Texas is mounting its offenses earlier and more aggressively than it did against the previous Democratic president — including a new challenge on Tuesday. It’s the same role California and New York played when Donald Trump was president, suing over abortion restrictions, changes to Obamacare and immigration measures. California didn’t let up, filing nine lawsuits against the federal government on Trump’s last day in office.
Yet, Biden’s long years in the public eye, the more moderate tone he hit on the campaign trail opposite liberal stalwarts like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the fact that he’s white, have made him less polarizing than Obama.
And while Biden may still prove to be a useful villain for GOP leaders frustrated with policies more liberal than Obama’s, they are also trying to fend off a far-right insurgency as Republicans court more moderate suburban voters.
“There was more grassroots opposition to Obama, the stimulus and Obamacare,” said Republican consultant Brendan Steinhauser, who has worked on campaigns for Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, both Texas Republicans. Trump activated a different type of Republican voter, he said — one who worries less about pushing conservative economics and more about culture war flash points.
Where Texas Republicans used the legal system a decade ago to deliver a steady stream of red meat to their base, Biden is a far less popular target after losing Texas by less than 6 percentage points in 2020, an unusually close result in the reliably red state.
The coronavirus also has many Texans, long a go-it-alone breed, rethinking the role of the federal government to step in during a crisis. About 48 percent of Texans approved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, compared with 44 percent for GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, according to March polls from The Texas Politics Project.
“It’s a different time and a different place,” Steinhauser said.
Still, Texans’ view of the administration could quickly change if Biden moves to limit guns or loosen abortion restrictions. One thing the fractured GOP base can agree on for now is trying to counter the president’s agenda.
When Biden marked his first 100 days in office, celebrating the reopening of K-8 schools, economic stimulus and vaccination efforts, he had also racked up lawsuits from Texas over the Keystone XL oil pipeline, restrictions on drilling on federal land and a range of immigration issues.
Late last month, Texas filed another suit against the White House over Covid protocols in immigration facilities and joined a multistate suit challenging the administration’s plans to start calculating the social cost of carbon emissions again. A newest lawsuit was launched on Tuesday, challenging restrictions in the latest Covid relief law that bars states from using the money to offset tax cuts. And Abbott and Paxton have blamed the White House for the increase in migrants traveling up to the Southern border.
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said state agencies are “being very vigilant” about the Biden administration’s actions.
“Regretfully, we’re off to a precarious beginning,” Bush, who is considering a run for Texas attorney general that would pit him against Paxton in the Republican primary next year, said in an interview. “We’re standing up a legal defense task force that’s looking a lot at the same issues that we took on during the Obama days.”
It’s a familiar role for Texas officials who have long bragged about leading lawsuits against the Obama administration. It’s a way to portray themselves as a bulwark against federal overreach even though the suits themselves have a mixed record.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, has hired more attorneys to prepare lawsuits against the Biden administration and plans to be “active,” said Chuck DeVore, TPPF’s vice president of national initiatives.
He and other Texas Republicans argue that the lawsuits aren’t about politics, but are being used to counter the Biden administration left-leaning policies.
“We’re not seeing anything out of the current administration that leaves us to believe that they give a flying crud about the state of Texas,” said Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy, a former aide to Paxton.
Yet, the pandemic has also created a faultline in the Texas Republican Party, chipping away at Abbott’s grip on the state GOP and making space for far-right party leaders who criticized his mask mandates and stay-at-home order. Last summer, former Florida Rep. Allen West was elected chair of the Texas GOP and has since used his perch to chastise traditional business-friendly moderates in the state. Like Republicans elsewhere, his allegiance to Trump has roiled the shrinking share of traditional GOP loyalists eager to move past the former president.
Abbott is well-funded heading into the 2022 governor’s race. But to survive the primary and general election, he will have to thread a path between disparate factions that include Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Biden — a president whose overall approval in an April poll rivals Abbott’s and who hasn’t had to contend with the litany of racially motivated animus Obama faced.
A divide over health care
The antagonistic relationship between Texas and the federal government goes back to the New Deal, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor who is writing a book about former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The state, which has no income tax, pulls about a third of its budget from the federal government, a higher share than many other states, he said. That’s partly due to agricultural assistance and federal aid disbursed after natural disasters, but also because Texas has a large share of enrollees in entitlement programs like Medicaid.