Austin at Large: Make a Run From the Border

So, when and how did Texas MAGApublicans decide to be terrified of Mexicans?


The welcome wagon across the street from Beto O'Rourke's stop in Lockhart (Photo by Mike Clark-Madison)

I wrote a bit about Beto O'Rourke's "Drive for Texas" tour finale in Lockhart, the 49th of 49 stops the Dem's ticket-topper barnstormed over the summer. While both the Ds and the Rs marveled at how many people showed up for a midday workday event, it was mostly who you'd expect, young people and moms of small children and old folks of every shape, size, and shade. Caldwell County, the poorest of the four suburban counties bordering Austin, is pretty reliably red in most elections, but Lockhart itself is more of a dark brownish red, the color of barbecue sauce. A good chunk of the town is of Mexican heritage, and most of those residents are Democrats, so there's always been some pulling and trading between Anglo and Latino interests that softens the sharp edges one finds in newer and wealthier suburbs and exurbs. Plus, there's barbecue, and inevitably now live music and arts as displaced creatives from Austin's Eastside find their way to affordability there.

This is a generally congenial vibe for Beto O'Rourke, who luckily has enough stamina to make his tailored set of political gifts – prodigious skills as an extemporaneous speaker and an obviously life-affirming delight in meeting people and hearing their stories – ones that bring him to within 5 points of Greg Abbott, as of the latest UT-Austin/Texas Politics Project poll released today, Sept. 14, despite their not being scalable. If any politician of our time is banking on sealing the deal personally with every voter he or she meets and needs to win, it's O'Rourke. He has a head start from his 2018 U.S. Senate race, but there are 2 million more Texans of voting age now than there were when he came within 250,000 votes of unseating Ted Cruz.

A 5-point gap is still a gap, and is more like 450,000 votes now, but both the TPP poll and the math since the March primary suggest that O'Rourke has made up about half the distance that originally stood between him and Abbott, with just under 60 days to go. At the same point in the 2016 cycle, Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump by 3.5 points, which was supposedly ­insurmountable.

The Song Remains the Same

So yes, Beto has as much of a chance of winning as did Apesh*t, which is certainly enough of a chance to be worth fighting for victory. But Abbott's core strengths as a GOP standard-bearer have proved remarkably immune to dislodgement by O'Rourke's on-point assessment of the incumbent's liabilities both contingent (Winter Storm Uri, Uvalde) and permanent (his fealty to irresponsible big money and pandering to his fans' worst impulses, along with being kind of a jerk). Just looking at the many broken parts of state government, from the power grid to foster care, Abbott's basic competence is not a given. Why has this not moved the needle more?

Because at some point between the Spanish-speaking GOP governor who led a bipartisan state apparatus through the initial NAFTA era in the 1990s – you may remember him, Bush was his name – and Abbott's second reelect going on now, Texas Republicans decided that they hated and feared Mexicans more than anything else on the planet. We're not guessing here, either: As TPP's Jim Henson and Joshua Blank write in the poll release, "Above all, the results illustrate how Gov. Abbott's sustained effort to keep Republican voters focused on border security over the past several months is channeling the most powerful political sentiments in the Texas GOP: Republican voters' continuing focus on immigration and border security as political issues, fueled by an intense aversion to immigration and perceptions of its negative effects on the state."

One of the truisms of American political science is that nativism is a cheap drug, the effects of which dissipate over time as everybody comes over on different ships but is now all in the same boat. As noted, it was once obvious to Texas political observers that the GOP was the party that supported more open borders, both on principle as an application of individual liberty and as a sign of a special relationship between Texas and its Mexican neighbors. These were values that white corporatist crossover Dems like Rick Perry could embrace without dissonance; to the degree anybody was really worked up about the fact, rather than the scale or features, of illegal cross-border travel, it was folks on the Texas left who wanted to defend what little native-born poor people had.

That is totally not the case now! And it's really weird, isn't it? It's not that some particular bad or even meh things have happened that wouldn't have happened were the border more militarized. Abbott's Operation Lone Star is more than anything else a scam to bribe local officials, many of them Mexican American, in rural border-­ish counties (like Uvalde, which is why there were dozens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents on scene at that school). Does anyone know this answer?

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

November 2020 elections, Beto O'Rourke, Greg Abbott, Texas Politics Project, immigration, border security, Operation Lone Star

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