OPINION

Ramsey: New laws reflect Republicans' focus on their right flank

ROSS RAMSEY

Texans woke up Wednesday in a state where it’s legal to carry a gun if you are neither licensed nor trained and where enforcement of anti-abortion laws has been crowdsourced to citizen bounty hunters who can get up to $10,000 for turning in anyone they catch helping someone obtain an abortion.

Ramsey

Under the guise of “election integrity,” the Texas Legislature has also backed outlawing some of the voting practices that made voting easier in Harris County and other parts of Texas in 2020 during the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott is hot to sign that legislation, having called two special sessions to get it to his desk, while participating in a kind of national race with other Republican governors to show their constituents that they’re changing the voting rules after Americans fired Donald Trump last year.

The gun bill passed during the regular legislative session took effect on the first day of this month, a victory for Second Amendment advocates who thought the state’s gun laws, though more liberal than many states, were still too restrictive.

The state’s new ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy also became law this week, though opponents of that legislation have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to suspend it while litigation is underway. In the current special session, lawmakers chased that with another bill that would make it illegal to dispense abortion-inducing medications after seven weeks of pregnancy; the current limit is 10 weeks. For elected officials who’ve been working on anti-abortion laws for a long time, 2021 was a breakthrough year.

Those regular session Republican victories were just the beginning.

That elections bill on the governor’s desk would end 24-hour early voting, disallow sending vote-by-mail applications to voters who haven’t asked for them, tighten voter ID requirements for voting by mail, offer protections for volunteer poll watchers and prohibit drive-thru voting.

Opponents argued that people of color were disproportionately helped by some of those conveniences and would be disproportionately hurt by the new law.

Abbott and other advocates contend the new law will make it harder to commit fraud; that has become a political imperative in the GOP, though cases of fraud are rare, and no modern cases of fraud at a scale that would change election outcomes in Texas have been documented.

Although Trump lost the presidency, he won in Texas, and Republicans overcame big spending and big talk from Democrats last year, maintaining their strong grip on the steering wheel of state government. They hold solid majorities in the Texas House and Senate and in the state’s congressional delegation. Republicans also hold each of the 29 statewide elected offices, from the courts to the U.S. Senate.

Texas remains a Republican state, and the lawmaking results of the last few weeks, along with those from the regular legislative session earlier this year, are evidence that the party in power is granting the wishes of its most conservative voters.

It’s also a measure of the weakness of the opposition. Democrats don’t have the numbers to defeat Republicans in legislative fights. Blame the last election or the ones before that; the Republican advantage has been in place for more than two decades.

Democrats also don’t pose a threat, which is just as important. Republican officeholders worried about their futures aren’t looking for trouble from the left; they’re watching the conservative voters in their own party. No Democrat has raised a hand to challenge the governor in next year’s election, but he’ll face opposition from former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, who bills himself as “an actual Republican,” and Allen West, a former Florida congressman who was most recently chair of the Republican Party of Texas.

Abbott is relatively popular with Republican voters, and he had $55 million in his campaign account at mid-year; Huffines and West aren’t likely to unseat him. On the other hand, they’re the only opponents he has right now, and the state’s lawmaking so far in 2021 mollifies the conservatives even as it angers liberals.

With no candidate leading the liberal charge, Abbott and other officeholders aren’t seeing a threat from the left. It shows in the laws they’ve passed so far this year, and the laws they’re still working on today.

Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.