On March 1, Texas will hold its primary elections, and voters will finally have a chance to weigh in on the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. This year’s primaries also include interesting intraparty clashes over seats in Congress and the state Legislature. Those down-ballot races have understandably received little coverage compared with a presidential race that has turned out to be more colorful than usual. But for anyone paying attention, the rhetoric in local and national races may have sounded eerily familiar. At times, it’s even easy to confuse a candidate running for the Legislature with one aiming for the White House.
Let’s take the Republican races. The issues at play in the presidential primary run the gamut from the rise of ISIS to individuated concerns, such as whether Donald Trump, bless his heart, is being treated unfairly by Fox News. Some of Texas’s down-ballot races, similarly, have focused more on the personal idiosyncrasies of the candidates in question than on issues affecting people’s lives. But the granular issues that have historically carried some weight in legislative races have gotten short shrift in this year’s primary campaigns. Transportation and water, two of the biggest issues facing the state, have been largely sidelined in favor of the same set of issues that animated voters in the Iowa caucuses in February: immigration and sanctuary cities, the correct way to refer to radical Islamist terrorism, political correctness, gun rights, and religious freedom. In one closely watched GOP primary, a pastor named Scott Fisher is challenging controversial state representative Jonathan Stickland, of Bedford, a Fort Worth suburb. Fisher has focused his attacks on the incumbent’s character, perhaps because they have little disagreement on policy. On his campaign site, Fisher lists his top issues as securing the border, protecting the Second Amendment and “traditional family values,” defending “life,” reducing government to boost the economy, and promoting local control of schools. Stickland has nearly the exact same list on his site, though he includes protecting “religious liberty.” Some of these are red-meat issues, but let’s set that aside; voters can expect to hear about red-meat issues in Republican primaries. What’s ominous is that the Republicans running for president are serving up nearly the same batch of issues as their counterparts seeking spots in the Lege. Texas politics, it would appear, is becoming nationalized. As the old saying goes, all politics is local. Well, apparently, not anymore.
The clearest example of this trend is Texas politicians’ changing approach to illegal immigration and border security. For decades, the state’s most prominent Republicans showed a notably temperate attitude toward immigration. Strikingly temperate, that is, relative to many leading voices in the national party. That makes sense, given that Texas shares a 1,200-mile land border with Mexico, and perhaps 2 million of the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants live here. If the Republicans who’ve run the state over the past twenty years have treated both issues as serious ones, that may be because they affect Texas in a straightforward way. And surely the influence of the state’s business community, which has long opposed harsh anti-immigration measures, has helped shape an approach in Texas notably more moderate than, say, Arizona’s. In fact, when Arizona set a conservative benchmark with a draconian immigration enforcement law in 2010, Texas’s Republican governor at the time, Rick Perry, was unmoved. “Not the right direction for Texas,” he said.
The right direction, in Perry’s view, was more pragmatic. At the beginning of his governorship, he signed the Texas Dream Act, which guarantees in-state tuition at colleges and universities for undocumented students who graduated from high school or earned a GED in Texas. For his part, George W. Bush, during his own time as governor, made expanding bilingual education a priority; later, as president, he tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
By the time Congress was again considering reform, in 2013, grassroots conservatives across the nation were already grumbling about illegal immigration, and those in Texas were growing increasingly impatient with state leaders who had taken such a lackadaisical approach to it. Their anger helped shape Texas’s elections the following year. Dan Patrick, for example, was elected lieutenant governor in 2014 after clinching the Republican nomination in a primary runoff; he ran on a promise to end sanctuary cities and repeal the Texas Dream Act. Hawkish voices also prevailed in the 2015 legislative session. The Lege authorized an unprecedented $800 million to extend a border security “surge” that began in 2014—even though the influx of migrants from Central America that had spurred the surge in the first place had subsided.
National political discussions about immigration and the border are, it would appear, trumping the pragmatic considerations that Texas Republicans have traditionally taken seriously. Last fall, Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would remove state funding from county sheriff’s offices that refused to pursue enforcement requests from the federal government and made clear that the issue of sanctuary cities will be at the top of his agenda when the Lege reconvenes next year.
This hard-line approach has been popular among certain Republicans for years, and it resonates with many voters around the country: Trump would soon sound the alarm about the “illegal invasion” in the presidential campaign, rhetoric that would help make him the front-runner for the Republican nomination. But the officials in question work for the people of Texas. Their agenda should be tailored to the needs of our communities, not fears being aired on the presidential campaign trail. Yet there appear to be fewer and fewer moderate voices on immigration in Texas Republican Party politics.
The trend toward nationalization can be observed across the country too. The United States, of course, is not a monolith, and neither are its two major parties. The historical, geographic, cultural, and circumstantial diversity of the fifty states yields a tremendous amount of regional variation in American politics. That variation hasn’t disappeared, but it has abated. State and local candidates are increasingly setting aside regional priorities in favor of hot-button issues straight off the national party platform, without regard to each state’s circumstances, traditions, or most pressing public needs. A number of European democracies are seeing a similar nationalization of politics; studies have shown that regional variation in election results has diminished since the seventies. It’s proved more difficult to measure the shift in the United States. Our election results dramatize a different trend, political polarization, which may create an exaggerated sense of diversity in public opinion. The red states are becoming redder, and the blue states are becoming bluer; that’s true. But the top-line results of the general elections don’t tell us whether the red states are becoming the same shade of red or whether they have different patterns.
On a qualitative basis, though, the nationalization of American politics is not hard to trace, or to explain. Americans used to get their political news from the local paper. Now we’re likely to turn to sources that are produced far from home, and distributed more broadly, online or on cable news. Our political debates are similarly shaped by the media landscape. Conversations that were once between neighbors and grounded in communities are increasingly pursued online, among like-minded strangers who may live far apart.
The same pressures have applied to the media landscape in Texas. But the state has been more resistant to the nationalization trend than most, I think, because Texas has an unusually strong sense of state pride and self-interest, which our culture and our politics reflect and which has worked in our favor on several key occasions. In 1901, for example, when our oil wealth was unveiled at Spindletop, Texas was a poor state full of small-scale farmers. We were nonetheless able to keep Standard Oil in check; years earlier the Lege had passed an antitrust law as a bulwark against Northern industrial interests. Those protections helped prevent the state from being overrun by foreign industry, which is why Texas is not West Virginia, long dominated by coal companies from outside the state.
And Texans remain wary of overt efforts by outsiders to interfere in politics. The most clear-cut recent example of that comes from Battleground Texas, founded by former Obama campaign staffers in 2013. The organization’s arrival was greeted with much fanfare in the national media, which have been wondering for years why a majority-minority state keeps electing Republicans, and by Obama supporters in Texas, who’ve been waiting for several decades for hope and change. By the time the 2014 elections were over, it was clear that the latter group would have to wait a while longer. Republicans had won all the statewide contests by roughly twenty points, nearly double the margin of victory in the 2010 governor’s race. It would be unfair to put all the blame for the outcome on Battleground Texas, but it surely has some culpability in making Texas even more solidly Republican. Abbott, during his gubernatorial campaign that year, and other Republicans occasionally reminded audiences that some of Obama’s most ardent national supporters had come to Texas specifically to meddle.
Yet outside influences have nonetheless been seeping into Texas politics—on our televisions, and through our social media networks, which have been manipulated skillfully by groups that are, if nothing else, smart enough not to declare themselves carpetbaggers in their actual name. Texas politics, accordingly, is increasingly conducted on the terms of whatever the national debate happens to be, as if we really are no different from Washington.
It’s a trend that has implications for Texas elections. In the wake of the 2014 bloodbath, no one sees the state’s Democrats as an imminent threat to its Republicans, but the latter should keep in mind that their party’s strength was amassed by leaders who put the state first, not by those who took their talking points from cable news. The Texas GOP’s relatively temperate approach to immigration, for example, has corresponded to its relative success among Hispanic voters, without which the state may yet turn blue.
More to the point, the nationalization of Texas politics has implications for the 27 million people who live here. We’re not Washington, or the nation as a whole, or a staging ground for ideological debates. We’re a state with more than five million children enrolled in public schools (most of which are suing the state for lack of adequate funding), with transportation infrastructure strained by population growth, with workforce needs that are evolving along with our economic growth and diversification. And when state leaders, especially legislative candidates, spend more time talking about immigration, which remains largely a federal issue, or defending religious liberty, which is established by the Constitution, the less we will debate and address the very real challenges facing the state. To paraphrase Rick Perry, what’s right for Arizona or Alabama or New York—and certainly what’s right for D.C.—may not be right for Texas. In other words, politics may no longer be local. But perhaps it should be.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that John Cornyn, Texas’s senior U.S. senator, was a member of the Gang of Eight that backed the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill. He voted against the measure. We deeply regret the error.