Emergency powers and Texas senators — a vote for Trump, or principle?

Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texa

As the U.S. Senate prepares to take a required vote on the resolution to reverse President Trump’s emergency declaration on a border wall, Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas face a home electorate that is highly polarized along partisan lines towards Trump’s assertion of executive power, on the wall and on Trump himself. According to their statements and media reports, Cruz remains widely identified as a possible but uncommitted “No” vote, while Cornyn is projecting somewhat reluctant support.

This might seem like an easy vote in strictly political terms. But Trump’s assertion of executive authority has created cross-pressures for Republican senators who are ostensibly wary of “executive overreach” and possible threats to traditional conservative understandings of the Constitution, while also deeply aware of GOP voters’ continued allegiance to the president and his often inflammatory approach to immigration, his signature issue. The Republican leadership in the upper chamber is struggling to keep the GOP caucus unified in support of the president.

Results from the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll strongly suggest that a vote against Trump’s assertion of executive power will be poorly received at home. When asked whether they support or oppose Trump using executive powers to fund a wall without the approval of Congress, 45 percent supported the president’s move and 49 percent opposed it; a large majority of Republican voters — 80 percent — support Trump’s approach. Republicans as a group are less firm in their support than are Democrats in their opposition: 90 percent of Texas Democrats oppose the use of executive authority, 87 percent strongly.

Signs of Republican reluctance to Trump’s action are scant: Only 15 percent of Republican voters joined the lion’s share of Democrats in opposition to the president’s efforts to go around Congress.

Nor is there much nuance in Texas attitudes toward Trump’s push for a wall on the border with Mexico. As Ross Ramsey reported when the February UT/TT poll was released, 52 percent supported building the wall (42 percent strongly), while 45 percent opposed it (38 percent strongly). As in most national polling on the wall (including our previous Texas polls), Texans were sharply divided along partisan lines: 89 percent of Republicans supported the wall, 86 percent of Democrats opposed it.

The most recent UT/TT poll also made a specific effort to assess whether Texas partisans were more flexible than their national leadership when it came to the wall. They were not.

After respondents expressed either their support for or opposition to building the wall, they were asked a follow-up question. If they supported building the wall, they were asked whether “the entire U.S.-Mexico border should have a barrier,” or if “barriers should be added to some sections of the U.S.-Mexico border” — an opportunity to embrace a more compromising variation of their initial position. If they opposed the wall, they were asked if “no additional barriers should be built on the U.S.-Mexico border,” or the same alternative allowing for some additional border wall sections. Only 30 percent of each group chose the compromising position, and over 60 percent of supporters and opponents, respectively, endorsed an all-or-nothing stance.

To the extent that a vote for the resolution reversing Trump’s emergency declaration would be read as a vote against the president (especially by the chief executive himself), his presidential job approval numbers in Texas, not surprisingly, offer little maneuvering room for Cornyn and Cruz. Among Republicans, 88 percent approve of the job Trump is doing — comparable to Cruz’s 83 percent job approval among the same group, and far superior to Cornyn’s 62 percent approval among Texas Republicans.

These attitudes loom over the votes of both Texas senators, given their respective political positions relative to the president. Cornyn has already started a 2020 re-election campaign in which he’ll need the support of the Republican Texas voters who overwhelmingly support Trump. Cruz isn’t on the ballot, but just won re-election by less than three percentage points in a contest defined by Trump’s nationalization of the election and Beto O’Rourke’s rise (if not necessarily the re-emergence of Texas’ Democratic Party).

Cruz, with a nod to his own political brand, is among the senators expressing reservations about Trump’s emergency declaration. As Colby Itkowitz wrote recently in The Washington Post: “It would make sense that Cruz, an expert in constitutional law, would be uncomfortable with this move.” But the junior senator appears reluctant to reignite hostilities with Trump after moving beyond his christening as Lyin’ Ted and the other various indignities inflicted on him by Trump during the 2016 presidential primary election.

Cornyn has been less equivocal, though still reluctant, to fully endorse Trump’s declaration, describing it as “an unnecessary move in that Congress should have done its job.” He is a member of the Senate leadership team that is involved in reported efforts to hold Republicans together in a vote this week on Trump’s action. This would help the president, of course, but would also aid Cornyn and Cruz.

Whatever the final outcome of the Senate vote, the incentives for the Texas senators to support Trump’s position are powerful. Following principle rather than politics would require crossing Texas GOP voters who are overwhelmingly and uncompromisingly supportive of the wall, comfortable with Trump’s reliance on executive power to deliver it and still intensely supportive of his presidency. Neither senator has shown any interest in challenging the president on issues of politics, let alone principle.

Given the positions of their voters and the futility of even a flash of principled defiance of Trump, who is guaranteed to veto the resolution should the GOP dissidents stand firm, they’re unlikely to start defying their president now.

Disclosure: The University of Texas 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 Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin

@jamesrhenson

Joshua Blank

Manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project

@JoshuaMBlank

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