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Analysis: Texas candidates run for the border
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Analysis: Texas candidates run for the border

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The number of people on the other side of the state’s border with Mexico is on the mind of every politician seeking state office this year. If that’s surprising to you, you must be new here.

Don Huffines’ commercials during the first Dallas Cowboys game of 2022 (he’s running for governor), U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s suggestion that President Joe Biden’s lack of action on immigration might be grounds for impeachment (Cruz isn’t on the ballot, but has a podcast), and Beto O’Rourke’s writings about the injustices of dispatching National Guard troops to the border over the holidays (he’s also running for governor) are early signs of what’s coming on that front.

And don’t forget about the other big talking point of this election, one foreshadowed by the quick norther that plunged thermometer readings through much of the state last weekend.

It got extra dramatic potential from Gov. Greg Abbott’s unsubstantiated guarantee that the state won’t get another set of blackouts during freezing weather.

Then there is the peculiar timing of this year’s election: Early voting in the party primaries starts on the anniversary of widespread electric blackouts during a polar vortex a year ago.

The weather will probably turn cold. Maybe it’ll be cold-cold, like last year. And the lights will probably stay on; after all, what happened last year only happens a couple of times every decade in Texas.

There is no certainty that last year’s experience will repeat itself in a way that would upend the elections. The border, however, is another matter. It’s high on the list of voter concerns, particularly among Republicans, who have elected every statewide official in Texas since 1994. It’s a perpetual matter of political anxiety, recurring persistently through decades of elections.

With a Democrat in the White House, the Texas Republicans in state office have several reasons to play it up. The number of people massing at the border to come into the U.S. reached historic highs last year. Among Republican voters in Texas, immigration and border security regularly top the list of “most important problems” facing the state; in the October University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 68% of those voters had those issues at the top. It barely registered with Democrats; only 2% put those issues atop their lists.

Those Republican voters seem eager to blame President Joe Biden, turning a normal Texas concern into a powerful partisan issue in this election year.

That same October UT/TT Poll found 22% of Texans approved of his handling of border security and immigration, while 63% disapprove of his performance on that front. Abbott’s ratings were better: 46% approve of his handling of those issues, while 43% do not. Among Republican voters, 79% said they like what the governor has been doing.

Even with that, conservative challengers to Abbott, like Huffines, a former state senator from Dallas, are critical of the governor’s efforts to seal up the frontier.

“When I’m your Republican governor, Texas will stop the illegal invasion at our border. And I’m not asking permission from the federal government,” Huffines said in one of his TV ads.

Cruz singled out immigration when talking on his “Verdict with Ted Cruz” podcast about chances that Republicans — if they win a majority in Congress — will try to impeach Biden.

“I do think there is a chance of that, whether it’s justified or not ... I think there are potentially multiple grounds to consider for impeachment. Probably the most compelling is the utter lawlessness of President Biden’s refusal to enforce the border. His decision to just defy federal immigration laws,” Cruz said in his podcast.

Abbott and the Legislature responded by putting up $3 billion in state funding to build barriers and to dispatch state police and National Guard troops to the border. Huffines doesn’t think it’s enough. O’Rourke, writing in the Houston Chronicle, accused Abbott of using Texas National Guard troops as political pawns.

The governor’s public relations efforts to minimize political exposure to the electric grid problems will pay off — if the weather cooperates and the lights stay on.

No matter what happens on that front over the next few weeks, the border will remain an issue. The importance of that first topic in the elections is a possibility. The second is a certainty.

Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune. He writes regular columns on politics, government and public policy.

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