A Letter from Austin #25: Is the Pink Wave Real?

The Texas Governor’s Race Gets Interesting

Our current Texas election season features only a couple of tight races. One, though, is the Big Enchilada — the race for governor. The closeness of the gubernatorial contest is a bit of a surprise. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke shocked establishment pundits when he finished only three percentage points behind lifetime politician and Cozumel enthusiast Ted Cruz in a race for one of Texas’s two Senate seats. This year O’Rourke is the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor, facing off against Republican Party incumbent Greg Abbott. Taking a page out of his 2018 playbook, O’Rourke is visiting pretty much every town in the state with more than one stoplight, drawing energized crowds of giddy patriots who support him and gun-totin’ protesters who don’t. By some estimates, he’s pulled to within shouting distance of Abbott, another lifetime politician who apparently has hopes of running for president some day.

O’Rourke is counting on urban and suburban voters, of course, but he’s also finding unexpected strength with women in all regions, from the Piney Woods to the High Plains. Let’s face it: Women are mad. When I was a kid, in the nineteen seventies, there was a popular advertising slogan for cigarettes designed for female smokers: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Never mind that this congratulatory message was meant to recognize the freedom of females to get lung cancer just as easily as their male counterparts. The point was that women were making substantial gains in work and social status. While Texas women were prohibited from voting as recently as 1918, when they were listed in the relevant statute along with aliens, imbeciles, and crazy people, by 1973 they could vote, own property, and even get divorced. In 1973 the United States Supreme Court forbade states from interfering with a woman’s right to choose for herself whether to have a child, at least in the first term of pregnancy. And Texas became the first state in the union to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the constitutional provision that would have codified female equality under the law with men.

That amendment was never ratified, of course, and women have found themselves fighting a rear-guard action to protect their civil rights ever since. They’ve recently lost lots of ground here in Texas. It’s not just the gutting of Roe v. Wade and enactment of Texas’s draconian abortion statute, with no exceptions for incest or rape, that bothers them. It’s also the fact that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is arguing that criminal statutes enacted in 1925 should now apply to abortion prosecutions. It’s also Abbott’s unwillingness to support even minimal gun restrictions like raising the age for legal purchase of so-called assault weapons, as deep-red state Florida did in 2018 after the Parkland school massacre. It’s also Abbott’s support of permit-less carry, which even state law enforcement officials have denounced as a bad idea. It’s the lack of support for teachers and librarians, most of whom are female, and the GOP’s constant attempts to divert tax dollars to private schools, which would effectively strangle the public schools so many Texas moms have worked so hard to build up.

Much of the funding for the GOP’s legislative initiatives comes from far-right religious zealots like Tim Dunn and the Assembly of Yahweh (7th Day) preacher Farris Wilks, whose beliefs about the place of women in society are thousands of years old. Financial leaders of groups sometimes referred to as the Taliban with air conditioning, Dunn and Wilks are two of the most powerful people you’ve never heard of. Spending millions of dollars, they’ve managed to place a number of their hand-picked yes men in the Texas Legislature, and they’ve pushed debate so far to the right in Texas that many Bush-era Republicans don’t recognize their own party anymore. The Texas GOP’s 2022 platform, for example, characterizes Joe Biden’s presidency as illegitimate (Trump’s Big Lie is still out there) and calls for abolishing the Federal Reserve, treating homosexuality as an aberrant lifestyle, and opposing efforts to dedicate portions of streets to bicycle and other commuter traffic.

Many Texas women — even Republican women — have seen enough. The idea of forcing a 13-year-old girl to carry a rapist’s child to term just seems cruel. Men would probably agree, if they were paying any attention. Would any Texas dad force his teenage daughter to have a rapist’s baby? I doubt it. But most Texas men, who are perfectly willing to put up with a church or school massacre every couple of years in order to preserve their precious Second Amendment rights, just don’t seem to understand what the new law entails. In fact, one male friend I talked to recently flat-out denied that the new anti-abortion statute says what it says.

Maybe the most prominent expression of feminine rage evident so far is the group Mothers Against Greg Abbott (“MAGA”), which took off after the Uvalde school shooting in May of this year that left 19 kids and two teachers dead. In just three months, the group has grown to include 50,000 members — on Facebook, at least — and is producing a series of biting message pieces for television and social media. Reflecting the pink wave of anti-GOP sentiment, O’Rourke is leading Abbott by some six points with female voters in one recent poll.

Beto is doing his patented Beto thing, bouncing from burg to burg, engaging with anyone within earshot, all energy and ambition and off-color language. Abbott, meanwhile, has pulled up the drawbridge and is attempting to focus on inflation, Joe Biden, and, most importantly, the border, capitalizing on long-standing fears of the “invasion” of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. It’s a potent issue, and smart politics, though it conflicts somewhat with the other GOP narrative that Hispanics are receptive to conservative social policies and increasingly likely to vote Republican.

Will female discontent be enough to tip the scales in O’Rourke’s direction? Probably not. Texas is a low turn-out state, and disaffection doesn’t always translate to ballot box results. But O’Rourke is in this race, and far later than most people thought he would be. Whether he gets beyond the label of perennial hopeful and into the governor’s mansion will depend on whether enough women figure out that, in Texas at least, they haven’t really come all that long a way, baby. And whether they care.

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Bruce McCandless III

Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com