The accusations started flying in December. The Texas Legislature was about to convene its eighty-fifth session, and those darn liberals were once again obstructing progress, or so conservatives claimed. On December 13, the right-wing advocates at Empower Texans posted a piece on their website titled “Just Another Liberal Lobby Group” in which they wrote with typical restraint, “One prominent Austin lobby group has been in the tank for bigger government for a long time, but their vanity is now taking them even deeper down the drain.” A week earlier, socially conservative state representative Matt Shaheen, of Plano, had written an op-ed for the Texas Tribune attacking the same group for “partnering with liberal anti-traditional family groups, opposing religious freedom, and supporting ordinances that prosecute citizens for believing in traditional marriage.” Who were these wild-eyed leftists? The ACLU? MoveOn.org? Hollywood Liberals for a Blue Texas? No, no, and no (in fact, that last one doesn’t actually exist). Turns out, the group in question was the Texas Association of Business.
The TAB, as it’s commonly known, is Texas’s largest business organization, serving the role of chamber of commerce for the state. It represents more than 4,300 employers of varying sizes, though it’s often seen as fronting the interests of big business. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t think of a business association as “liberal” or “in the tank for bigger government.” In fact, the TAB has long lobbied for lower taxes and less regulation and was essential for the Republican takeover of Texas. But with the GOP drifting rightward, the association has increasingly found itself at odds with Republican orthodoxy on education (well-funded schools boost the economy and attract skilled workers), immigration (undocumented immigrants provide cheap labor), and civil rights issues (equality is now a corporate priority).
The most recent source of acrimony—and the reason for the barbs from Empower Texans and Shaheen—is the business lobby’s opposition to the so-called bathroom bill, which would require transgender Texans to use bathrooms in public buildings that correspond to their gender at birth, not the gender that they identify as. There was a time when big businesses wouldn’t have cared about such an issue, but those days are long gone. Most corporations want to be seen as progressive and inclusive, and legislation that singles out a minority doesn’t jibe with that image. Or, as TAB president Chris Wallace put it in a statement opposing the bill, “Discriminatory legislation is bad for business.”
Indeed it is. North Carolina enacted a similar measure in 2016, and the blowback has been severe: the state lost sporting events, concerts, and conferences, and PayPal canceled plans for an operations center in Charlotte. An analysis by the Associated Press found that the law could have cost North Carolina $3.7 billion in business investment in the next decade. All of which led lawmakers to recently vote to partially repeal it.
So when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick began pushing for a Texas version of the bathroom bill, the business lobby, having seen what happened in North Carolina, mobilized. The TAB formed a coalition to fight the bill that included a who’s who of the corporate world: PayPal, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Hilton, Marriott, La Quinta, Capitol One, Visa, United Airlines, American Airlines, and Dow Chemical.
In decades past, that roster of opposition would have made any bill a nonstarter at the Texas Capitol. Such was the power that big-business Republicans exerted. They formed an uneasy alliance with the social conservative wing of the party, which proved useful for winning elections. But there was never any confusion about who was in control. Big business had the money and the influence. Certain right-wing bills could pass as long as they didn’t hurt anyone’s bottom line, but any legislation that the business lobby deemed too radical would usually die quietly in committee. In recent years, especially since the emergence of the tea party, the pro-business domination of Republican politics has been steadily slipping away.
That’s partly because candidates are no longer so reliant on money from the business lobby to win elections. In the past fifteen years, a number of wealthy individuals and advocacy groups, driven more by conservative ideology than business interests, have stepped forward to fund campaigns (see the aforementioned Empower Texans). Meanwhile, the rise of social media and the right-wing blogosphere have made candidates far less reliant on campaign ads. It’s easier and cheaper now to get your message to the party’s grass roots through Facebook and Breitbart than with campaign mailers paid for by some business PAC.
If you can reach the party faithful, you’re in good shape. That’s because the pathway to power in Texas now runs through Republican primaries. With Democrats offering little resistance in general elections, most major races are decided by GOP primary voters. And simply put, they haven’t shown as much affinity for pro-business pitches as they have for socially conservative ones.
As the GOP has slid to the right, fueled by distrust of the Obama administration and the ever-more-outlandish rhetoric emanating from right-leaning media, interest groups, and politicians, a simple formula has emerged: the winning candidate is frequently the one that sounds the most extreme and uncompromising. The examples are too numerous to list, but the headliner is the 2012 U.S. Senate race, in which Ted Cruz upset David Dewhurst, a more moderate, business-friendly Republican. Two years later, four established Republicans vied to be lieutenant governor, and tellingly, the least moderate and least business-friendly among them—Dan Patrick—easily won the party’s nomination and then cruised to victory in November.
In these races, when corporate priorities have conflicted with right-wing ideology on immigration, education, health care, or civil rights, there’s no doubt which side the GOP grass roots has favored. So when the business lobby declared war on the bathroom bill, Patrick and his social-conservative allies declared war right back.
“Texas Legislators Duped on Bathroom Bill by Lefty Progressive Donor” was the headline on the Breitbart Texas story about TAB president Wallace’s past contributions to Democrats (his contributions to Republicans weren’t mentioned). For another story, Republican state representative Briscoe Cain, of Deer Park, told Breitbart, “Well, now the phony pro-business group in Texas has finally showed its true colors.”
The bathroom bill passed the Texas Senate but has stalled in the House, where it appeared likely to perish thanks to Speaker Joe Straus. With Governor Greg Abbott conspicuously absent from the conversation and unwilling to challenge the more radical elements within his party, it has fallen to Straus to be the bulwark against the far right. As the last moderating force in Texas politics, Straus has held back key planks of Patrick’s agenda, and the lieutenant governor has reciprocated by scuttling some proposals that the business lobby wants.
At the moment, the Legislature—and the Republican party, for that matter—has settled into an uneasy stalemate between Patrick’s right-leaning Senate and Straus’s more moderate coalition in the House. But, as they say, stalemates are made to be broken, and right now, Patrick’s faction seems likely to prevail eventually. It has the support of the most-devoted Republican primary voters, many of whom view moderation or compromise as surrender.
So business leaders and their Republican allies are in a precarious position. They still have a power base in the House, because Straus and his leadership team have fended off several challenges from the right, but he won’t be speaker forever. This session is his fifth leading the House, tying the record for longest-serving speaker with Pete Laney and Gib Lewis. Whenever he departs, Straus could well be replaced by a more conservative figure. So the talk among business Republicans in Austin’s bars and restaurants these days is about how they can reverse their losses and reclaim their party.
Well, good luck with that. The Republican grass roots aren’t going to moderate themselves, and it seems likely that business-friendly Republicans will continue to lose primaries, especially in statewide races. As long as that dynamic remains, the Republican party won’t be tilting back toward the middle anytime soon.
But there is another political party. Remember that one? It’s been stripped down and left to rust for the past two decades. But the Texas Democratic party is still there, waiting for someone to gas it up and take it for a spin.
That’s just what big-business interests should do. The TAB and any number of influential corporations could easily take over the party by recruiting and funding candidates to run as Democrats. It would be a homecoming of sorts; after all, years ago, before the state flipped to the GOP, business-friendly Republicans were conservative Democrats.
The problem with this idea is that Democrats can’t win in Texas at the moment. Sure, big business could take over the Democratic party, but what good would it do? Except the goal here isn’t to suddenly flip the state back to the Democrats. No, the goal would simply be to make Democrats somewhat more competitive, especially in statewide races. They don’t necessarily have to win, just get close enough to scare Republicans and perhaps nudge the GOP back toward moderation.
Republican primaries might turn out differently if there was the threat of a tight race in the general election—and that threat could be more credible in 2018 than it has been in years, with many pundits expecting the national mood to favor Democrats by then. Would Abbott strike a more moderate tone if he knew a well-funded pro-business Democrat was waiting for him in the 2018 general? Part of the business lobby’s problem with Patrick is that it has no way to threaten him. He’s untouchable in a Republican primary, and his general election campaigns have been cakewalks. But if, say, a conservative Democrat, backed by big-business money, opposed him in 2018, that might lead Patrick to moderate just a bit. Similarly, if the GOP once again nominated social conservatives with questionable credentials—like Attorney General Ken Paxton, currently under indictment, or Sid Miller, the agriculture commissioner famous for traveling out of state for his “Jesus shot”—for statewide offices, they’d at least have a challenging race in the fall. And just maybe the specter of a formidable Democratic opponent would lead to a more robust debate within the Republican party, rather than simply a mass rush to the right.
Business interests should still compete in GOP primaries, of course. But close general elections usually breed moderation, which Texas politics desperately needs. A little less extremism would benefit business interests, both parties, and our public debate. This may seem like a paradox, but if big-business Republicans want to moderate their party, they should defibrillate the lifeless Democrats.