Estranged Bedfellows? Polling reveals evidence of trouble in the long marriage between business and the Texas GOP

The GOP pushback against business remains one of the underappreciated themes of the 87th Texas Legislature – and one of the most important subplots of the 88th as the legislature shifts into higher gear. From the blacklisting of companies branded with the scarlet letters E-S-G from doing business with the state to the slow-motion demise of Texas's Chapter 313 business incentive program, the tide of conservative legislation aimed at shaping business decisions has upended assumptions about the traditional “pro-business” orientation of Republican governance in the state. Data from recent University of Texas/Texas Politics Project polling suggest that elected Republicans’ efforts to mobilize partisan support with rhetoric and policies that punish business finds support among some Republican voters eager jump on the anti-“woke” dogpile in the short run. But it also activates tensions in the governing GOP coalition.

Public attitudes toward the response by corporate actors to current political conflicts suggests that the political potency of ideologically polarizing issues, many of which have been strategically emphasized in recent years by Republican elected officials and opinion leaders seeking to mobilize their voters, may now be competing with traditionally positive Republican dispositions toward business. Republican elected officials in Texas are exhibiting an increasingly evident willingness to criticize corporate practices and policies, and to pursue legislation that puts them at odds with corporate interests who have traditionally been central players in the coalition of conservative voters and interest groups that have made Texas Republicans the dominant party in the state for two decades. While the mobilization of conservative primary voters at the relative expense of the image and position of the traditional business interests long aligned with GOP appears to be politically profitable for Republican politicians in the short run, it also threatens to disrupt the balance of power in the GOP, and the broader identity and orientation of the party, in the longer run.

The evidence of Republican lawmakers’ and voters’ more qualified support for business – or, if you will, their more selective hostility – shouldn’t be mistaken for a wholesale rejection of their traditional allegiance to business interests, let alone of some reconsideration of the heroic role both have historically assigned to entrepreneurship and private enterprise. One doesn’t have to dig too deeply into the opposition to the expring system of Chapter 313 incentives or the tension between economic sectors when it comes to ESG policies to find familiar evidence of competitors jockeying for market advantage and/or the playing out of long-standing sectoral rivalries. 

But even allowing for the expected play of market competition in the legislature – for every business who loses in the legislature, there is another business who finds advantage in their misfortune – the increasingly persistent combativeness toward corporate targets judged to be at odds with GOP lawmakers’ ideological imperatives signals tensions in an otherwise (largely) ideologically homogenous party. By extension, the conflict also exposes tensions in the fundamental content and priorities of Republicans’ brand of conservatism.

While these tensions are playing out most visibly in elite circles like the legislature, public opinion polling illustrates the scope and direction of these tensions among Republican voters in the state – and by extension, the tension between a significant share of these voters and the elite quarters of the party that reflexively embrace the party’s traditional pro-business orientation. Results from the December 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll suggest that Republican elected officials’ demonstrated focus on penalizing business actors based on corporate ESG and/or DEI policies may have some basis in the attitudes of their voters, but may also risk increasing the growing tensions between the Republican Party and “business” writ large.

A battery of questions in the December poll, conducted after the 2022 general election but prior to the opening of the legislative session in January, found fewer than one in three Texans saying that businesses and corporations were doing too much in response to climate change, racial discrimination, women’s rights, abortion access, democracy and voting rights, and LGBTQ rights, respectively. And while Democrats were, unsurprisingly, largely unequivocal in their support for greater efforts by businesses and corporations (between 53% and 76% across those issues), responses among Republican voters were far more uneven.

Do you think businesses and corporations are doing too much, too little, or about the right amount responding to each of the following...
(December 2022 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll)
  Too Much About the right amount Too little Don't know
Climate change 29% 15% 44% 12%
Racial discrimination 26% 23% 39% 12%
Women's rights 21% 27% 40% 12%
Abortion access 27% 16% 39% 18%
Democracy/voting rights 20% 25% 39% 17%
LGBTQ Rights 36% 19% 29% 16%

Pluralities of Republican voters said that businesses and corporations were doing “too much” to address each issue, but with significant variance. Business efforts towards LGTBQ rights received the greatest push-back from GOP voters, with 62% saying that businesses were doing too much compared to 17% who said businesses were doing about the right amount, and only 8% who said that businesses were doing too little. A majority of Republicans (53%) also identified climate change as an area where businesses were doing too much, while a near-majority (49%) said the same about abortion access.

The ranking of issues among Republicans by those who say corporations are doing “too much” suggest some of the GOP hot button issues on the Republican Party’s affection for business writ large may have turned a little frosty. This appears particularly evident when GOP voters are required to reconcile their traditional embrace of business with ideological commitments that may well compete with their commitment to private enterprise. For the moment, broadly put, the principle of private enterprise and the resulting allegiance to the private sector may well be outweighed by political commitments more frequently reinforced by GOP elites (such as prominent elected officials and/or opinion leaders) — and potentially more strongly held than general, abstract commitments to free markets and free enterprise among the electorate.

Do you think businesses and corporations are doing too much, too little, or about the right amount responding to each of the following...
(December 2022 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll)
  Too much About the right amount Too little
  Democrats Republicans Dems Reps Dems Reps
Climate change 5% 53% 12% 18% 76% 17%
Racial discrimination 7% 46% 15% 30% 69% 12%
Women's rights 7% 37% 16% 37% 69% 14%
Abortion access 7% 49% 13% 19% 66% 14%
Democracy/voting rights 6% 32% 20% 30% 64% 19%
LGBTQ Rights 11% 62% 20% 17% 53% 8%

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Too much7%26%49%
About the right amount13%14%19%
Too little66%37%14%
Don't know/No opinion14%24%18%

Take social issues like LGTBQ rights and abortion access. However divided Republicans may be on the issue of the state’s near-total abolition of abortion, limiting abortion access remains a commitment for most Texas Republicans. The majority of Republicans in October 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project polling said that Texas’ highly restrictive abortion laws, which contain no exceptions for rape or incest, should either be left as they are now (42%) or made more strict (25%). Given that roughly two-thirds of Texas Republicans don’t seem to have a problem with the current restrictions, it’s unsurprising to find a large share (49%) holding the view that corporations are doing too much – essentially prioritizing the GOP’s long-established political commitment to banning abortion over the seemingly sacrosanct principle of the rights of employers to offer, or not offer, certain benefits to attract and retain workers, and to respond to signals from shareholders and consumers.

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More strict10%12%25%
Less strict78%39%26%
Left as they are now6%33%42%
Don't know/No opinion6%16%7%

The issue of LGTBQ rights follows a similar pattern. August 2022 UT/TXPP polling found a majority of Republicans (50%) saying that same sex marriage should not be legal in Texas, while Aprill 2022 polling found 87% saying that the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate should be the only way to define gender. Given these views, it’s again, unsurprising to find 62% saying that businesses and corporations are doing too much to advance LGBTQ rights. 

On the issue of racial discrimination, close to 46% of Republicans say that businesses and corporations are doing too much, statistically on par with the share saying businesses are doing enough (30%) or too little (12%) combined. In April 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project polling, 42% of Texas Republicans said African Americans experienced a “lot (10%) or “some” discrimination, while 37% said “not very much” and 18% said “none at all,” suggesting an audience for GOP leaders’ (including Governor Abbott’s) related pushback on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies (or, to adopt the vulgate, “wokeness”).

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Too much5%33%53%
About the right amount12%17%18%
Too little76%34%17%
Don't know/No opinion7%16%12%

The prominence of climate change in the relative rankings of the “too much” responses (53%) aligns with GOP voters’ attitudes on climate change as well. In the same December poll, a plurality of Texas Republicans (43%) agreed with the statement that “climate change is not happening,” with another 21% “not sure.” (Within the Republican universe, more intense conservatives were less likely to believe that climate change is happening.)

Given the central presence of the carbon fuel industry (i.e. oil and gas) in the political economy of the state generally and, more specifically, in the economics of the Texas GOP, it’s not surprising to find a majority of Republicans (59%) saying that the U.S. government is doing too much to address climate change in the wake of climate initiatives implemented by the Biden administration: only 14% said the U.S. is doing too little. The much more minimalist approach taken by Texas government finds a plurality of Republicans, 43%, saying the state is doing “about enough,” while 27% say it’s doing too much. Only 12% say it’s doing too little.

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Too much5%24%27%
About enough15%28%43%
Too little75%32%12%
Don't know/No opinion5%16%18%

Other issue areas provide less obvious signals to GOP leaders. In response to women’s rights and democracy, more Republicans currently think businesses are doing too little or the right amount (51% for women’s rights; 49% for democracy and voting rights) than think businesses are doing too much (37% for women’s rights; 32% for voting rights). Lt. Governor Dan Patrick was one of the prominent Republicans who pushed back loudly against American Airlines’ objections to Republican-sponsored election legislation in 2021. “Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” he bluntly declared in a statement that slammed the Ft. Worth-based airline’s public opposition to SB 7 while also relitigating their opposition to the so-called “bathroom bill” in 2017. Corporate opposition to the bathroom bill, rallied in part by then-Speaker of the House Joe Straus, helped result in its defeat. Four years and two speakers later, SB 7 passed both chambers and was signed into law by Governor Abbott in the same session that saw the demise of Chapter 313 incentives and the passage of legislation banning the state from doing business with “companies that boycott energy companies” (as described by the Comptroller’s office, charged with enforcing “divestment.”)

Texans’ attitudes toward corporate activism and ESG focused policies don’t uncover the presence of a deep well of suspicion towards business activity in these areas of increasing social and political attention, or toward corporations writ large. But other data in the December poll illustrate more variability in Republican voters’ views of business that raises further questions about the stability of the coalition.

A set of questions asking voters their views of local business, U.S. based corporations, and corporations based outside the U.S. revealed significant differences in Texans’ views. Local businesses were viewed favorably by 75% of Texans, including 75% of Democrats and 78% of Republicans. However, when asked about major U.S.-based corporations, the share of Texans holding a positive view dropped 34 points to 51%. While the decline is larger among Democrats (39 points), the ratings among Republicans were notable for their lack of a clear endorsement of major U.S. businesses. Overall, 49% of Texas Republicans said that they held a favorable view of major U.S. corporations — with only 9% saying that they hold a “very favorable” view — and nearly a quarter, 22%, holding an unfavorable view. Beyond Texas and American shores, only 16% of Texans said that they held a favorable view of foreign corporations, including only 16% of Republicans. By comparison, 29% of Republicans held very favorable views of church and faith organizations, while 67% held favorable views overall.

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Local businesses in your area75%
Churches & faith organizations50%
Universities & colleges45%
Public schools (K-12)44%
Major companies / corporations based in the U.S.41%
Labor unions40%
Major companies / corporations based outside the U.S.16%

These results add an additional dimension to Republican elected officials' efforts to cultivate GOP voters’ suspicion of the corporate adoption of ESG policies and their public engagement with related politics. Both the implementation of ESG principles and the political pushback against them have largely involved corporate entities, who are generally viewed less favorably overall than local businesses (and less intensely so) by Republicans. Consequently, Republican voters' traditionally favorable views of business could become subject to a reframing based on the identity of the business as well as the shining of a political spotlight on selective policies and business strategies. 

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Local businesses in your area75%62%78%
Churches & faith organizations35%35%67%
Universities & colleges66%30%27%
Public schools (K-12)61%31%31%
Major companies / corporations based in the U.S.36%30%49%
Labor unions66%30%19%
Major companies / corporations based outside the U.S.16%15%16%

Republican leaders in Texas and elsewhere have clearly seen political opportunity in these patterns in public opinion, but the balance of risk and reward in attempting to capitalize on these cross pressures in Republican attitudes remains unclear. The political entrepreneurship of leaders such as Lt. Gov. Patrick and Gov. Abbott in Texas, and prominent Republicans elsewhere like Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, have paid off in the short term, particularly in Republican primaries in the 2022 mid-term election. But the market has not yet spoken on the longer-term risk of damaging the long-standing corporate ties that have made the GOP “the party of business” in the name of continuing to stoke the reactionary “anti-woke” politics that have become a requirement of Republican primary politics. 

These tremors in the structure of the Republican coalition don’t presage a wholesale migration of business interests from the GOP, particularly in Texas. The increasing power of the progressive wing of the national Democratic party – a source of anti-corporate sentiment long before anyone was “woke” and a major influence on the Democratic brand in a state where young, educated, and white liberal voters form the heart of the elite discussion – is a natural obstacle to such a migration. Texas Democrats have the additional obstacle of being shut out of governance, resource poor, and bereft of organizational substance. The fact that businesses engaged in Texas politics don’t have much of a political alternative has no doubt encouraged the willingness of Republican elected officials to beat up on them for political advantage. In a one-party system without viable alternatives, business interests in Texas are trapped in a bed they’ve helped make. After years of untroubled slumber, some of them are now having a rude awakening.

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