Midterm elections in Texas are always inflected by national politics to some degree. 2022 is no exception – and is worse in troubling ways.
This year’s elections take place amid national skepticism about the integrity of democratic elections and the legitimacy of government fueled by the refusal of former President Donald Trump and his allies to accept the results of the 2020 election. Their refusal and the baseless attacks on the democratic process are having a corrosive impact on Texans’ trust and threaten the acceptance of the underlying attitudes and beliefs that are critical to maintaining a functioning democratic system.
National politics are unavoidable in state midterm elections such as the ones taking place in Texas this year. Republican candidates up and down the ballot have powerful incentives to channel Republican hostility toward the current Democratic president and Congress. President Joe Biden’s job approval numbers among Republican voters are dismal: only 6% approved of Biden’s job performance, while 91% disapproved in the most recent University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll. And the negative feelings are intense: 82% “strongly” disapproved. Overall, only 36% of Texas voters approved of Biden’s job performance, while 52% disapproved.
This isn’t new: President Barack Obama’s job approval among Texas Republicans was similarly negative in February 2010 though not quite as intensely so, as was Trump’s job approval among Democrats in February 2018. To some extent, Texas partisans’ intensely negative views of any president that doesn’t represent their party has become a grimly familiar symptom of contemporary Texas politics
But Biden’s unpopularity in the state reflects something more troubling than the now familiar duo of ideological polarization and intense partisanship.
Mere partisanship has mutated into the widespread rejection of the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and, more deeply, into a lack of trust in democracy and political institutions. In the new UT/Texas Politics Project Poll, a bare majority of Texans, 53%, agreed that “Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election.” Only 22% of Republican voters granted the legitimacy of Biden’s win, while 67% denied it, and another 11% were “not sure.”
Those beliefs have festered in Texas, breeding many adherents and even activists in the state. Our recent poll found that 35% of Texas voters – including a clear majority of Texas Republicans at 62% – disagreed that the protesters who entered the U.S. Capitol were trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And a majority, 55%, now say that democracy in the U.S. is working poorly.
This corrosion in belief in the legitimacy of the political process has opened the door for a wide range of other anti-democratic policies and political tactics echoing national politics, from the abandonment of the civic priority of encouraging voting to the explicit embrace of censorship in public education. Some of these anti-democratic ideas are already election-year fodder, but they also threaten to become actual policy initiatives after the elections.
Elected officials must slow the corrosion in the state’s political culture and institutions, and try to reverse it. They need to publicly embrace foundational constitutional principles of American democracy such as the peaceful transfer of political power, free speech, and the separation of powers – not to mention the value of an evidence-based argument.
Polling data says this is risky for Republican candidates. In fact, some political leaders are the central figures in furthering the decay of these democratic values among voters. But these candidates should realize there is more at stake than simply winning re-election. The growing base of reactionary voters primed by years of unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud and other tall tales promoted by some politicians will only further decay and harm our democracy.
Regardless of how the election shakes out, Texas leaders should use this year to address the decay in democratic politics by reaffirming the integrity of the system and rejecting the self-serving temptation to ape divisive figures and corrosive themes that have already done so much damage.
James Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
Joshua Blank is the research director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Lubbock Avalanche Journal and the Amarillo Globe News.