Analysis: The blurry line between government and political campaigns in Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton hosted 12 attorneys general from around the U.S. for a border security briefing Thursday in Weslaco. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

If you would like to listen to the column, click on the play button below.

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

If you’re having a hard time telling where government work stops and campaign work begins, which announcements are political and which ones are civic, which ones are paid for by political donors and which are financed by Texas taxpayers, it’s because there is often no difference between the two.

The top three Republican incumbents on the ballot have each amped up their campaigns and their official efforts as the elections approach, with the political and government offices running in parallel, reinforcing the campaigns’ themes.

For instance, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick rolled out a campaign ad touting his hard-line position on immigration and border security. At about the same time, under his state letterhead, he announced the formation of a new Senate Committee on Border Security.

“Public safety is government’s first responsibility and there is no greater threat to public safety in Texas right now than the failed, open-border policies of the Biden Administration,” he said in that news release. Pretty close to what he says in the TV ads for his campaign: “Texas must secure the border because Biden and his administration won’t. And we must stop those here illegally from voting.”

Gov. Greg Abbott held another news conference on the U.S. side of the border — it’s hard to keep count of these things — this time accompanied by a dozen Republican attorneys general, to excoriate the administration’s handling of border security and immigration. Can you guess what ads his campaign is running? They’re about what the campaign sees as the Biden administration’s failures at the border and about Abbott’s endorsement by the union that represents many Border Patrol officers.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s official press releases are written in the overblown rhetoric of closely fought Republican primary races — like the one he’s in the middle of right this minute.

“The Biden Administration has sown nothing but disaster for our country through its illegal, unconstitutional immigration policies,” Paxton said under government letterhead on Friday morning. “Biden’s latest round of flagrant law-breaking includes his Central American Minors Program, which has contributed significantly to many states being forced to take in even more aliens. My fellow attorneys general and I are suing to stop it.”

His ad echoes that language.

Texas has laws against using public employees and state resources for campaigning. There is a regular seasonal cycle of top state employees of elected officials moving to their bosses’ campaign offices a few months before an election, then moving back into their state jobs after a win. They’re careful to use state phones and computers for one job, campaign equipment for the other.

The fuzzy part is in the work they do, no matter where they are, and how it melds the political work of campaigning with the work of governing. The messages might well be the same, maybe even legitimately in harmony. Someone campaigning for better border security might genuinely want it, and might be saying the same thing in their state job.

But the complaints about what’s happening on the border, while directed at the federal government, might as well be directed at the state officials talking about state-based solutions who haven’t been able to solve the problem. In the case of Abbott, Patrick and Paxton, that’s seven years and counting, through Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington, D.C. Their campaigns might as well be directing fire at the incumbents they’re trying to reelect.

If the campaign pitch is that they should be reelected because they want border security fixed, it suggests they’ve been sitting on their hands for all those years — spending billions in taxpayer money, dispatching state police and National Guard troops, rounding up migrants they can accuse of breaking other laws, squalling at and suing the federal government.

It’s a case of politicians listening to Texans’ concerns without solving their problems. Texas voters, and Republican Texas voters in particular, have had border security and immigration atop their lists of most important problems facing the state for more than a decade, according to dozens of University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polls.

They’re still waiting for the government folks to do what the politicians promise every election cycle.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter 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 Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.