TEXAS VIEW: Circling the wagons is good for electing Texas Republicans, but bad for the long run

THE POINT: More candidates are opting out of nonpartisan election forums.

True democracy requires participation. Not just from voters, but from politicians.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned this political cycle, it’s that too many North Texas politicians, and especially GOP politicians, will go out of their way to avoid dealing with questions they don’t want to answer or people who might disagree with them.

It starts with debates and forums. Once upon a time, it was customary for politicians to face their opponents a few times in front of a few different audiences.

But an increasing number of political candidates just skipped forums that make them answerable to the public. That’s among the troubling trends we spotted after more than a month of interviewing candidates, and inviting them — sometimes cajoling them — into giving our readers answers about where they stand on important policy issues. Many are simply opting out of the political process. It’s a nationwide fad, and a bad one.

Out of 235 candidates for 105 races we invited to participate in The Dallas Morning News Voter Guide for this general election, 147 filled out the questionnaire. Out of 94 invited to participate in our candidate interviews, 31 declined or just didn’t reply.

Most of those opting out are Republicans. Of the 88 candidates who didn’t participate in our Voter Guide, 48 were Republicans and 29 were Democrats. Of the 31 who didn’t attend our candidate interviews, 25 were Republicans.

We aren’t alone. Last week, Ellen Steger, president of the Richardson chapter of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, wrote in to say that her group planned candidate forums for two Texas House districts but had to cancel because both Republican candidates declined to participate. Those candidates also didn’t fill out the LWV voter guide.

In Tarrant County, Tim O’Hare and Phil Sorrells, Republican candidates for top county positions, declined to participate in the Fort Worth Report’s debate. In fact, they have declined every such invitation since the primary, the outlet reported.

It’s not just in North Texas either. During primary season this spring, Politico detailed a nationwide slate of Republican candidates who skipped traditional election forums like debates. Those include gubernatorial candidates in Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada. This after the Republican National Convention parted ways with the Commission on Presidential Debates in April.

The assertion from party pundits will be that conservatives don’t get a fair hearing from mainstream media sources, but that reason doesn’t hold up in primary debates or with nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters. Nor does it make sense for a media outlet like ours, which recommended more Republicans than Democrats in the 2020 election.

What’s really going on here is that democracy has moved to the primary season. With state governments increasingly sorting themselves by party, and gerrymandering increasingly homogenizing voter pools, Texas Republicans are able to treat general elections as an exercise in running out the clock.

We’ve heard as much from party operatives who say candidates are encouraged not to participate beyond their base, and some party leaders have scolded down-ballot candidates for speaking to the mainstream press.

This is not the tactic you use when your strategy is about building coalitions and passing laws that reflect the will of a broad majority of voters. This is the tactic you use when your message is only for those inside your circle of wagons. Everyone outside that circle is a potential enemy. Don’t talk to them.

If that’s your philosophy, then you’ll be attracted to political consultants like one in Austin, popular among Republicans, who promotes itself as a political warmonger: “Derived from the Greek word strategos — meaning ‘leader of the army’ — we approach strategy like generals waging a war — because politics is war,” the agency’s website reads.

These consultants are a source of poisoned thinking, and they don’t believe voters will notice. Dave Carney, the Republican strategist for Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign, told Politico, “In 10 years, when debates don’t happen anymore, no one will notice, voters won’t notice or care.”

Abbott did take part in one debate this cycle, and we credit him for that. It was something that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton would not do.

Though the debate was short and the rules were strict, voters at least got to look at Abbott and his challenger, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, side by side and hear them respond to the thoughtful and difficult questions of a panel of professional journalists, including our colleague Gromer Jeffers Jr.

While both O’Rourke and Abbott tried to spend time attacking each other, they also had to get to the substance of the questions that matter to voters. When all a candidate does is preach to the choir, or run attack ads on television and radio, or blow up social media, it’s democracy that loses even if the candidate wins.

In the long run, wagon-circling is a bad strategy for candidates and political parties, because as that circle is constricted by tighter and tighter standards of ideological purity, the circle shrinks.

The sad irony is that the Republican Party of Texas is choosing this tack just at a time when conservative principles are enjoying popularity. Poll after poll shows that demographic groups once thought to be Democratic strongholds are more open to conservative candidates. Most voters, especially in Texas, want low taxes, free markets, lower inflation, and limited government without the bluster and hypocrisy that politicians seem destined to add.

We propose another way: Rather than seeing themselves as warriors and conquerors, Republicans should return to the meaning of another Greek word: politika, meaning “affairs of the cities.” They should see themselves as the party of solutions and open hands, ready to participate in true public life.

The Dallas Morning News