When Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that he will try to restore the Justice Department’s authority to review voting laws in Texas, the move was cheered by Democrats—and especially minority voters—who feared disenfranchisement after the Supreme Court struck down a central component of the Voting Rights Act. But Holder’s crusade might hold unintended benefits for someone else in Texas: Greg Abbott, the gun-loving, God-fearing Attorney General who is gearing up to run for governor in 2014.
“As a talking point, there’s nothing better for a Texas Republican right now than a fight with the Obama administration, and this one—unlike, say, the federal Affordable Care Act—belongs first and foremost to the state’s top lawyer,” commented Ross Ramsey at The Texas Tribune. “Texas vs. the Feds is a pretty good narrative in a Republican campaign.”
And Abbott lost no time seizing the opportunity. “I’ll fight Obama’s effort to control our elections,” he declared in response to Holder’s announcement. This isn't the first time Abbott has flaunted his adservarial relationship with the president: He’s fond of saying, “My job description includes getting up every morning, going to work, and suing the Obama Administration to defend Texas values.”
The Supreme Court already served up a political victory to Abbott when it gutted the VRA. A D.C. court had blocked the voter ID law he championed in 2012, and the SCOTUS decision resurrected it, voiding the previous decision. “Previously acceptable documents, like birth certificates and utility bills, will no longer be accepted as sufficient proof of identification,” the Brennan Center for Justice wrote about the law when it first passed in 2011. “Notably, university student ID cards and state and federal government employee ID cards would also be rejected. This extremely narrow list of acceptable identification documents makes Texas’ law one of the most restrictive pieces of voter ID legislation in the entire country.” The law is now in effect.
Then again, the Tribune’s Ramsey speculates that Holder’s efforts in Texas could dredge up a few embarrassments for Abbott, too. When states last redrew their district lines, in 2011, Texas and the other states whose histories of discrimination had earned them federal "preclearance" requirements in the VRA had to send their maps to Washington for a stamp of approval. Abbott, leery of Obama’s DOJ, invoked the right to give Texas’s redistricting plan to a three-judge panel, instead—a bad move, as it turned out, which would rile criticism from state Democrats and his own party. The special court case was pricey (Abbott hired noted lawyer Paul Clement to advise him, at a rate of $520 an hour), and it took so long to decide that a court in San Antonio had to draw interim maps for the 2012 election. Then Abbott barred the interim plan's use until the special court had ruled, even though it meant postponing some state primary elections from March until May, to the displeasure of candidates. In the end, the D.C. court rejected the original redistricting proposal in the strongest terms, writing, “The parties have provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here."
This June, Abbott urged the Texas legislature to adopt the temporary maps (which are not vastly different from the ones the D.C. court refused to clear) as permanent law, over the protests of Democrats, and in particular the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, who wanted to go back to the drawing board. He had the option to reinstate the original map after the VRA decision, but didn’t, presumably hoping to avoid another protracted, messy argument. But when Holder turned to Texas, he undid Abbott’s attempt to put the redistricting morass behind him. The San Antonio court had already signaled it wanted to take another look at its 2012 map; now that it’s also reviewing whether to reinstate a preclearance requirement for Texas voting laws (which it could under an intact section of the VRA), the related question of redistricting is back in the spotlight.
The upshot, Ramsey says, is that “Abbott still has some risk”:
The Justice Department is asking the courts to put Texas back in the preclearance basket. The whole thing could take time, and state election officials…fear the state’s March primaries could be delayed again. Some Texans would blame the feds, but some would blame Abbott. Tom Pauken, who is also seeking the Republican nomination for governor next year, is already working that angle, saying Abbott should have made a stronger play in 2005 when Congress was working on the Voting Rights Act and George W. Bush was president. “As the Texas Attorney General in 2005, Greg Abbott failed a test of leadership in not persuading Republicans in Washington to end this once and for all,” Pauken said in a statement on Holder’s speech. “He was asleep at the switch.”
Ultimately, Abbott’s polling numbers are high enough, and the federalist, anti-Obama narrative is strong enough, that the VRA ruling, and Holder's campaign, seem likely to be more coup than liability. In fact, the politician who really stands to lose is his most appealing prospective Democratic opponent, state senator Wendy Davis. The original map would have redrawn Davis into an impossibly red district, and if the San Antonio court doesn’t reinstate preclearance, there’s nothing to stop Republicans from doing it again.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.