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In Texas House Fight, Democrats Bet Big On Health Care, While Republicans Emphasize Police Support

The floor of the Texas House in 2019. The Nov. 3 election will decide the balance of power in the chamber for next year's legislative session.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
The Texas Tribune
The floor of the Texas House in 2019. The Nov. 3 election will decide the balance of power in the chamber for next year's legislative session.

Candidates from both parties are bringing up everything from school funding to lemonade stands in the final weeks of a heated contest for control of the state’s lower chamber.

When Democrat Brandy Chambers read in The Dallas Morning News last month that her opponent, state Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, now supports Medicaid expansion, Chambers could not believe it.

“Shocked would be a good word,” Chambers recalled in an interview.

Button and other Texas Republicans have long resisted expanding Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program, even though Texas has the country’s highest uninsured rate. But Button said she now sees the need for expanding the program due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has left many Texans jobless — and without health insurance.

Button is not the only Republican lawmaker raising eyebrows about seemingly new policy positions now that the party’s majority in the Texas House is on the line. Another endangered incumbent, Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, recently expressed regret for supporting the divisive “bathroom bill” that sought to limit public restroom access for transgender people and headlined the 2017 legislative year without ever becoming law.

That legislation, along with Medicaid expansion, is among a litany of issues that are cropping up in the final weeks of the Nov. 3 election that will decide the balance of power in the Legislature’s lower chamber. The stakes are high, with the battle unfolding ahead of the 2021 redistricting process during which lawmakers will draw new political boundaries for the state.

Democrats are nine seats away from the majority after picking up 12 seats in 2018, some of which Republicans are serious about winning back. But in many cases, Republican lawmakers who have held the House majority since the 2003 session are facing the first truly competitive general elections of their lives — and being forced to answer for votes in a way they have never had to before.

Take for example the Legislature’s massive cuts to public education in 2011, which Democrats are using to try to undercut the GOP’s renewed focus on school funding during the most recent session.

“That was 10 years ago, and over the last four sessions since, we’ve steadily increased public education funding,” Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, said in a recent interview, playing down the issue.

While Democrats press Republicans over health care and public education, the GOP is hoping to portray their Democratic opponents as too liberal and beholden to national Democrats, seeking to put them on defense over issues including police funding and taxes.

For example, as Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, fights for reelection, he is airing a TV ad that claims the policies of his Democratic opponent, Keke Williams, would threaten Texas’ economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s no surprise Keke Williams doesn’t fight for us,” a narrator says. “Williams is bankrolled by out-of-state liberal extremists.”

Health care

Forward Majority is flooding state House districts with ads tying Republicans on the ballot to their party’s yearslong push to repeal the Affordable Care Act and with it, its protections for people with preexisting conditions. The U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear a Texas-led challenge to the federal health care law Nov. 10.

Forward Majority’s ads accuse GOP lawmakers of doing the bidding of insurance and drug companies when it comes to health care. “And who suffers?” a narrator asks. “Patients with preexisting conditions like heart disease or cancer, denied coverage.”

Republicans are pushing back by pointing to their passage of Senate Bill 1940 last session. If Obamacare went away, that law would allow the Texas Department of Insurance to take initial steps to temporarily bring back the high-risk insurance pool that the Legislature abolished in 2013. That option provided high-priced coverage to Texans with preexisting conditions who could not find it elsewhere, and by the time it was ended, it covered a small number of Texans — 23,000.

One health-care expert — Stacey Pogue, senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Every Texan think tank in Austin — said the law is a “wholly inadequate substitute” for the Affordable Care Act.

“It does nothing,” Pogue said. “It’s perplexing that anybody would point to that as an achievement.”

Defunding the police

The dominant issue Republicans are using to criticize Democrats is law enforcement, with GOP candidates touting their support for police and seeking to tie their Democratic opponents to the “defund the police” movement. The term means different things to different people, but among some activists protesting police brutality, the movement aims to redirect some funds from police budgets to social services.

Abbott has done his part to make support for law enforcement the central issue of the general election for Republicans, asking candidates to sign a pledge against “defunding the police” and releasing multiple legislative proposals to punish local governments who cut police budgets.

While no Democrat running in a battleground district is known to have explicitly embraced the idea, Republicans are working to portray their opponents as being anti-law enforcement. A prime example is House District 67, where Leach, the incumbent Plano Republican, is airing a TV ad that labels his Democratic rival, Lorenzo Sanchez, an “anti-police zealot.”

The attack is based on anti-police Facebook posts from a Sanchez campaign staffer, including one calling police a “terrorist organization,” as well as a June campaign event where Sanchez said he agreed after a speaker advocated for taking guns away from police.

When the issues first came up earlier this fall, Sanchez issued a statement that did not directly address them but said he does “not support defunding” police. As for the staffer’s comments, The Dallas Morning News editorial board reported that he told them “that he can’t be responsible for everything anyone associated with his campaign says.” And in a story published last week by the Plano Star Courier, Sanchez said he believes in deadly force as a last resort but that “it would be foolish to de-arm cops.”

In other contests, the police-related attacks appear to have less of a basis. Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, is airing a TV ad in which he says, “I stand with our police; my opponent wants to defund them.” But the Tribune could not find any evidence of his opponent, Celina Montoya, expressing such support, and Allison’s campaign has not provided any backup.

“I think that there’s absolutely, without question, room for us to have some criminal justice reform, but none of us are calling to, you know, abolish the police or anything of that sort. It’s silliness,” Akilah Bacy, the Democrat running against Republican Lacey Hull for an open Houston seat, said during a Texas Tribune event Friday.

Some Republican candidates are acknowledging they also have to say what they support when it comes to police reform. Justin Berry, an Austin police officer challenging Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, is broadcasting a TV ad where he calls for "de-escalation training and body cameras for all officers.” Those ideas also appear in a commercial from Jacey Jetton, the GOP nominee for an open seat in Fort Bend County. Jetton’s spot additionally advocates for “ensuring our police look more like the communities they serve.”

Republicans are also trying to put Democrats on defense on fiscal issues, claiming the party’s candidates would support higher taxes — and even a state income tax. In most cases, that claim appears to be based on Democratic opposition to Proposition 4, the 2019 constitutional amendment that made it harder than ever for Texas to institute a state income tax. Critics called the proposition a political stunt that could hamstring future generations when the Texas economy is not doing as well.

While Democrats insist that opposing the proposition does not equate to supporting a state income tax, Republicans say the optics are tough for Democrats.

“That’s a very painful” position, said Dave Carney, the governor’s top political adviser.

Abbott’s campaign conducted a statewide survey in August and settled on taxes as one of the four most effective lines of attack against Democrats in battleground House contests.

In one race where the issue has flared up, Elizabeth Beck, the Democratic nominee against Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, is asking TV stations to take down an ad he’s airing that attacks her on taxes, saying it contains “blatant lies.” Among other things, the commercial claims she “supports a statewide income tax,” citing a 2019 tweet from her urging followers to vote against Proposition 4.

The ad also seizes on an October event where she talked about “creating new streams of revenue” — “New revenue means new taxes,” a narrator says — though it leaves out part of the event where she clarifies that she “would not be in favor of raising taxes or creating a state income tax.”

Gun violence

Gun violence is also factoring into some races, mainly at the behest of Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the national gun control group. It announced last month that it would spend $2.2 million on digital ads and direct mail across 12 districts, seeking to elect a “gun sense majority” to the Texas House.

Everytown’s ads invoke the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting in which a gunman killed 23 people and injured 23 others while targeting Hispanic Texans to criticize Texas Republicans for inaction on universal background checks. One spot says the coronavirus pandemic “is not the only public health crisis facing Texas families.”

A few Democratic challengers are bringing up gun issues on their own. In one of Democrats’ best pickup opportunities, Joanna Cattanach is running a TV spot against Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, that says he has “stuck to the far right’s agenda … voting to allow guns in schools.” The commercial cites Meyer’s vote for House Bill 1387, the 2019 law that lifted the cap on the number of school marshals who could be armed on public school campuses.

School funding

Public education has also been an issue that’s come up in a number of competitive races, with Republicans highlighting an $11.6 billion school finance reform bill the Legislature passed in 2019.

In Tarrant County, Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, has aired a TV ad casting himself as a lawmaker "on a new mission to improve Texas schools."

Tinderholt, a member of the hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus, voted for the legislation, which was championed by GOP state leaders and received bipartisan support. But his ad is notable — it marks yet another push by Republicans to bolster their credentials and track records at the Legislature on public education. Tinderholt faces a challenge from Democrat Alisa Simmons.

Democrats facing competitive reelection bids are also trying to capitalize on the school finance bill from last year. In Williamson County, Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat, recently released a TV ad titled “A teacher in the House.” The ad highlights his experience as a teacher and how that helped him work “across the aisle to pass historic school reform” in 2019. Talarico faces a challenge from Republican Lucio Valdez.

Individual issues

Candidate-specific issues have, of course, also emerged in certain races. In the open race for House District 96 in Tarrant County, the national Democratic group Forward Majority has criticized the Republican in the race, David Cook, for overseeing an attempt while serving as Mansfield mayor in 2016 to fund an indoor ice rink using a $1.8 million contribution from Mansfield schools.

The Mansfield City Council ultimately reversed course and decided against asking Mansfield ISD to be a funding partner after school district taxpayers pushed back on it, Cook told The Dallas Morning News in September. But Forward Majority still seized on the issue, saying in an ad it aired for the race that Democrat Joe Drago will "put kids ahead of politicians’ wasteful pet projects."

In another Dallas-area race, Linda Koop, a Republican running for the seat she lost last cycle to Democratic Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, recently aired an ad knocking Ramos over her lone vote against a bill in 2019 to legalize children’s lemonade stands. Ramos, for her part, has argued that she voted against the legislation because it “takes away local control and is about public safety."

Legislative priorities

It’s unclear whether any of the issues that have emerged in some of the most competitive races will end up getting much play at the Legislature when it convenes for its regular session in January.

On top of questions over how exactly the Capitol will operate in the era of the pandemic, the uncertainty over which party will control the House is looming over what issues lawmakers could debate.

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and chair of the Travis County Republican Party, said the legislative session “will likely be consumed” by grappling with the billions of dollars in shortfalls facing the state budget and responding to the pandemic, among other issues.

“The 2021 legislative session is going to be a very difficult one,” he said, “and it’s hard to predict which direction things will go until we see the makeup of the Texas House and learn who the new Speaker will be."

Every Texan, Everytown for Gun Safety and Facebook have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Cassandra Pollock is The Texas Tribune’s state politics reporter. She joined the Tribune full-time in June 2017 after a fellowship during the 85th Texas Legislature. Pollock spent her first two years at the Trib as an engagement reporter, which meant her name likely landed in your inbox every weekday morning with “The Brief,” a newsletter on all things Texas politics and public policy. Pollock is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism.