But after a mass shooting in the border city of El Paso this month, these are anything but typical times in Texas politics.
A fundraising letter sent out by Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign the day before the shooting at a Walmart has angered Democrats and illustrated the lingering political fallout from the deadliest anti-Latino attack in modern U.S. history.
On Aug. 3, a white, 21-year-old gunman opened fire at the Walmart, killing 22 people in a hate-filled attack targeting what he called “the Hispanic community.” In the campaign letter dated Aug. 2, Abbott sought to rally potential donors by writing, “If we’re going to defend Texas, we’ll need to take matters into our own hands.” The word “defend” was written in bold, was underlined and was in all caps.
The letter described the large number of immigrants crossing into Texas illegally, called out both parties for refusing to work with President Donald Trump to secure the border and warned that liberals were trying to transform Texas through illegal immigration and “turn Texas blue.”
“Doing nothing will only lead to disaster for Texas, both economically and politically,” the letter read.
Leaders of the Texas Democratic Party called the letter racist, anti-Latino and anti-immigrant and said it was filled with the kind of rhetoric that fueled the gunman’s hatred. The Dallas-area man charged in the attack, Patrick Crusius, had posted an online anti-Latino manifesto minutes before the shooting, declaring that he was acting in response to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and fears that the Hispanic population in Texas would “make us a Democrat stronghold.”
The shooting has exposed long-simmering tensions between the state’s white Republican leadership and the Hispanic lawmakers and activists who have accused them for years of racist power plays. For years, the largely white Texas Republican leadership has worried that the increasing Hispanic population in the state will loosen their grip on power and has described the problems of illegal immigration at the Texas border in alarmist terms.
And it has been more than talk: Texas Republicans have pushed to ban sanctuary cities as part of a so-called show-me-your-papers law, passed in 2017, that Democrats called anti-Latino. The Republican leadership also launched a much-debated and flawed effort to purge noncitizens from the voter rolls. Numerous voters with Hispanic surnames who are citizens were caught up in the purge.
But Texas has a complicated political geography that is not always defined by race or ethnicity. While many of the state’s most prominent Latino politicians are Democrats, Republicans in state leadership have long enjoyed a measure of support from Latinos, who have often voted conservative on issues such as abortion and even border security.
Abbott, a former Texas attorney general who is in a wheelchair after being paralyzed below the waist in a 1984 accident, has enjoyed widespread support among Hispanic Texans, particularly those who live in the Rio Grande Valley. Last year, Abbott won reelection, defeating his Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez, the Latina former sheriff of Dallas County, by more than 1 million votes. Abbott won about 44% of the Hispanic vote.
His wife is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and the state’s first Hispanic first lady. The governor’s chief of staff, Luis Saenz, is the first Latino chief of staff to run the governor’s office in the history of the state.
At the same time, Abbott has backed, and defended in court, a series of voting, redistricting and anti-sanctuary-cities laws that Latino leaders have called anti-Hispanic. Since 2011, federal judges have found in a series of court rulings that the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature intentionally discriminated against Hispanics and blacks.
The issues raised by the El Paso attack have prompted almost everyone to re-examine traditional politics — and the political mailer that went out from the governor has been especially contentious.
“This is not a game,” Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement about the governor’s campaign mailer. “It’s long past time for Republicans to eradicate white supremacist language from their discourse — people are dying.”
State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., a Democrat who in 2014 became the first Latino elected to the Texas Legislature from Fort Worth’s majority-white Tarrant County, said the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state has been too divisive for too long.
“I think if the shooter’s manifesto would not have come out, it wouldn’t have been so glaringly obvious,” Romero said. “I’ve said for a long time that I felt this was a dangerous conversation that was going to eventually rear its ugly head. Any criticism that the governor has received has been absolutely warranted, and he should be the first one to say, ‘I made a mistake.’”
A spokesman for Abbott declined to comment.
If there was any Republican criticism of the governor’s mailer, it was muted. Some Republicans expressed outrage that Democrats were branding the letter as racist. They said that the letter was not anti-immigrant but anti-illegal immigration and that it was wrong for the Texas Democratic Party to imply that opposing illegal immigration was racist.
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant who is the chairman of the Travis County Republican Party in Austin, said he found nothing offensive about the governor’s letter. “Texas has invested billions of dollars and deployed thousands of personnel to the southern border to do a job that the federal government’s not willing to do,” Mackiowiak said. “I read the mailer. I didn’t see anything in there that was objectionable.”
The El Paso gunman echoed talking points used in the past both by Trump and by Texas Republicans who have called for stronger measures against illegal immigration.
The lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, was quoted in The Texas Observer in 2006, when he was running for a state Senate seat, as describing immigrants who were in the country illegally as invaders and saying that the main “problem we are facing is the silent invasion of the border. We are being overrun. It is imperiling our safety.”
The notion that red Texas must be fiercely defended from becoming more and more blue has become a common theme at Texas Republican events. At a Houston rally for Trump last year, Patrick invoked the revered defenders of the Alamo in urging the crowd to defeat Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman from El Paso, in his bid for the Senate.
“He does not represent the Texas values that are ingrained in us, because we all have the DNA of Crockett and Bowie and Travis in our hearts and souls,” Patrick told a cheering audience. “We will never give up Texas!”
A spokesman for Patrick did not respond to requests for comment.
Democrats and some political analysts are calling for Texas Republicans to back away from the language used in Abbott’s campaign letter and acknowledge the role that anti-immigrant rhetoric may have played in the attack.
“Our Texas lieutenant governor describes immigration as an ‘illegal invasion,’” said Greg Casar, who is a Hispanic member of the Austin City Council and whose district is nearly 70% Latino. “And the terrorist in El Paso said he was fighting the ‘Hispanic invasion.’ When our leaders in Texas campaign on ‘Show Me Your Papers’ laws, when they purge voter rolls — it’s not just a racist dog whistle. It’s a bullhorn.”
El Paso’s Democratic congresswoman, Rep. Veronica Escobar, said Abbott’s words have incited hatred of immigrants.
“These words have consequences and give fuel to those whose hatred turns to violence,” she said in a statement. “It isn’t immigrants that make communities like mine unsafe; it’s the hateful and divisive rhetoric and policies of politicians like Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Donald Trump.”
One white Tea Party leader in the Fort Worth region has been criticized for social-media posts that seemed to coincide with the gunman’s complaint that whites were being culturally replaced by Hispanics.
Fred McCarty, the president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party PAC, the fundraising arm of one of the most active Tea Party groups in Texas, responded to the El Paso attack on his Facebook page in the days after the shooting. “You’re not going to demographically replace a once proud, strong people without getting blowback.” McCarty wrote. In another post, he wrote: “Imagine flooding a place with foreign peoples to the point that the native population will become a minority. Then imagine being shocked at the strife and hostility that results. Imagine.”
Asked to respond to subsequent criticisms of his posts, McCarty defended his remarks, saying in a statement that his views about immigration have widespread support among Republicans. “I’ve heard from tons of them,” his statement said. “Most Republicans agree with me. It’s 70 percent of Republicans who want every illegal alien deported and that number is growing daily.”
Still, the political blowback to the governor’s mailer has led many to call for a rethinking of politics as usual.
“They have to be more careful with that language,” James Riddlesperger, a political-science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said of the governor’s letter. “Moving forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll see them back off of the rhetoric a little bit. No politician in Texas wants to be in a position where if a crazy person acts in a racist way that anything that they have said could be interpreted as encouraging that kind of behavior.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.