In a state known for ‘law and order,’ Texas Republicans struggle to make the message stick

But there are signs the message has fallen flat, even with some suburban Republican voters who say the efforts to mirror President Trump’s demonization of “Democratic-run cities” and social justice demonstrations needlessly stoke fear and exacerbate political divisiveness.

In the longtime Republican stronghold of Collin County, home to two of the nation’s most competitive state legislative contests, Republican candidates and supporters have spotlighted rising crime rates in neighboring Dallas, where homicides are hovering near a 10-year high. But lifelong Republican Jim Murry said he shakes his head — or shouts at his television screen — when he hears Abbott or Trump rail against “violent” protesters or accuse Democrats of wanting to decimate local police forces.

“To me, it’s all unfounded fear,” said Murry, 64, as he stood among his neighbors’ spacious homes and manicured lawns in west Plano, a Dallas suburb. The idea that Democrats “are going to ruin the suburbs is just ridiculous. Crime is not really an issue here.”

But in many parts of Plano, one of the epicenters of the statehouse fight, Trump lawn signs still outnumber those supporting Biden, especially in the most affluent neighborhoods, and some residents say Democrats are too soft on crime. One resident said several of his neighbors bought guns after racial justice protests erupted this summer. Another blamed Democratic leaders in Dallas for his 26-year-old son’s desire to move back to Plano because he no longer feels safe in the city.

Private GOP polling shows a vast majority of suburban Texas voters reject “defunding the police,” said Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee — a message the GOP has successfully tied to Democratic candidates in some voters’ minds, even over those Democrats’ objections.

“If they go along these lines and defund the police, we will go back to the days of vigilantes, where we all wear sidearms,” said Plano resident Jack Lusk, 77, a longtime Republican voter and retired pharmacist.

But the GOP’s law-and-order message also has butted up against changing demographics and priorities in the suburbs as Democrats target more than a dozen state House districts, many just outside of Houston or Dallas. The state has been a top priority for both parties in the nationwide battle for statehouses: The GOP controls 29 state legislatures and Democrats hope to flip more than a half-dozen chambers, including in Minnesota, Arizona and Pennsylvania, next month.

The two competitive statehouse races in Collin County are getting a boost from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Willie Nelson, who have latched onto a phone-bank campaign organized by Beto O’Rourke.

Since Democrats made major inroads in the Texas suburbs in 2018, Abbott has been attempting to halt their momentum by touting GOP support for law enforcement. He has railed against Democratic leaders in Austin, the state capital, who voted to divert $150 million from policing to housing, social service and health-care initiatives.

Abbott responded by proposing legislation that would cut off funding and limit the powers of Texas cities that reduce police department budgets. He also has called for keeping demonstrators in jail for longer periods of time and making it a felony for organizations to “aide and abet” protesters who riot.

Backed by national Republican groups and donors, Abbott has vowed to spend millions of dollars to support GOP legislative candidates who vow to “back the blue,” a reference to police officers.

“Nobody in Texas seriously thinks the solution to crime is less law enforcement,” said David Carney, a top Republican strategist who works for Abbott. “Voters do support Black Lives Matter and the things they stand for. … People arrested shouldn’t die going to a police station. But when it comes to riots and violent protests and looting, they are not for that one bit.”

Though many voters here say they strongly oppose cutting funding for police, some Republicans say they doubt it will be a major factor in their vote.

Karla Lubeski, a 48-year-old Republican from Plano, said she still leans toward supporting GOP candidates this year, but not because of their law-and-order message.

“I think people say a lot of things out of of fear, and I think that is unfortunate,” she said.

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the GOP is having a hard time making its tough-on-crime message stick with some voters because the old us-vs.-them tactics that defined suburban politicians for generations is waning.

America’s suburbs, especially in Texas, are becoming denser and more urbanized, which makes some suburban voters more understanding of the complexities facing big cities, Jillson said. Meanwhile, other suburbanites feel less connected to the urban centers — no longer commuting to jobs there because of the coronavirus pandemic or because they work close to home — making it even harder for Republicans to link the woes of urban America to the experiences of suburbanites.

“Trump has made a bid of focusing on social issues and personal security and this idea that antifa will organize Democratic mobs through your neighborhood and raze them to the ground,” said Jillson, referring to the “anti-fascist” demonstrators. “But the people are saying ‘I don’t like the instability. I don’t like when demonstrations turn violent. But I am looking up and down my street, and I don’t see antifa.’ ”

The political trends toward Democrats in Collin County have been especially pronounced in the southwestern part of the county, which includes western Plano. That is where Democrat Sharon Hirsch is challenging three-term incumbent Rep. Matt Shaheen, one of the state’s most conservative lawmakers, who defeated her by just 391 votes in 2018.

Shaheen, a member of the state House Freedom Caucus and a staunch opponent of abortion and gay rights, has adorned some of his campaign signs in the 66th legislative district with the “back the blue” messages.

“Liberal politicians releasing dangerous criminals onto the street while defunding and demonizing the police, are causing the spike in crime across America’s cities,” Shaheen, 55, wrote recently on Facebook, linking to a June news story about Houston prosecutors deciding not to charge hundreds of racial justice protesters.

“Defunding the Police has real consequences. NYC shootings have spiked 127% and murders are up 76%,” Shaheen wrote in another post. “NOT IN TEXAS!”

Shaheen said his campaign primarily focuses on rebuilding the economy, investing in schools, and keeping property taxes low. But Shaheen, a former Collin County commissioner, said he also links Democrats to cuts to police funding and crime in big cities.

“Right now, the city I live in is one of the safest cities in the nation,” said Shaheen, referring to Plano. “If Democrats were to take over the state of Texas or take over Collin County, that would all go away.”

Hirsch, a retired Plano school district employee and veteran Democratic activist, counters that Shaheen is resorting to “fear” to hide his conservative record, as well as what she views as Abbott and Trump’s bungled response to the pandemic. Hirsch said she opposes cutting police funding but embraces “reimagining” policing to bolster ties between officers and the Black community.

“I am tired of public officials using their platforms to stir the pot instead of having constructive conversations,” said Hirsch, 66.

Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), said Hirsch’s race in Texas and others nationwide show that the GOP messaging on crime is not resonating with suburban voters.

The DLCC sponsored a series of polls late last month that found GOP candidates losing or tied with a generic Democratic opponent in six key suburban legislative districts in Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas.

“Republicans are desperate to find a wedge, and using anything they can to distract from the core issues that people are facing in their community,” Post said.

Chambers, of the Republican group, countered that Democrats’ momentum in Texas has stalled in the wake of Austin’s decision to cut its police budget.

Harry LaRosiliere, a Black Republican and two-term mayor of Plano, is urging his party to tread lightly when it comes to the debate over policing. He said his city is home to a growing number of companies, which has led to more diversity, and residents now view themselves as living in a “small big city,” making them more sympathetic to urban challenges. When residents commute out of Collin County for work, LaRosiliere said, they are just as likely to go to another suburban Texas county as they are to drive into Dallas or neighboring Fort Worth.

“People are paying attention to what is going on in their own communities, and I really don’t sense any fear of what is happening in Dallas,” said LaRosiliere, who hasn’t endorsed candidates in the presidential or state races. He said voters are tired of “red meat,” partisan politics.

Still, LaRosiliere questions Black Lives Matter protesters messaging as it relates to “defunding the police.”

“I think somebody needs to take a basic marketing class,” LaRosiliere said, adding that police reform is the real point. “There are just so many other artful ways to convey what I think is the spirit of that message.”

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