The hard right turn in Texas’ state politics this year has put it at the front lines of the US culture wars.
For many of the Americans who have flocked to the state’s booming economy in recent years, helping to turn swaths of the state’s big cities such as Austin and Houston into liberal outposts in the traditionally conservative state, it has been an unwelcome turn.
The so-called “heartbeat bill” signed into law by the state’s conservative governor Greg Abbott last week, which severely curtailed access to abortions, was the capstone to a legislative session that pulled Texas far to the right on a host of sensitive social issues such as guns and voting rights.
Some businesses and state leaders fear that the rightward lurch, as well as the state’s handling of the pandemic and the collapse of the state’s power grid amid an Arctic storm last February, is threatening to turn away the sort of workers the state’s surging economy needs.
“I love Texas, but definitely the politics here can be a detractor,” said Ashley Fleckenstein, who is from Michigan and moved to Austin in December, one of many mobile young workers drawn to the city’s booming tech industry.
She saw the new abortion restrictions as especially disappointing, saying women were being used as “political pawns” as state lawmakers made a play for their conservative base and sought to distract from the state’s failure to keep the lights on during February’s big freeze.
Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, melding a buzzing arts and cultural scene with relatively affordable housing, no personal income taxes and the sort of lax regulatory regime sought by businesses.
Elon Musk has planted his flag in Austin, making it his home base for everything from building batteries to satellites to electric vehicles. Other tech heavyweights Oracle and HP have moved their headquarters to Austin in recent months and Apple and Google are among those ploughing money into the city.
Many of the transplants have ensconced themselves in liberal enclaves that have felt largely shielded from the state’s conservative politics.
But the sharp right turn in recent months has punctured that bubble. “Living in the Bay Area and then moving here and having this [abortion] ruling come through, it would be especially shocking,” said Fleckenstein.
The new abortion law bars the procedure once cardiac activity is detected, usually around the sixth week of pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant, making it among the most restrictive in the country.
The Biden administration is suing to overturn the law, putting Texas at the forefront of a fresh push by conservatives to overturn Roe vs Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion without undue government restrictions.
The Texas legislature in recent months has also passed new laws that tightened voting rules and loosened gun laws along with a host of other measures long championed by groups on the Republican party’s right flank.
Some of Texas’s biggest companies have periodically spoken out against legislation pushed by Republicans, most recently on the voting restrictions.
But it has largely not stopped those companies from investing in the state, and in many cases donating to the lawmakers advancing the laws. State lawmakers meanwhile have mostly shrugged off the criticism from business executives, or even used them to bolster their populist credentials.
Still, there is concern among some businesses in the state about the fallout.
“There is a lot happening in Texas right now. We’re all feeling it,” Michael Dell, the chief executive of Dell Technologies, wrote to his company’s Texas employees in a September 8 internal memo seen by the Financial Times. The company’s leadership was “carefully reviewing the implications of recent legislation on our business and on you”, the memo said.
Dell did not specifically address the new abortion law in the memo, which the company has not taken a public stand on, but said it wanted its employees to have “more coverage, not less . . . where and when needed”.
Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, tweeted on Friday that if the company’s employees “want to move we’ll help you exit TX”, referring to Texas.
Governor Abbott has denied that the state’s conservative politics was deterring companies and people from coming to the state.
“People vote with their feet, and this is not slowing down businesses coming to the state of Texas at all,” Abbott told the business television news network CNBC after signing the new abortion restrictions into law. “They are leaving the very liberal state of California.”
Texas has added about 4m people to its population since 2010, according to the latest Census data, more than any other state. So far there has been little sign that the flood of people into Texas, which accelerated during the pandemic, is slowing.
That influx of outsiders over the past decade has helped shift the state’s demographics to a younger and more ethnically diverse population, fuelling hopes from national Democrats that Texas was becoming a political battleground they could win.
Amount population has risen in Texas since 2010
But Jim Henson, director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project, said the migration might be “having some effect around the edge in some places” but it was so far not causing “major shifts” in the state’s politics.
The newly passed laws are popular among politically active Republican base voters, many of which live in rural areas surrounding the increasingly blue cities, where “Keep America Great” and “Unborn Lives Matter” signs dot the landscape.
Henson expects state Republicans to continue to push culture war issues as they try to appeal to those voters ahead of upcoming party primary elections. Republicans feel little threat from a hobbled state Democratic party that has been “pushed back on their heels” after stinging election defeats in 2020, he added.
The legislature in the coming weeks is set to take up restrictions on transgender participation in youth sports and a bill that would bar Covid-19 vaccine mandates in the state, setting up another potential showdown with the Biden administration.
Fleckenstein, the Austin tech worker, said the new abortion law was disappointing but that she planned to stay in Texas. “I’m going to live here but it makes life more stressful and it’s just disappointing to live in the United States of America and have to think about these sorts of things.”