WASHINGTON — In the Texas-size stare-down between state Democratic legislators and Gov. Greg Abbott over voting rights, many observers believe the Democrats will be the ones to blink first.
The more than 50 state House Democrats made a political bet when they flew to Washington, D.C., earlier this week, hinging their hopes on Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation while stalling the state Legislature back in Austin, part of an effort to halt a restrictive voting measure.
It’s made for a national drama playing out publicly in front of cameras and in tweets. Abbott and Republicans are calling on their colleagues to return home to vote as Democrats hole up in the nation’s capital.
The Texas governor appears to have the advantage, experts said.
For one thing, Abbott can’t afford to back down, lest he face the wrath of former President Donald Trump and his followers. Abbott, a former Texas attorney general who has attacked “voter fraud” for years, also has the ability to call special legislation sessions for as long as it takes to bring Democratic legislators back to what remains a Republican state politically.
“Politically, this is a very advantageous thing for him,” Republican political strategist Doug Heye said.
Democrats can win the standoff if the U.S Senate changes its filibuster rules and clears the way for a federal voting rights bill. But Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key Democrat who opposes changing the filibuster rules, did not announce a change of mind after meeting Thursday with some of the Texas legislators.
Outside of Congress, Texas Democrats could still score a victory by dragging out the standoff, bringing Abbott’s government to a standstill and damaging him politically.
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The Texas Democrats, who have attended news conferences, conducted interviews and lobbied lawmakers all over Washington, said they know they are the underdogs in their battle with Abbott. They also said that spotlighting Republican efforts to suppress voting, particularly by people of color, is a victory of sorts and worth all the political trouble.
“If you don’t fight, I can guarantee you won’t win,” said state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Dallas-based Democrat who attended a news conference at AFL-CIO headquarters two blocks from the White House.
Besides, she added, “I’m used to being the underdog.”
Democrats said they plan to hold out until at least Aug. 7, the expiration date for the special session that Abbott called to pass an election bill.
The Democrats’ decision to flee the state denied Texas Republicans the ability to reach a quorum of legislators necessary to conduct business.
Abbott, however, can keep calling special sessions to put rising pressure on Democrats to return home. The governor, who has been conducting his own media tour while Democrats lobby in Washington, told Newsmax television this week that “I’ll keep calling special sessions all the way until the election next year.”
He added: “They’re going to have come back some time.”
Even if he were inclined to negotiate with the Democrats, Abbott couldn’t do so politically, analysts said. Trump has demanded that Republican candidates toe the line on his false claims about election fraud in 2020 and push for changes to voting systems in future elections. Abbott could risk losing Trump’s support ahead of a primary if he changes his strategy.
The second-term governor has Trump’s endorsement in his bid for reelection, but he still faces pro-Trump primary challengers next year and “election integrity” is a defining issue for many Texas Republican voters.
Some Texas Republicans said Trump has little to do with the current drama because Abbott has long attacked voter fraud, going back to his years as the state’s attorney general.
“He will not be blinking,” said Dave Carney, a political adviser to Abbott. “He doesn’t know how to blink.”
Democrats seek to lengthen boycott, pressure Abbott
Democrats said one of the reasons for their boycott is to expose Abbott’s election bill as nothing more than a campaign document reflecting Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party.
“This is all about appealing to the Trump base and Trump himself,” said state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, the leader of the Texas House Democrats.
If the Democratic boycott lasts months, some analysts said, political pressure could grow on Abbott to cut some kind of deal. A long standoff could make Abbott look ineffectual less than half a year after the meltdown of the state’s electrical grid led to criticism of the governor.
“The longer this goes on, the worse it looks for him,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
Eddie Vale, a Democratic and labor strategist, said the pressure from Texas Democrats could lead to changes in the filibuster process, though passage of a federal voting rights bill remains an uphill battle.
Even if the Democratic legislators have to retreat to Texas, Vale said, “at least you can get people to pay more attention” to GOP attempts at voter suppression.
Texas Democrats’ 2003 walkout didn’t work
History would also seem to be on Abbott’s side.
The Democrats boycotted the Legislature back in 2003, traveling to Oklahoma to block passage of a bill to redistrict congressional seats. But they backed down when members said they had return to Texas to make a living.
Former state Rep. Jim Dunnam, the caucus leader when the Texas House Democrats broke quorum in 2003, said his members knew at the time their chances for success were minimal. As they do now, Republicans controlled every lever of state government – and therefore all of the cards.
“Nobody ever said we were going to kill that thing,” recalled Dunnam, who practices law in Waco. “Everybody knew we weren’t going to stop them from passing it. But we did achieve more public awareness than we ever dreamed.”
Today’s Democrats have a more sellable message, he said, namely that they are trying to stop Republicans from eroding the voting rights of everyday Texans — and perhaps even voting rights nationwide.
“These folks have the foundation, the basics of why (voting rights are important). I think they have an advantage,” Dunnam said.
Abbott’s special power: special sessions
By law, the Texas Legislature meets for 140 days in odd-numbered years — but the governor has the power to call lawmakers back to Austin for special sessions, and only the governor decides which issues those lawmakers can tackle during the 30-day overtime periods.
With no limit on the number of special sessions he can call, it is among Abbott’s most significant powers — and one he quickly invoked to short-circuit a victory by House Democrats who walked out of the Capitol in the closing hours of the regular session in May, breaking quorum to kill the GOP election bill.
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Abbott set the special session to begin July 8 but waited until the day before senators and House members gathered to unveil the working agenda, adding a host of conservative-pleasing items, including border security, abortion restrictions, limits on transgender student-athletes and limits on how teachers can discuss race and racial inequality.
But it was Abbott’s call to pass “election integrity” measures that inflamed passions on both sides, leading to late-night and all-night committee hearings amid hours of public testimony, most of it in opposition, last weekend.
Now Democratic legislators are in Washington while Abbott and the Republicans remain in Austin — but for how long is anybody’s guess.
Texas Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said the Democrats will be under increasing pressure to return to Texas and to work.
“The only way Republicans lose this,” he said, “is if they don’t stay united.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas Democrats walk out: Gov. Greg Abbott has advantage, experts say