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Texas Republicans' troubles could have national implications

A resurfaced confession from the state's newly impeached attorney general shows the thin line between red state and blue state.

It’s been a heck of a week for Texans fed up with the antics of our criminally indicted, philandering Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton. In an unprecedented bipartisan move, a nearly equal match of Republicans and Democrats in the Texas House overwhelmingly voted to impeach Paxton over Memorial Day weekend, putting our state in the unusual position of making national news for doing something eminently reasonable (though way, way overdue). Paxton, whose impeachment documents include 20 articles concerning everything from bribery to conspiracy to obstructing justice, now awaits trial in the Texas Senate, where his wife will be among the lawmakers voting on the future of his career.

I hesitate to call a situation as messy and embarrassing as this one hopeful, but when it comes to Texas politics, the bar has historically been set lower than the deepest offshore drilling operation. We have to take our wins where we can get them. Whether state Republicans consider Paxton a genuine threat to the remaining shreds of their party’s integrity or simply want to end a public relations nightmare, for once they’re actually doing the right thing for all Texans. And the implications for the nation writ large are massive.

Texans already know the lengths to which Republicans will go and have gone to block left-leaning voters from casting ballots.

The potential for Paxton’s impeachment, and the resultant GOP infighting, to shake up the party’s stronghold on Texas is real. Following Paxton’s impeachment, a 2021 interview he gave to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon began making the rounds anew on social media. In it, Paxton brags that, but for his successful suppression of votes in reliably Democratic Harris County in 2020, Texas would have turned for Biden, and “Donald Trump would’ve lost the election.” 

Texans already know — practically better than anyone else — the lengths to which Republicans will go and have gone to block left-leaning voters from casting ballots. But Paxton’s comments, and his possible departure, make the stakes as clear as could be. Texas’ size, economic influence and diversifying demographics make the Paxton impeachment one of the highest-impact examples of a national disenfranchisement story that’s played out for decades, from convoluted gerrymanders to tighter and tighter voting restrictions

This representation gap makes the firehose of tiresome and smug snarking from some blue staters about getting what you vote for all the more maddening. We no longer live in a political landscape where it makes sense to divide ourselves into safe-blue and dangerous-red states; solidarity from coast to coast absolutely must be the play going forward. America is now one nation under a hyper-right, Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority poised to make the wildest dreams of white supremacist Christian nationalists come true. And on many of Republicans’ biggest-ticket items, even folks living in liberal and lefty geographies won’t be immune to the repercussions.

Take the legal fight over the abortion medication mifepristone. Three right-wing Fifth Circuit judges — a real who’s who of anti-abortion jurists  — could rule on a case out of Texas at any moment, and they sounded plenty amenable to the anti-abortion plaintiffs’ arguments during a hearing in May. Their ruling on its own won’t immediately change anything about access to the medication, but as reproductive legal scholar Mary Ziegler told The 19th, “The 5th Circuit is throwing its lot in with the plaintiffs and trying to help them convince the Supreme Court.” If the Supreme Court decides to bully the Food and Drug Administration into severely limiting access to or rescinding approval for mife, “blue” staters will feel the effects, too — whether because of increasingly scarce clinical access thanks to even higher demand for care from ever fewer abortion providers, or the inability to obtain the medication abortion care method of their choice. 

What’s happening in Texas shows us just how thin the line is between the potential for progressive change and more of the same old right-wing repression.

And there’s the terrifying possibility of the Supreme Court resurrecting the Comstock Act as a means of banning abortion nationwide, making it a violation of federal law to distribute or deliver anything intended to end a pregnancy, even in states where abortion is legal and protected by state law. It would be extraordinary, certainly, and we could expect legal finagling to follow, but even temporarily interrupting access to abortion leaves people who need it high and dry — it’s not exactly the kind of medical care you can delay while Clarence Thomas has a think. (And we already know what he thinks.)

As for legislation, abortion is almost entirely banned in 14 states today, and we know that more attacks are coming. Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats passed 12-week gestational bans in North Carolina and Nebraska days ago.  There are already many grassroots, local and state-based groups organizing to fund abortion access in states where it remains legal, to provide information to those seeking abortion care, to assist folks traveling for clinical care and to defend people criminalized for self-managing their abortions or supporting others who do. The expertise of on-the-ground organizers in states where abortion is banned or heavily restricted — especially for people of color, queer and trans folks, and low-income folks — deserves our nationwide support and solidarity, not snark and a look the other way. 

What’s happening in Texas shows us just how thin the line is between the potential for progressive change and more of the same old right-wing repression. Things will almost certainly get worse before they get better, which is why leadership from folks who’ve seen a hell of a lot of “worse” is more important than ever.