AUSTIN (KXAN) — While the handling of the coronavirus pandemic by state and federal leaders has been central to the campaign trail in 2020, political experts believe issues of social justice and policing could have a growing influence in competitive races as Republican officials decry efforts to “defund the police.”
Texas’ 21st Congressional District race — featuring incumbent Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Wendy Davis — could test the value of support for law enforcement among voters in a district labeled a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.
“The phrase ‘defund the police’ has become loaded and has become polarizing in and of itself and it means different things to different people,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
“For Republicans, it enables them to downplay the less-than-stellar performance of Republicans who have, basically, owned the agenda at the state and the national level when it comes to the coronavirus and the economy.”
A U.T. Tyler/Dallas Morning News poll conducted from Aug. 28-Sept. 2 found a majority of Texans, 57-to-27%, oppose defunding police. President Trump has routinely called for “law and order” in response to social unrest over police brutality in cities across the country.
Roy, a former federal prosecutor, signed a pledge on Wednesday to “Back the Blue,” following Gov. Greg Abbott’s call for all leaders to oppose any efforts to defund police.
Abbott has threatened legislation that would freeze property taxes in cities that defund police and said he would consider legislation that would place the Austin Police Dept. under state control after the Austin City Council voted to immediately cut $20 million from the police budget and transition $130 million in services away from police oversight over the next year.
“Our men in women in blue who stand up defending us, and are holding the line, they deserve our support,” Roy told KXAN during an interview. “Not blind support, but strong support.”
Abbott will hold a press conference on Thursday to sign the “Back the Blue” pledge and will announce a legislative proposal to protect police funding in communities across the state.
The Texas Democratic Party called Abbott’s focus on police funding a “political stunt” to draw attention away from the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in which nearly 14,000 Texans have died.
Davis, who served in the Texas Senate for six years and was defeated in her campaign for governor against Abbott in 2014, said support for law enforcement and acknowledging needed changes in policing don’t have to lead to an and/or conclusion.
She would not second-guess the decision by the Austin City Council to reimagine public safety. Davis said she does not support defunding police.
“I don’t think we have to divide our support in either of these directions in order to accomplish the goals that we want to see,” Davis said.
Those goals — banning chokeholds, ending qualified immunity for officers, and improving training — don’t prevent a community from giving law enforcement the resources they need, according to Davis.
“I can tell you that living in the heart of Austin, literally a block away from downtown, this is a safe community,” Davis said.
“I feel safe here.”
Early voting for the November general election begins Oct. 13 in Texas.