Texas has its gubernatorial election this November. Its candidates? Incumbent Greg Abbott looking for a second term, and newcomer Beto O’Rourke, famous for coming within a razor-thin margin to upset Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. As a Texan and Virginian, I keep talking about the election. No one seems to care about the results. Texas can’t– or won’t– change. Why does it matter?
Maybe you have an idea of which way this election will go. From passing one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation to Attorney General Ken Paxton telling Jan 6th insurrectionists to “keep fighting,” it’s easy to see the “R” next to Abbott’s name and assume it's a shoe-in. You might have already come to the conclusion that Texas, with its deserts and horses, with its giant, starry sky and even larger personality, is a GOP-controlled state. There’s nothing we can do to change it.
But I’m begging you– Northerners need to learn to care about Texas politics. Don’t laugh at your mental image of Texas rednecks shooting themselves in the foot, voting for a governor who refuses to help the very audience he panders to. Don’t assume this is all Texas is capable of.
The truth is, Texas is so much more than people like Greg Abbott. Texas fosters a rebellious streak, a drive to hold those in power accountable. You see this in loud and outspoken campaigns like Beto O’Rourke’s and in the state’s myriad immigration activist groups. You see this in polling numbers where a vast majority of Republicans don’t support policies passed by a governor of the same party.
Texas politics is not predetermined, but people like Greg Abbott do a very good job of positioning their wins as inevitable. It's on us to see through the mirage.
Greg Abbott’s been in the news lately.
He’s seemingly leading the charge against some ‘progressive culture war’ against American Southerners– From banning schools from teaching the modern social implications of racism, to requiring trans student athletes to compete in the division of their sex assigned at birth. Greg Abbott positions himself as a man of the Texas people, his interests representing a larger uniform ideological position all Texas should share. He attacks the marginal because that’s what Texans believe in!
In practice, Abbott represents no one but himself and his own haunted pursuit for power– using everyday Texans as political chess pieces to rake in campaign funding. It’s for this very reason that the Big Freeze of Texas of 2021 became one of the most poorly handled domestic natural disasters in recent years.
Unusually, the Texas power grid is not subject to federal oversight, but instead remains independently state run. The state Railroad Commission in charge of the power grid, responsible for imposing fines and regulation on oil and gas, is run by those with ties to major energy companies, creating a large conflict of interest. It's in their financial best interest to avoid regulating the very thing they’re employed to regulate. Abbott, getting massive campaign funding from these same individuals and companies, did nothing to promote the “winterization” of the power grid (i.e. implementing safeguards for Texas energy plants to operate in cold-weather conditions). “Winterizing” is expensive—more implicitly, it would have acknowledged the tangibility of the growing climate crisis Abbott refuses to admit exists. As record temperatures sink lower every year, winterizing becomes a necessity.
Instead, he initially blamed renewable energy for the shortages and grid shutdown, in another dog-whistle attempt to scapegoat progressivism as the true enemy of Texas wellbeing and productivity. Again, he expertly equates ideological opponents to ‘foreign’ entities, and suggests he alone embodies the ‘authentic,’ home-grown Texas spirit. Meanwhile, an investigation by BuzzFeed News estimates the number of deaths caused by the Big Freeze close to 750. The state government continues to acknowledge only 246.
Texas politics is a pressure cooker, and it’s merely a smaller scale model of the political tensions occuring nationwide. Modern, technologically-driven cities, like Austin and Houston, are situated opposed to highly conservative, rural areas. These rural areas are the ‘real’ Texas; the cities are anomalies. As a result, Texas struggles to accommodate its diverse new voter base, with Texans now cultural worlds apart sharing the same state identity. Gerrymandering is a universal American phenomenon—with Texas being one of the prime culprits. “Districts are drawn for either Republicans or Democrats to win, with few designed to promote competition between the parties,” according to The Texas Tribune. We see cities carved into districts specifically designed to lower the weight of each individual vote, diminishing the overall voices of those living in urban areas. Both lower-income, predominantly POC areas and younger, left-leaning demographics are silenced.
Not only does this make certain votes seem less important. It sends a message about a person’s worth in politics. Houston is the third largest city in America. Its residents aren’t small pockets of leftist outsiders– they’re as much the beating heart of Texas as the cowboys and the ranch hands and middle America. They deserve a vote that represents it.
But it’s not only urban areas we need to appreciate– it’s rural regions we so easily write off, too. Against Ted Cruz, Beto won 48% of the popular vote. Texas is aggressively conservative not because it’s what ‘the people’ want, but because the GOP uses it as a testing ground for their most controversial, energy-creating policies. In response to some of Greg Abbott’s most divisive legislation, 63% of Texans oppose his attempts at book censorship; 50% oppose limiting the teaching of racism in schools. The GOP uses Texas to roll out policies they want to implement nation-wide. What better place to test out a near-abortion ban than the second biggest state in the US?
In the words of social media influencer and “Try Guy” Eugene Lee Yang, we shouldn’t use rhetoric that implies the South is ‘stupid.’ We cannot afford to “downplay the massive, calculated amounts of organization” the GOP has done to keep power and control in an era when politics is much more complicated and progressive than it lets on. “Maintaining the status quo takes very cunning people,” like Greg Abbott, and implying the election doesn’t matter “minimizes the struggles of the people here who are fighting” against these politicians.
Texas politics matters because the fight is still on. I won’t deny there are a lot of conservatives in Texas. But don’t let the GOP attempt to sell Texas as a monotonous paradise where all voters share the same opinions, and their policies are unanimously supported. Texas Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the corruption and abuse of their own state, and despite Ted Cruz’s reelection, they are clamoring for change. When we lose sight of the sheer number of our disenchanted peers, when people feel alone in their opposition, people don’t go to the polls. Why vote when you know what the result will be? Don’t hurt voter turnout by diminishing Beto’s work as a fool's errand.
If you’re Virginian, talk about Texas politics. And if you’re Texan, show up and vote. And don’t, for one minute, assume any political result is beyond the scope of possibility.