For all its inherent nuttiness, Texas politics can often feel like it proceeds according to a script—there’s not a lot of room for surprise in what amounts to a one-party state. Moments of true uncertainty are rare, and they pack an extra punch because of that.
The decision of Texas House Democrats to break quorum and block a vote on a slate of voter restrictions is one of those moments. There is a long tradition of quorum breaking in Texas, from the hide-and-seek game played by the Killer Bees in 1979 to Democrats’ 2003 trek to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to the House walkout to prevent passage of a voting bill during this year’s regular session. But the Miller Ds, as some online have dubbed them, referencing the now moderately famous case of Miller Lite on the House Democrats’ charter bus, are doing something that’s unprecedented in its particulars. If Aaron Sorkin were writing the script, the mangy Texans would capture the imagination of D.C. and convince recalcitrant Democrats to change the rules of the Senate and pass a new voting rights bill. Whether or not that happens, this event is going to have a lot of unpredictable consequences as it ripples out into the world. Texas Monthly and Votebeat reporter Jessica Huseman will be following those stories as they unfold.
One thing, though, seems clear: this comes at a very bad time for Governor Greg Abbott, who was already having a pretty bad week. Abbott is facing, so far, three challengers to his right in the Republican primary for governor. The charge from his Republican opponents is that he’s feckless and weak. The quorum break, which is designed to deny passage of one of his priority pieces of legislation, fits neatly into a narrative that he is getting outfoxed by an ostensibly powerless Democratic opposition. That the narrative is largely untrue—Democrats certainly believe they got the shaft this session—doesn’t matter much.
If the crisis resolves by offering concessions to the exiled Democrats, or otherwise weakening the bill, Abbott will catch hell. The best case for him is to “break” the Democrats and win the fight, but taking a hard line could also prolong the crisis. At first, messaging from his camp was uncharacteristically soft, perhaps because it’s not clear what he could say. In a statement Monday, Abbott said Democratic absences were standing in the way of “property tax relief” and other issues, a sign that the governor’s office was uncomfortable centering the election bill that’s the problem here. On Tuesday, he started talking tough, threatening them with arrest and “cabining” in the Capitol if they return to Texas, but both those threats reflect his underlying powerlessness. The main talking point so far, at least on social media, is that the Democrats brought beer with them.
Prior quorum breaks ended because lawmakers had to come home eventually for financial reasons. Those pressures are still here, not to mention the pain of being away from family and home. But this time donors, including national ones, have an incentive to float the Democrats, to keep them in the nation’s capital, particularly if they become a cause célèbre. Republicans may have to negotiate to get them home.
Abbott’s predicament is one he seems uniquely unfit to solve. Unlike his predecessor, Rick Perry, he has never had much in the way of personal relationships with lawmakers. He has no credibility with Democrats to coax them back. But even Republican legislators don’t trust him very much. Abbott did not help the situation with his decision after Democrats walked out on the last day of the regular session to veto funding for the Legislature in retribution. He is holding Republican staffers and state employees hostage in order to coerce Democrats back to the chamber. That may make Abbott look “tough,” but hurting your allies to spite your enemies isn’t sensible politics.
The mishandling of the election bill is reminiscent of the mishandling of the abortion bill in 2013 that gave Wendy Davis the opportunity to filibuster, leading to the end of David Dewhurst’s political career. Abbott could have, and certainly should have, avoided the quorum break by helping to negotiate some kind of deal behind the scenes at an earlier date. He didn’t. As a result, he is now a character in a national media spectacle he does not control.