Texas Republicans embraced Donald Trump for four years. Now they face a reckoning.

Texas Republicans embraced Donald Trump for four years. Now they face a reckoning.

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in The Woodlands in June 17, 2016.

Some of Donald Trump’s most loyal allies in Texas expect he’ll be a force in the state for years.

Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Last week, for his first public appearance since his supporters laid a deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, President Donald Trump chose a rather predictable refuge: Texas.

Texas, after all, is the biggest and reddest border state in the country, and the border has been inseparable from Trump’s political identity since the start of his White House ambitions.

On this trip, though, the president stepped off Air Force One at Valley International Airport without the usual mix of state Republican officials eagerly awaiting his arrival so they could grip and grin on the tarmac.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were in Austin for the first day of the legislative session, though almost exactly two years earlier, the session’s start did not keep Patrick from traveling to Washington, D.C., to help Trump craft a nationally televised address on border security. When Trump visited the Permian Basin in July to give a speech on the oil and gas industry, congressional candidates drove hundreds of miles for the tarmac photo opp.

But the low-key reception belies Trump’s otherwise overwhelming presence in Texas politics as he prepares to leave office Wednesday. Texas Republicans by and large embraced — and enabled — him for the past four years. In the aftermath of the deadly Capitol riot that he was impeached for inciting — an unprecedented second impeachment for a president — they now face a profound reckoning.

“The Republican Party is at a crossroads like it’s never been before, and it’s gonna have to decide who it is,” said Corbin Casteel, a Texas GOP operative who was Trump’s Texas state director during the 2016 primary.

No one seems to be under the illusion that Trump will fade quietly. Since losing the election to Joe Biden in November, Trump has launched baseless attacks on the integrity of the election as most prominent Texans in his party let his claims go unchallenged. Some of Trump’s most loyal allies in Texas expect he’ll be a force here for years.

“The party is really built around Donald Trump — the brand, the image, but most importantly, his policies and what he accomplished,” Patrick said during a Fox News interview Thursday. “Whoever runs in 2024, if they walk away from Trump and his policies, I don’t think they can get through a primary.”

To Texas Democrats, Trump has been a highly galvanizing force who created new political opportunities for them, particularly in the suburbs. He carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016 — the smallest margin for a GOP nominee in Texas in two decades — and then an even smaller margin last year. But his 6-point win here in November came after Democrats spent months getting their hopes up that Trump would lose the state altogether, and they also came up woefully short down-ballot, concluding the Trump era with decisively mixed feelings about his electoral impact at the state level.

More broadly, some Texas Democrats believe Trump is leaving a legacy as a symptom of the state’s current Republican politics, not a cause of it.

“Frankly I don’t think he changed the Republican Party in Texas,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the state Democratic Party chair, adding that Trump has instead magnified the “extreme politics and tendencies” that Texas Republicans have long harbored. “The things that [Trump] stands for — the white nationalism, the anti-LGBT [sentiment], the just flat-out racism, just the absolute meanness — that’s what the Republican Party has been in Texas for quite some time.”

As for Texas Republicans’ embrace of Trump, Hinojosa added, they “are the people that Trump talks about when he says he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose their support.”

In polling conducted multiple times a year by the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune, Trump began his presidency with an 81% approval rating among the state’s Republicans. It climbed into the high 80s by mid-2018 and stayed high for the rest of his presidency, registering at 90% in the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in October.

“Really the only point at which Texas Republicans were unsure about Donald Trump was at the beginning of his presidency,” said Joshua Blank, research director for The Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin. “From that point forward, he’s maintained sky-high job approval numbers with Republican voters throughout all four years and no matter what the controversy may have been.”

To be sure, Trump has faced some intraparty dissent in Texas, particularly from Republicans who see a need to build a bigger and more diverse party coalition. It is a group that includes people like former state House Speaker Joe Straus, former President George W. Bush and former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes.

“The future of the Republican Party is being the folks that empower people, not the government that is focused on helping everyone moving up the economic ladder,” said Hurd, who emerged as perhaps the most persistent critic in his party of Trump while he was in office. “It’s a party filled with leaders that inspire, not fearmonger.

“One of the things that I learned during my time as an undercover officer in the CIA is you should be fighting the next war, not the last war. We should be looking to the future.”

Privately, Texas Republicans have been more candid about Trump. In 2019, then-state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, was caught in a secret recording saying that Trump was “killing us in urban-suburban districts.”

Even if there is a Republican crackup, the party will hardly make a clean break from Trump — if it wants to make one at all. Like elsewhere, Trump’s biggest critics within his own party in Texas have been either former or retiring elected officials, or Republicans unlikely to face the voters — including Trump’s fervent base — for the foreseeable future.

On the flip side, hours after the U.S. Capitol riot, most Texas Republicans in the U.S. House voted in favor of objections to certifying the presidential election results in two swing states; no Republicans in the state’s delegation voted in favor of impeaching the president a second time.

While the state’s GOP leadership has been largely supportive of Trump, the extent of individual allegiances has varied. Officials like Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn have backed the president while avoiding some of the slavish tendencies of other pro-Trump Republicans, often offering gentle disagreement — or silence — in response to his controversies. Patrick, who chaired both of Trump’s campaigns in Texas, has been a dutiful cheerleader, as has Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who latched on to his 2016-borne reputation as “Trump’s man in Texas.”

Other Texas GOP leaders saw their support for Trump go through notable transformations over the past four years — in most cases becoming more, not less, supportive of the president. After Trump emerged as the GOP nominee in summer 2016, Land Commissioner George P. Bush became the only prominent member of his famous political family to fall in line behind Trump — and then enthusiastically campaigned on Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 reelection bid. After U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz bitterly battled Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, Cruz emerged as a close congressional partner who welcomed Trump to Houston for a 2018 reelection campaign rally. And Attorney General Ken Paxton had always positioned himself as a Trump ally — leading a Trump-backed lawsuit to strike down Obamacare, for example — but his loyalty reached a new intensity in recent weeks as he pushed, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the president’s reelection loss.

Both Cruz and Paxton are now reckoning with their distinct roles in the lead-up to the Capitol riot; Cruz led a group of senators who planned to object to the Electoral College certification, and Paxton spoke at the rally that Trump’s supporters attended beforehand.

“It was not their finest hour,” said Jerry Patterson, a Republican former state land commissioner who is open about his unhappiness with Trump. “On the one hand, you can’t blame a politician for being a politician, but frankly this is all about trying to inherit the Trump base — which is smaller now than it was about two weeks ago.”

To be sure, it’s entirely possible Republicans unite in the next year the way political parties do when they’re in the minority — with an oppositional message to the opposing administration. But the GOP’s longer-term challenges could prove harder to resolve. In the final years of Trump, some in the party drifted from any unifying policy vision. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, the party opted not to create a new platform, saying it would instead “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

November’s elections in Texas did little to settle the debate over which direction the party should go. Those who want to move on note that Trump won with the narrowest margin for a GOP presidential candidate this century, and swing-seat Republican congressional contenders largely outperformed him in their districts.

“Most every Republican that was successful, with the exception of a handful, outperformed Donald Trump by a significant margin,” Hurd said. “If you’re not growing, you are dying, and if we’re not expanding to those voters that are disaffected and don’t believe in the message that Democrats are providing, then we’re not going to be able to grow.”

On the other hand, Trump’s 6-point margin was bigger than expected, and he performed surprisingly well in Hispanic communities in South Texas. Former Texas GOP Chair James Dickey said Trump’s message was “particularly effective” in swaths of the state that aren’t typically looked at as political bellwethers.

“His biggest impact has been a return to populist roots and an expansion of the party in minority communities, which, again, is a return to its roots,” Dickey said.

“His emphasis on making sure the U.S. was energy independent, having a very positive impact for Texas on all of our energy production, not just fossil fuels,” Dickey continued. “Also the renegotiation of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and the production of the much-improved USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement].”

While Dickey worked hard to build up the party for November, he was not around to see the results as chair. Weeks before the election, he resoundingly lost his reelection bid to Allen West, the former Florida congressman, and while Trump didn’t weigh in on that race, West has since taken the party in a more adamantly pro-Trump direction.

Trump’s influence was most acutely felt in the state’s primary seasons, which were already action packed before he became president. But whereas past Texas GOP primary battles were waged over proving conservative purity, the ones in 2018 and 2020 were more about demonstrating presidential loyalty. Candidate after candidate sought to show they would be a stronger Trump ally in Congress and seized on rivals’ slightest past criticism of him, all while angling for Republican political gold: an endorsement from the man himself.

Even in districts that were set to be hotly contested in the general election, Republicans fervently sought — and promoted — Trump’s backing, bargaining that it was worth whatever trouble awaited them at the hands of Democrats in November. Even Hurd’s GOP successor, Tony Gonzales — running in a district that Trump lost by 4 points in 2016 — savored a presidential endorsement, which arrived days before a primary runoff that Gonzales won by less than 100 votes.

A decade down the line, Patterson said he thinks his party will look back on this moment in history and remember that we were “saved from the Trump era” by Democrats. But he said there’s still work to do on figuring out where the party goes without a de facto leader.

“When I was a brand new second lieutenant [in the Marine Corps] and I was at initial training after being commissioned about how to lead, the question was always, ‘What now, lieutenant?’” Patterson said. “We’re at the ‘what now, lieutenant’ point in the Republican Party.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Source: Texas Tribune