21 October 2021
A Tale of Two Governors
Texas and Virginia.
By J R Thomas
Outsiders forget that the United States of America are just that: states, united within a large chunk of the American continent. This huge country – so vast its spaces, sparse its original populations and impossible its communications – started that way as the only practical solution to establishing a working liberal democracy from scratch. And it worked rather well, so the model continued to be used and the states spread across the open prairies and into the western mountains. In 1959 there was a leap offshore to make Hawaii the 50th state. There may yet be another, to enrol Puerto Rico officially as one more state. Then it is hard to see that the expansion can continue; there are no more lands to draw into the federation; the puzzle is complete. Indeed, one wonders if the next steps might be a slow disestablishment. An independent California perhaps? Or more likely, a return to the original Republic of Texas, which in its short time, 1836 to 1846, managed to get recognised by several European governments, including that of the UK.
Certainly, Texas seems to be noisily and determinedly doing its own thing now. The latest is the state’s decision, passed by the Texas Congress and signed by the Governor, to effectively ban abortion later than six weeks after conception. Though popular in this very conservative and increasingly Roman Catholic state, the legislation has appalled liberal opinion across the US and the federal government, leading the federal Justice Department to seek to intervene. The law came into effect on 1st September. Opponents of the change duly found a judge in Austin who heard an appeal and blocked implementation of the new rules on 9th September. (This matter has at this point to be dealt within the State of Texas; but of course the whole controversy, unless Texas backs off, is heading for the Supreme Court in Washington.)
Texas shows no signs of backing off. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a conservative-leaning intermediate appeals court (i.e. lower than the full Supreme Court), heard and agreed a request on 8th October by the Texas Attorney General’s Office to temporarily suspend the judge’s order blocking the abortion ban. That is how matters stand at the time of writing, although the Justice Department has asked the Governor to suspend the law for now, until proper judicial consideration has been given to the various matters. The Governor has, unsurprisingly, declined to do so.
This Governor is a feisty politician, Greg Abbott, a Republican, first elected in 2014. Texas was a fiercely Democrat state since going from being an independent republic to being a mere federal state in 1846, but it should be said that fierce independence and a determination to do things their own way is characteristic of Texans and their leaders. Cattle and oil made Texas rich, and enabled its state government to run a generous low tax regime for most of the C20th; that and a Texan taste for making money have diversified their economy and kept the good times a-rolling. It also has underpinned a political drift from the Blue side to the Red, from Democrat to Republican, with the first Republican Governor being elected in 1979, and after a period of back and forth at the governor’s mansion, George W Bush (whatever happened to him?) took the governorship for the GOP in 1995 and it has stayed Republican ever since.
Mr Abbott is a remarkable man. A lawyer who became a Texas Supreme Court judge at an early age, he has been confined to a wheelchair since being hit by a falling tree in 1984. He is intelligent, energetic, a very devout Catholic, married to a wife of Mexican heritage, a quick and original thinker and skilled politician. He is also very conservative – not only is he anti-abortion, but is hard on even soft drugs, a rigid enforcer of the law and strong supporter of the law enforcement agencies, and a low tax supporter. On economics, he is a liberal and Texas has become an attractive place to do business. That is paying off big time at the moment as many businesses flee high tax and woke California to a much easier and cheaper regime in Texas.
Abbott opposed almost all restrictions arising from the Covid-19 outbreak and Texas has fared by any measure no worse health-wise than its highly restricted neighbour of California, but without much of the economic and social chaos and problems of the Golden State. All this has made Abbott a popular Governor in a state where many voters vociferously echo his social and economic positions. He is also a Trump supporter, though maintaining some distance, a perfect stance in a proudly independent but right leaning state. As Texas has no restrictions on the number of terms a Governor may serve, he is very likely to be returned again in 2022.
Now let us take a long flight to almost the diametric opposite corner of the US, to a state with a long and proud history also. Virginia is one of the founder elder states, indeed the founder state. It was devastated by the Civil War, in which much of the fighting was over Virginian fields. Its rich and beautiful farming and forestry terrain and its adjacency to Washington DC led to a strong economic recovery. No easy ride for Governors exists here; the state has swung between the two main parties since the Second World War, though it has been Democrat for the last twenty years. A weakness for any Governor is that no incumbent may serve consecutive terms. Four years and you are out, is the rule, though you may return and try again at the next election. That is precisely what is happening in the election due shortly, on 2nd November. In 2013 to 2017 the Governor was popular Democrat Terry McAuliffe, an inhabitant of the Clinton inner circle, a friend of Bill and Hillary. He had to step down for his Lieutenant (deputy) Governor Ralph Northam in 2017. Governor Northam has been the perfect picture of a woke impeccably modern leftish governor, but the one term rule has caught him; out he goes this fall, and back comes Mr McAuliffe. Or so Mr McAuliffe intended. But Mr Northam has not been so popular; he may be the very model of a modern Democrat who sells well in the Virginian suburbs of Washington, but rural Virginia, traditional and increasingly rich, is not so keen. Various (though mild) controversies have not helped the Democrat cause. Nor, it should be said, is the declining standing of President Joe Biden helping them.
The Republicans are on the case and are running a strong candidate in Glenn Youngkin, the very epitome of the American dream (if your dream be enormous wealth and large houses and top jobs on the board). Mr Youngkin was chief executive of investment house the Carlyle Group, has had no political experience, and seems to have few political positions. This though may do him no harm in a state which has had enough of trendy and hyper-active Governors recently. He can be all things to all voters, and so far seems to be succeeding, running Mr McAuliffe very close in the polls, to a point where pundits think he may get the job. But remember, if he does, unlike Mr Abbott, he has to go through it all again in 2025.