Politics & Policy

Greg Abbott’s Big Gamble

Texas governor Greg Abbott (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
A ‘bathroom bill’ could make or break the Texas governor’s career.

Last week, Texas lawmakers returned to the state capitol in Austin at the behest of Governor Greg Abbott for a 30-day special legislative session that could make or break the Texas governor’s political career. Abbott has a laundry list of unresolved issues he wants the Republican-controlled legislature to address, and at the top of that list is a Texas version of North Carolina’s infamous law regulating what bathrooms transgender people may use. The bill drew hundreds of protesters to the statehouse at the opening of the special session last week, and more than 250 people signed up to testify on the bill at a state-senate committee hearing on Friday.

Calling a special session is a huge political gamble for Abbott. But the risk is not that passing a bathroom bill will prompt the kind of backlash that cost North Carolina governor Pat McCrory his reelection bid last year. The risk is that if the bill doesn’t pass, Abbott could face a well-funded GOP primary challenge next year from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

Abbott isn’t exactly passionate about the bathroom bill — but Patrick is. So much so, in fact, that Patrick leveraged his role overseeing the state senate to force Abbott to call this special session in the first place.

Patrick, who has styled himself a staunch Christian conservative since winning the lieutenant governorship in 2014, has been pushing for the bathroom bill since before the regular session began, making it one of his top priorities. Abbott’s priorities were elsewhere. In January, he called on state lawmakers to take on so-called sanctuary cities, the state’s broken child-welfare system, and a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution.

But when lawmakers arrived in Austin for their 140-day legislative session, Abbott faded into the background, ceding the spotlight to Patrick and his controversial bill. That put Patrick at odds with Joe Straus, the Republican speaker of the Texas house since 2009. Straus belongs to that vanishing breed of moderate, business-minded Republicans who have little interest in Patrick’s brand of culture-war conservatism. During his tenure, Straus has tried to focus instead on issues like school finance and infrastructure.

As the end of the regular session loomed in late May, Patrick vowed to hold crucial pieces of legislation hostage in the senate if the bill didn’t pass in the house. These included bills needed to keep certain state agencies running. Straus eventually passed an amended version of the bathroom bill he considered a compromise. Instead of requiring all Texans to use the bathroom that corresponds to the biological sex listed on their birth certificate, as the senate bill did, the house version would have required school districts to provide single-occupancy facilities for transgender students.

Patrick rejected the house bill as too weak, saying its ambiguous language “didn’t appear to do much.” Straus told reporters it was “absurd” that the issue had taken on greater urgency than reforming Texas’s school-finance system and said that the senate could take it or leave it: “The house has compromised enough on this issue.”

Amid this fracas Abbott was missing in action, as usual. During the 2015 session, Abbott had earned a reputation for being an absentee governor. As a former attorney general, his approach to the legislature was cautious and hands-off — to the extent that many GOP lawmakers and lobbyists found it odd, given he had won the 2014 gubernatorial election in a landslide.

Some speculated that Abbott was just adjusting to the realities of governing. But he cemented his reputation for absenteeism during the 2017 session — and not just among GOP conservatives. A broad swath of constituent groups from across the political spectrum wanted competent, firm leadership from the governor’s office. Instead they got a listless, divided Republican legislature — not to mention an embarrassing shoving match over a sanctuary-cities bill on the floor of the house that made national headlines.

Abbott now seems to understand that he’s in a fight for his political life.

The 20 items on Abbott’s list for the special session represent policy changes that reform-minded conservatives wanted to see happen in the regular session but didn’t get because there was no leadership from Abbott and Patrick’s bathroom bill sucked all the air out of the room. Caught between the Straus and Patrick factions, Abbott refused to take a side until it was too late. When the clock ran out at the end of May, major pieces of legislation had failed to pass.

Abbott now seems to understand that he’s in a fight for his political life. He has to prove he can use his power as governor to pass fiscally conservative policies like property-tax reform, state and local spending caps, a school-choice program, and a school-finance-reform commission. He has to show feuding Texas Republicans that he can lead.

Abbott told a conservative policy forum last week he would publicize a list of state lawmakers who support and oppose his agenda. It was meant to be a show of strength, but it belied weakness: Abbott’s threat was directed at Straus’s moderate Republicans, who he fears will not deliver on Patrick’s bathroom bill. That would in turn stall Abbott’s other reforms and leave no doubt about who’s really in charge of Texas: Patrick.

If Abbott can get his fractious Republicans to pass a majority of his agenda items in the coming weeks, he’ll take up the mantle of Rick Perry as a reform-minded Texas governor and a major national figure in the post-Trump GOP. If not, within hours of the end of the special session there will likely be a well-funded push for Patrick to challenge Abbott in the Republican primary.

For Abbott, that means this special session is about much more than the bathroom bill. It’s a bid to exert control over the Texas GOP, deliver on his stalled agenda, and save his governorship.

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