Greg Abbott Declares War on Moderate Republicans

The Texas governor endorsed a primary opponent of Representative Sarah Davis, who is probably the GOP’s best chance to retain the district in upscale west Houston.

Representative Sarah Davis, Governor Greg Abbott  via Sarah Davis, Patrick Michels

In the latest episode of Texas Politics, God’s dumbest reality show, Governor Greg Abbott celebrated the beginning of Republican primary season by going to war — against a popular incumbent lawmaker in his own party, in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 15 points. On Monday morning, Abbott issued a fatwa of sorts, calling for the replacement of state Representative Sarah Davis, a moderate pro-choice Republican, with primary challenger Susanna Dokupil, a right-wing lawyer and board member of the Seasteading Institute, which exists to build libertarian cruise ships and permanently station them in international waters, free from the laws of man.

If that information is hard to make sense of, so are most recent events on Texas Politics. Conservative activists hate Davis, the least conservative Republican in the House. Davis is a generally reliable vote for abortion rights, gay rights, public schools, vaccines, etc. But Abbott’s decision to weigh in against a party incumbent breaks an unwritten rule, and the political logic behind it is hard to parse. House District 134 covers much of Houston’s upscale west side, including Bellaire and West University Place, went for Clinton by 15 percentage points in 2016, and was held by Democrat Ellen Cohen before Davis won it in 2010. Davis is probably the GOP’s best chance to retain the seat, so Abbott’s decision to join the fight seems to put his own desire to unseat Davis ahead of the party’s interest.

Furthermore, Dokupil does not appear to be a particularly strong candidate. In many ways she’s a fairly run-of-the-mill party hack, a lawyer with ties to the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Harris County Republican Party. She co-chaired the national finance committee for Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign. Then there’s the Seasteading Institute, a political project of Silicon Valley’s chief cryptofascist, Peter Thiel. Seasteaders seek to construct “floating communities in the ocean based on the principles of contract and radical consent” — Burning Man meets Waterworld.

Susanna Dokupil  Courtesy

Dokupil is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. In December 2015, she interviewed the Seasteading Institute’s chief guru, Joe Quirk, who calls himself a “seavangelist” and an “aquapreneur,” for an episode of the institute’s podcast, “Seasteading Today.” Over the course of a surreal half-hour, Dokupil exhorts listeners to join in on the creation of Quirk’s new “seavilizations,” utopian leviathans with “start-up mentalities,” ranging the “floating frontier,” free from the harsh yoke of “land-based government.”

We’ll see, in time, how that flies in west Houston. So, again, why is Abbott getting behind this? It may simply be that he knows Dokupil personally — she was an assistant solicitor general when he was Texas attorney general. Or it may be that he’s keeping his promise from the session that any legislator who crossed him would be put on a “list.”

But it’s worth considering the broader conservative political project here. If Abbott’s goal is an ideologically uniform House caucus, then it’s genuinely preferable to lose Davis’ seat than to allow her to continue to win. Beating Davis in the primary — even if it cedes the seat to a Democrat — removes the only openly pro-choice Republican voice from the caucus, and it pushes other lawmakers who show an independent streak back in the herd.

Because the Republicans are in no real danger of losing their overall House majority anytime soon, it’s better for Abbott and friends to have a smaller, purer GOP caucus. And in Davis’ case, a gentle nudge might be enough to do it — for years, Democrats have talked idly about convincing her to switch parties, a prospect that may now be more enticing. (Harris County Republicans had been set to debate a motion to censure Davis for her too-liberal voting record on Monday night; it was apparently withdrawn after Abbott’s endorsement.)

House Speaker Joe Straus’ retirement gives Abbott and others the opportunity to try to force conformity on the House. That’s going to lead to a lot of strange dynamics in the next four months, as the Republican primary heats up. For one thing, Straus has promised to use his ample campaign funds to push hard for his candidates this cycle, which means Davis’ district provides an opportunity for Straus and Abbott to butt heads.

Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, on May 6.  Sam DeGrave

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the speaker’s election in 2019 on Texans’ lives, and the outcome of that depends entirely on what happens in the next six months of the Republican primary and next year’s general election.

What makes the outcome of the next speaker’s race so difficult to game out — apart from the fact that our world broke at some point in the last couple years — is that there are three strong competing phenomena in the House right now. The first is simply that Democrats may be approaching a wave election. The Democrats have a meaningful chance of winning more seats in the House next year than they’ve won since 2008. That could be helpful in the effort to select a Straus-type speaker.

The second is that Republican primary fights between moderates and conservatives will be especially vicious this year, particularly if Abbott puts the weight of his political machine behind it. That could be good for Democrats, but it also diminishes the chances of selecting a moderate speaker, because the casualties of the primary will include at least a few more experienced moderates, replaced in the ranks by pliable freshmen, as they always do.

The third is that the Republican circle is tightening. The GOP and affiliated organizations, such as Texans for Lawsuit Reform, are pushing hard for Republican candidates to pledge to select the next speaker without Democrats. This leads to a paradox: It’s plausible that House Democrats emerge from next year’s election stronger than they’ve been in years, yet more powerless than ever before.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 12:35 am CST
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