AUSTIN, Texas — Though "bathroom bills" targeting transgender people fizzled in deep-red states across the U.S., the issue is still white hot in Texas, where the Legislature is heading into special session prepared to revive it and conservative groups are vowing revenge on Republican lawmakers who don't approve it.
Whether Texas eventually enacts a law requiring transgender people to use public restrooms according to their birth-certificate gender, the issue is looming large over Republican primaries set for March. Powerful business entities, from Apple to the NFL, oppose such a bill as discriminatory, but insurgent candidates have promised to brand lawmakers who dare reject it — or try to remain neutral in the face of so much outcry — as soft on social issues dear to conservatives.
The issue appeared dead in the near-term when the Legislature ended its regular session on Memorial Day without approving a bathroom bill. The Texas Senate had passed a strict version in March, but the more-moderate House — led by vocal bathroom bill opponent Republican Speaker Joe Straus — balked and approved a watered-down version applying only to public schools. The Senate rejected that. A stalemate may yet prevail if neither side budges during a 30-day extra session that GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has convened starting Tuesday.
The Conservative Republicans of Texas political action committee says it's ready to pounce on those who don't support the strict proposal that mimicked a 2015 North Carolina law that sparked so much uproar and threats of costly boycotts that lawmakers there eventually rolled much of it back. No other state has approved such a law, despite similar bills being introduced in nearly 20 states.
"To the extent that someone chooses to lock arms with Joe Straus and promote his liberal agenda for the state, and work with him to kill conservative legislation, we're going to be looking for and back a primary challenger to that individual," said Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney who is the group's president.
Woodfill's PAC donated nearly $2 million between the 2010 and 2016 election cycles to 100-plus Texas legislative candidates and other conservative causes, and plans to spend lavishly to target moderate Republicans up for election in 2018.
On the other side are business and civil rights organizations, gay rights activists and many religious leaders who see the law as harmful to transgender residents and bad for the state's economy. But such groups, generally, have been less active in Texas' GOP primaries.
"The mainstream faith communities in this state cringe when they hear that violent, hateful language so they vacate the field and leave it to extreme people," said Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, which represents religious congregations from across the faith and political spectrum. "What they are realizing is, even though we don't like that approach, it is incumbent upon us to learn about how to talk about politics."
The issue's top Texas proponent is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a fiery former radio talk show host who oversees the Senate and is the state's leading conservative voice. Abbott, meanwhile, has appeared conflicted. He refused to endorse the bathroom bill for months, then backed only the softened House version. But Abbott has now put the issue on a list of 20 items he'd like to see the Legislature approve during the special session, bolstering his conservative credentials as he seeks re-election in 2018.
Straus likened the bathroom bill and Abbott's other special-session priorities to a mountain of horse manure. He crushed past tea party-backed primary challengers in his San Antonio district and was re-elected to a record-tying fifth term as speaker unanimously by the House at the start of the regular session. But the Republican Party's executive committee in Straus' home county recently endorsed a non-binding resolution calling for his removal as speaker.
Conservative Republicans of Texas spent $100,000 during the regular session on cable TV ads in Straus' district and in Austin decrying the speaker and promoting the bathroom bill. It also helped recruit two upstart candidates in suburban Houston who toppled key Straus lieutenants during the 2016 GOP primary. One, Republican Rep. Briscoe Cain, once worked for Woodfill's law firm before joining the Legislature and infuriating establishment legislators from both parties by helping slow key legislation in protest of issues like the bathroom bill not advancing.
Thomas McNutt, whose family owns the Collins Street Bakery, known for fruitcakes that it ships to customers around the globe, challenged another top Straus ally, Rep. Byron Cook, the chairman of the powerful House State Affairs Committee in 2016 — but lost by barely 200 votes. McNutt is running against Cook again and could get a bathroom-bill boost.
"Voters are tired of the Texas House leadership, including Byron Cook, blocking all conservative legislation," McNutt said in an emailed statement.
Cook, though, isn't shying away from the issue. In a fundraising email he said he wants to clarify transgender restroom polices for public schools, but added: "I do not condone duplicitous grandstanding on this issue and/or discriminatory legislation."