Amid divisions on Paxton and vouchers, border security remains the great Republican unifier in Texas

Within hours of the Texas Senate’s acquittal of Attorney General Ken Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott’s statement on the verdict added one more exhibit supporting the argument that politics as usual were triumphant in the wake of the historic impeachment battle. Abbott’s statement was noticeably brief, in absolute terms and especially compared to the detailed statements issued by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick from the dais immediately after the Senate voted, and by Speaker of the House Dade Phelan in quick response. But the pithy sentence that capped Abbott’s (very) measured praise of Paxton spoke volumes with just a few words: “I look forward to continuing to work with him to secure the border and protect Texas from federal overreach."

However much remains to be speculated upon about Paxton’s future and the fractal cleavages in Texas’ Republican Party, the invocation of the two political themes that both Abbott and Paxton have profited from throughout their careers – border security and Texas resistance to federal authority (which frequently overlap) – provided an obvious political signal to Republicans from the casual GOP voter to the most institutional insider. Despite the ideological, institutional, and personal grievances among Republicans on display in the legislature over the disposition of the Paxton matter, there are other issues that clearly and consistently unite Republican voters, even if elite factions remain at each other’s throats over impeachment and, soon enough, over school vouchers in the upcoming special session which Abbbot promised to call in October just a couple of days later. 

While the direct benefits of Abbott’s nod to unity among Republicans in the areas of border security and federal resistance may appear to have been somewhat diluted when he threw down the gauntlet over vouchers, his emphasis on these particular causes nonetheless serves to remind GOP voters and elites alike where their energy and unity remain most powerful, however persistent other sectarian preoccupations. And, of course, Abbott can be expected to return to this theme, in action and words, in a future in which continuing problems on the border are all but assured. 

Even before news spread of thousands of migrants threatening (once again) to overwhelm the city of Eagle Pass, reigniting attention to the border, August University of Texas/Texas Politics Project polling found ample evidence for the obvious appeal of Abbott’s invocation of Texas’ campaigns versus migrants and Washington D.C. to GOP voters. 

Asked how serious a concern each of nine threats posed to the United States, immigration and “the power of the federal government” easily topped GOP voters’ worries, cited by 62% and 56%, respectively, as “extremely serious” concerns. This was significantly more than said the same about “a declining commitment to democracy” (45%), unfriendly foreign nations (41%), lack of shared values (35%), or climate change (14%). 

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Extremely serious13%36%62%
Very serious13%20%18%
Somewhat Serious25%14%13%
Not very serious27%9%4%
Not serious17%11%2%
Don't know/No opinion4%9%1%

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Extremely serious17%44%56%
Very serious22%19%23%
Somewhat Serious26%15%14%
Not very serious16%9%3%
Not serious8%1%1%
Don't know/No opinion9%13%3%

(While acknowledging the cross-currents created by Abbott’s signals to the legislature on vouchers, the issue is less salient to voters, and their attitudes less intense. Despite its persistence on a legislative agenda controlled by Republicans, the share of GOP voters who deemed vouchers, ESA’s, or school choice “extremely important” for the legislature to address in the upcoming session (34%) lagged far behind the shares who said the same about parental rights (65%), school safety (61%), and curriculum content (60%). Continued legislative inaction on vouchers may well stimulate (even more) internecine combat in the 2024 Republican primaries. But the fallout from factional politics within the GOP and among a handful of low primary turnouts is not a sign that the issue carries anywhere near the importance or charge that advocates claim, nor anywhere close to that of border security and the cultural identity issues that the subject activates.)

Lurking within Abbott’s rhetoric about the federal government is antipathy toward a Democratic president in the wake of Donald Trump’s hyper-partisan attack on the legitimacy of the current government: 85% of Texas Republicans have a very unfavorable view of Joe Biden, while 69% say Biden did not legitimately win the presidency in 2020.

This relative level of concern shouldn’t distract from the absolute importance that GOP voters have placed on immigration and border security, documented in UT/TXPP polling data since long before Trump began his march to the White House. Those issues regularly dominate Texas Republicans’ perceptions of the most important problem facing the state.

Loading chart...
Feb. 201514%33%59%
June 201514%25%59%
Oct. 201512%32%57%
Feb. 201617%28%54%
June 20168%29%52%
Oct. 20167%32%56%
Feb. 20178%21%51%
June 20177%36%51%
Oct. 201712%30%44%
Feb. 201812%32%48%
June 20188%24%53%
Oct. 20189%29%62%
Feb. 201911%29%62%
June 201911%35%59%
Oct. 201912%28%57%
Feb. 202010%32%52%
Apr. 20201%8%28%
June 20203%14%29%
Oct. 20203%11%30%
Feb. 20212%23%46%
Mar. 20218%35%61%
Apr. 20216%35%65%
June 20216%35%59%
Aug. 20212%29%64%
Oct. 20212%26%68%
Feb. 20223%28%58%
Apr. 20224%31%61%
June 20222%19%45%
Aug. 20224%38%54%
Oct. 20224%35%61%
Dec. 20223%27%60%
Feb. 20235%32%59%
Apr. 20235%19%57%
June 20237%39%59%
Aug. 20235%38%59%
Oct. 20239%43%60%
Dec. 20237%32%61%
Feb. 202414%44%68%
Apr. 202413%40%63%
June 20249%34%61%

However familiar repeated pivots to the border by Abbott and other Republican leaders may be, the latest poll results showed that the attitudes underlying Republican voters’ focus on border security have grown even more virulent in recent months. As policy inaction on the border has festered, refugee flows have persisted, the fentanyl epidemic has increasingly been associated with border security by Republicans of all stripes, and Donald Trump has renewed his efforts to leverage his hold on the GOP with immigration rhetoric, the salience of border security and the intensity of Republican attitudes have only increased.

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categoryToo manyAbout the right amountToo Few
Feb. 201862%22%5%
Oct. 201866%21%6%
Oct. 201959%24%7%
Feb. 202062%25%6%
Apr. 202062%25%6%
Aug. 202167%19%7%
Apr. 202261%22%8%
June 202368%24%8%
Aug. 202372%21%7%
Feb. 202468%19%8%
June 202465%21%7%

While it is no longer surprising to find that more than 80% of Republicans support immediately deporting all undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., as of August 2023, nearly three-quarters of Texas Republicans (73%) also said that the U.S. allows too many people to immigrate here legally. This represented a high in the time-series among this group. 

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Strongly agree37%10%3%
Somewhat agree40%34%29%
Somewhat disagree7%20%31%
Strongly disagree5%19%27%
Don't know/No opinion11%18%9%

Underlying these results were other, more fundamental views about the value of immigration and diversity among Texas Republicans that stood out in a UT/TXPP time series full of results demonstrating GOP hostility to immigration.

In response to a question asked in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and now, August 2023, a majority of Republican voters (58%), for the first time in the time series, disagreed with the statement: “newcomers from other countries enrich Texas with their hard work and values.” Prior to this year, no more than 50% had disagreed with this statement.

Similarly, asked whether Texas’ increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a cause for optimism or a cause for concern (an item asked 14 times since 2019), 52% of Republicans said it was a cause for concern, the first time a majority of GOP voters took this position, and an increase of 12 points from the last time this question was asked in April of this year.

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A cause for optimism63%27%20%
A cause for concern23%38%52%
Don't know/No opinion14%35%28%

These underlying attitudes feed into Republican responses to specific immigration policies being implemented to varying degrees by the Republican-led state government in Texas. 

Gov. Abbott’s persistent, boundary-testing measures on the border reflect his ability, largely by virtue of a by-now reflexive expression of an expanded conception of the authority and power of the governor, to tap into the broad support for aggressive border policies among Republican voters.

In the current political milieu in the state, using the visibility Abbott enjoys among the public to channel attention to the border serves an immediate purpose of directing attention to an issue that both exercises and unites Republican voters, while drawing attention away from the major divisions within the GOP that have been (and will continue to be) on display. It buttresses Abbott’s position, and generates little or no dissent from other incumbent leaders who lack the direct ability to lead publically on the issue. The effect is not just to inject some unity into a fractious party, but also to burnish Abbott’s credentials as the leader of the state party amidst strong currents of contention and dissent – including the ever-present exertions of a powerful Lt. Governor and continuing  mischief of dissident Republican elites and activists who supported Abbott’s primary challengers in 2022.

At this moment, Abbott’s public commitment to pushing the voucher issue in an inevitably divisive special session is at odds with this goal. But the fact that the current politics of the Texas GOP make bringing this fight to a head unavoidable only adds to the political value of Abbott’s persistent return to immigration and border security. A subtext of his seemingly carefully calibrated comments on the coming special session this week is the legislature is set up to take the fall if they can’t send him a voucher bill during the two special sessions Abbott (and the calendar) has decreed they have to work on it – a public position that simultaneously exercises gubernatorial power while taking political advantage of its constitutional limits. Whatever happens during the fractious special session(s) to come, and the primaries that will follow, expect Abbott to continue to rely on his de facto public ownership of issues that both animate and unite Texas Republicans – and tap into the deep-seated cultural impulses that have come to define the party.

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