A little more than a week after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Matthew Dowd announced he was leaving his job as chief political analyst with ABC News after thirteen years with the network. Freed from his talking-head obligations, Dowd could now speak out even more pointedly about what he believes to be the threat to democracy posed by Trump and his imitators. This summer, in tweets and cable interviews, the Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat has excoriated Governor Greg Abbott for a response to COVID-19 that has cost Texans lives. In a June appearance on MSNBC, Dowd said that democracy is in peril and “the only fix to this is Republicans have to lose, and lose badly, in a series of elections, and I’m willing to do whatever I can, on any day I can, to make sure that happens.”
Political apostasy is not new for Dowd. He began his career as a Democrat, serving as an adviser and strategist to Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock from 1989 to 1999. Then he became a Republican, drawn to what he saw as the bipartisan appeal of Governor George W. Bush. Dowd went on to advise Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and served as the president’s chief strategist during his successful 2004 reelection campaign.
But in 2007, the same year he began working for ABC, Dowd publicly repudiated Bush for his conduct of the war in Iraq and other policies. In recent years, he has looked for ways around what he considers the failures of the two-party system, flirting in 2017 with an independent bid for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz, and founding an online community, Country Over Party. But the ongoing threat posed by Trumpism, brought home by the events of January 6, jerked Dowd back to his early allegiance to a Democratic party that he now sees as an indispensable bulwark of a democracy under threat as never before.
Texas Monthly spoke with Dowd, who lives in the Hill Country town of Wimberley, about his diagnosis of what ails the GOP, his nascent plans to run for office, and whether Democrats will ever have another shot at governing Texas.
Texas Monthly: Were Greg Abbott and his governorship transformed by Donald Trump?
Matthew Dowd: The thing about Donald Trump is that he’s a great revealer. He revealed who the GOP really is and he’s revealed the weakness and cravenness of many GOP leaders. The perfect word for Abbott is “craven” because I don’t think he has any fundamental principles other than responding to what his current political base is. I started getting a feeling about Abbott during the Jade Helm thing. [In 2016, Abbott indulged a conspiracy theory promoted by Austin provocateur Alex Jones that President Obama was going to use routine military maneuvers to seize control of Texas.] It was obviously completely irresponsible and I think he absolutely knew it was ridiculous.
Before that, I’d always thought, probably the same as most people, “Okay, he’s a principled conservative leader. I might not always agree with him but I actually think he’s halfway decent.” Well, he’s been revealed. I mean, it’s between him and [Florida governor Ron] DeSantis for who could be the worst governor in America. They’re in a stiff competition. I think Greg Abbott finally came to a conclusion about who the Republican party is in Texas. And he got scared of his own shadow and he was too weak to stand up and say, “That’s not the direction I want to go.” I’ve told friends that in many ways, Dan Patrick’s like the virus, and because of Greg Abbott’s weak constitution, he was completely infected by it and then didn’t do anything to cure it. He just went along with it all and now has taken it to a whole ’nother level.
TM: In early August you retweeted a message from University of Texas political psychologist Bethany Albertson: “It seems like TX could use a gubernatorial candidate who can stand up for voting rights and science. ASAP.” A week later you tweeted, “I will do whatever I can to defeat the GOP up and down the ballot in Texas in 2022. Literally, our values and our lives depend on it.” Are you thinking about challenging Abbott?
MD: So, here’s the best way to answer that for me. I will do whatever I can to defeat the GOP leadership and that begins with Greg Abbott, but doesn’t end with Greg Abbott. I describe Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton as craven, cruel, and crook. One’s craven. One’s cruel. And one’s a crook. And they need to go. I wish they had the gumption or wish they had the strength to resign after how much they failed the state. They won’t. So I’ll do whatever I can, in any way I can, to help in that.
I am not going to run for governor, though that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t run for something in 2022. But I haven’t made any decision about that. I’m just trying to figure out how best I can help do this and assist the Democrats in any way I can. And I’m going to speak out for sure, and whether or not that includes running for office, we’ll see. But it wouldn’t be for governor.
TM: Explain why you’d be willing to run for another statewide office but not for governor.
MD: I think there’s people positioned that would carry that mantle better. And the other thing is, I don’t want to get in a debate in a governor’s race, which would become exceedingly high intensity, about “the former Bush guy,” “the former Republican” running.
TM: That leaves Patrick and Paxton as potential targets.
MD: I don’t want to say any more, but I’m also not a lawyer so you can take it from there.
TM: Mike Collier, who came within five points of Patrick in 2018, is seeking a rematch.
MD: Yeah, he ran last time and he ran for comptroller in 2014 and lost [to Glenn Hegar by nearly 21 percentage points]. He seems like a nice guy. That’s up to him to make the right decision and the Democratic party to make the right decision of who they want to nominate.
TM: In 2017 you thought about the possibility of running against Ted Cruz as an independent. You didn’t think a Democrat could win. Why are you now contemplating running as a Democrat?
MD: The circumstances are more dire. The Democratic party is the only party of the two major parties that is actually standing up for democracy in this moment, and is actually interested in the common good. One might disagree with them on some things, but actually their interest is in the common good and in our democracy and defending our constitutional republic. I think at this point in time, the only thing an independent will do is make it easier for a Republican to win. And Beto [O’Rourke] showed, getting 48 percent of the vote, that there is a pretty strong Democratic base in Texas.
TM: Have you encouraged or would you encourage Beto to run for governor?
MD: That’s not my place. Beto’s a friend of mine. I’ve known him for a while. I’ve known him before he ran the first time, and I’ve talked to him a number of times, but it’s his place to make that decision.
My guess is there’s going to be multiple candidates running for governor in the Democratic primary, whether or not Beto runs. But I think most people are waiting to see what Beto is going to do. I’m not one of the ones that buys into the idea that there’s some big hurry about this. I get people want to have that person in place, but we still got to go through a redistricting session, and then who knows when the primary is going to be, and it may be delayed.
I think a Democrat can win Texas, but it’s going to take the right candidate, with the right message in the right campaign. And I think 2022, with what’s happened with Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, is a great opportunity for that.
TM: You have described January 6 as a worse day for America than September 11.
MD: Oh yeah. The loss of life was less, but the effect and the destructiveness to our country is way worse because after 9/11, the country united. Everybody got together. People put aside the partisanship. They wanted to do what was right, and while mistakes might have been made, they all sort of came together. The exact opposite happened after January 6. The Democrats were the only ones standing up for democracy and the Republicans just started basically abandoning it and didn’t want to hold anybody accountable. That’s worse than 9/11. Much worse. And we now realize that this sort of white supremacy, white nationalist movement is way more dangerous to American citizens than Al Qaeda.
TM: You have described the resurgence of white supremacy on the right as driven by fear of demographic change.
MD: We should be celebrating a multicultural, multiethnic democracy, because every single company or entity that is inclusive and diverse is more successful. We’d be more successful as a country if we embraced it as opposed to fighting it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a percentage of people in our country who fear it. Every time we go through these changes, there’s a reaction to it. It’s happened before. It happened during civil rights, it happened during women getting the right to vote, it happened in the aftermath of the Civil War. Every time that there is a notable change in the power structure, there is an element that gets angry about it, and we’re in that place. And that census report was a perfect underlining of this. For the first time in American history, the white population fell. We added 23 million Americans, all non-white, and Texas added 4 million, 95 percent [of which] were non-white.
TM: Will Republican control of redistricting in Texas and some other critical states enable them to neutralize the political impact of those demographic changes?
MD: I think it’s really hard for the Republicans to have many, or any, gains from redistricting. Texas is going to gain two congressional districts and four million people got added, almost all of whom were non-white. It’s very hard for the Republicans to grab those two seats and keep the ones they have. And you can see that in state after state after state, where populations have fallen in districts, it’s almost all Republican districts, and where populations have gained it’s been in Democratic districts.
TM: So you don’t think that it’s a foregone conclusion that, following the usual historical pattern, the president’s party will suffer the kind of losses in 2022 that will cost it control of the House and perhaps also the Senate?
MD: No, it’s definitely not a foregone conclusion at all that the Republicans will take the House. Democrats have to run good campaigns and run good candidates, but no, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion at all. I think Democrats right now are actually better positioned in the U.S. Senate because of retirements and what seats are up.
Next year, 2022, is going to be a more important election to determine where we stand as a country in our democracy than 2020 was. I think up until 2020—it was the most important election in my lifetime. But I think now, in the aftermath, and especially after January 6, if Republicans take back the United States Senate, and the United States House, and they still hold many statewide offices and legislative bodies around the country in the aftermath of everything that happened, that [would be] a very dire sign for our country. With everything they’ve done to undermine democracy, if they were returned and enhanced in power, that’s worse than 2020.
TM: In late July you tweeted, “If you live in a loving/supportive community, if the people around you believe in the common good & compassion, if neighbors welcome diversity & want to preserve democracy, if your area supports a diverse faith perspective based in openness, well then you live in a blue precinct.”
MD: That’s a true statement. That’s what Hays County has shown. [Dowd lives in Hays County, the second-fastest growing large county in America.] Hays County has gone from a red county to now, I would say, a purple or a light blue county. All the growth areas in Hays County, around San Marcos, Kyle, and Buda, are all voting Democratic. I live in a perfect transitioning county and actually a transitioning community of Wimberley because of growth and movement, and a lot of the people that work in Austin, who are fed up with where the Republicans are at. It’s a perfect microcosm of the state.
Texas will be a purple state and then it will be a blue state. And the question is, when does that happen? And I think that can happen in 2022. I think for sure it will be a purple state by 2026. But we’re in the midst of that, and the great thing about Texas, is that as Texas goes, Texas will determine the fate of the Republican party in America. Texas will determine more than any other state who we are, because when Texas turns, it fundamentally changes the political dynamics of our country.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.