Trump’s tariff threat is upending Texas politics

Balancing act.
Balancing act.
Image: Reuters/Julia Robinson
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Texas is a border state where many voters are worried about immigration. Mexico is also by far its biggest trading parter.

So, US president Donald Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexico as leverage to force that country to tighten immigration controls is putting Texas’s Republican politicians in a tough spot. Side with Trump, and they could be taken to task later when the tariffs start hurting the state economy. Come out too forcefully against the president’s plan, and they risk being replaced with a more firebrand candidate during the next election.

Thus Texas governor Gregg Abbott’s carefully worded response to the Trump plan:

“I’ve previously stated my opposition to tariffs due to the harm it would inflict on the Texas economy, and I remain opposed today,” Abbott said in a statement after Trump first announced the potential tariffs. “Nevertheless, the president is trying to address this emergency. Now, Congress must do its job and start passing laws to fix our broken immigration system.”

Regardless of where Texas Republicans choose to stand, the effect of the tariffs would be Texas-sized. Here’s a look at how Trump is messing with politics—and potentially the economy—in the Lone Star state:

Economic interference

In 2018, Texas spent $107 billion on goods and raw materials from Mexico. The 5% tariff would raise that cost by $5.35 billion, according to an analysis of government data by the US Chamber of Commerce. That’s more than any other state in the country.

Research firm Perryman Group, which specializes in Texas economics, estimates the 5% tax would cost the state’s economy $11.9 billion and almost 120,000 jobs.

The list also includes other key states in the 2020 presidential election, namely Michigan. That state helped Trump secure the White House in 2016, but his party’s popularity there slid in the midterm elections.

Sowing discord among Republicans

Trump’s Mexico policy is leaving little wiggle room for the traditional business-minded Republicans who until recently  dominated Texas politics.

For the first time in a long time, Republicans in the state are facing serious challenges from the Democrats. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who challenged US senator Ted Cruz during the last midterm elections, nearly won. It would have given Democrats their first state-wide victory since 1994. During this upcoming presidential election season, Texas will be considered a near battleground state. In recent polling, former vice president Joe Biden was ahead of Trump in Texas. In an even bigger surprise, the progressive Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren, was tied with the president.

And it’s not just the Democrats that mainstream Texas Republicans need to worry about. Even before Trump came into the picture, Republican nativists had started gaining ground. Trump’s tariff talk will likely embolden them.

Polling suggests the tariffs would give Trump a short-term win because a large share of Republicans in the state are concerned about border security. but that would likely change once Texans feel the effects of the tariffs in their wallets, according to the Texas Politics Project’s James Henson and Joshua Blank.

“Oddly enough, Trump’s initial timetable would seem likely to trigger such a potential backlash in Texas just as voters turn their attention to the 2020 election, they wrote in an editorial on TribTalk.