trump’s agenda that appeal to a state that prides itself on being open for business, including tax reduction and regulatory restraint. The same goes for judicial picks: While controversial nationwide, Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation had overwhelming support in Texas. And the value Texans place on Trump’s ability to hold the line in the culture wars — on issues including abortion, religious freedom and gun rights — should not be underestimated.
Even so, Trump remains underwater with most Texans. More Texas voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance (49 percent) than approve (43 percent), according to a recent poll conducted by the University of Texas at Tyler. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s popularity in Texas remains far below what it should be given the state’s significant Republican lean.
Perhaps it won’t matter that Trump is out of step with Texas voters if the Democratic challenger is even more so. In current polling, none of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination would beat Trump in Texas — or even come close — suggesting that support for Trump in Texas may increase in 2020 unless an actual moderate emerges to take him on. And impeachment seems to be helping Trump, with a majority of Texans opposed to removing him from office.
Nonetheless, a state that should be a Republican shoo-in increasingly appears weary of the party’s standard-bearer. And if there’s anything I’ve learned living in Texas, it’s that Texans will not sit quietly and be taken for granted.
Abby M. McCloskey is an economist and founder of McCloskey Policy. She has advised multiple presidential campaigns, most recently as policy director for Howard Schultz.