Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Meet the Ted Lasso of Texas Politics: The Nice Guy Who Banned Abortion

Everyone agrees Bryan Hughes is amiable and polite. He's also emerged as one of the most-effective conservative legislators in the country.

20210530-AMX-US-NEWS-SWEEPING-TEXAS-ELECTIONS-BILL-PASSED-1-DA.jpg
Sen. Bryan Hughes sits at his desk in the Texas Legislature. Hughes is the author of a sweeping elections bill enacted during the 2021 session.
(Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)
If you follow politics at all, you’ve heard of the Texas law that tests the outer limits of abortion restrictions. You may have also heard of the state’s new election law, part of a wave of voting limits enacted in red states this year. But you probably haven’t heard of the legislator who sponsored both of those bills.

In just his second term in the state Senate, Bryan Hughes has emerged as a powerhouse in Texas politics and one of the most-effective conservative legislators in the country. Hughes is a key ally of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who runs the Texas Senate. He heads a committee that has long been the funnel for the top priorities of presiding officers.

But just because Hughes chairs the powerful State Affairs Committee doesn’t mean he had to handle so many high-profile bills himself. Hughes is a classic example of the dictum that the reward for good work is more work. Hughes combines intelligence and ideological certainty with an amiable demeanor that has made him one of the Texas GOP’s most valuable players.

“You’d have to be completely not paying attention to know that Sen. Hughes is a pretty big player in the Senate right now,” says James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “He has shown he can perform well in this system and not get flustered by things that sometimes fluster other senators.”

In addition to the abortion and election bills, Hughes helped write the law that allows permitless carry of handguns in the state. He took the lead on the Texas version of a ban on critical race theory, or limits on how race is taught in schools, after its Senate sponsor suffered injuries in a car accident. He sponsored the state’s new law blocking social media companies from banning users based on their political views, which Gov. Greg Abbott argued was an attack on conservatives.

“You wouldn’t pick him out of a lineup as being a powerhouse senator,” says David Carney, a Republican consultant who works in Texas politics. “He doesn’t come across with any hubris or ego, but he is a very wily operative and he is wicked smart.”

Setting the Stage for Conservatives


Republicans have run Texas politics with barely any real opposition for a quarter-century now. Conservatives have often felt frustrated, however, especially those concerned with cultural or social issues.

In the House, Joe Straus spent a decade as speaker, often succeeding in blocking Patrick’s efforts to move legislation such as a so-called bathroom bill to prevent transgender individuals from using facilities in accordance with their gender identity. Straus felt that the Legislature should concentrate more on bread-and-butter issues such as economic development and transportation.

Straus was out of office in time for the 2019 session. (The Texas Legislature meets part time, its regular sessions taking place only in odd-numbered years.) But Democrats had made striking gains in the state House in 2018, flipping a dozen seats. The chance that they might actually take over the chamber in 2020 served to curb conservative ambitions. Even with Straus gone, the main focus of the 2019 session was on things like money for schools and property taxes.

But Democrats failed to get anywhere in last year’s elections. With the Republican majority secure – and about to be made more so through redistricting – conservatives felt free to pursue a wide-ranging agenda.

This year, a new curb on transgender rights passed easily. Texas was one of several states to block transgender students from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. With Abbott and other GOP governors complaining about the Biden administration’s handling of border security, the Texas Legislature tripled state border funding to $3 billion.

“You’d be hard-pressed to look at the output of the Legislature in 2021 and feel like conservatives – if they didn’t run the table, they came pretty close,” says Henson, the University of Texas political scientist.

How Hughes Gained Prominence


At an oral argument earlier this month, justices at the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to signal that they would strike down the Texas abortion ban. Rather than the state enforcing its own ban on the procedure after six weeks, the law allows private individuals to sue anyone who provides or helps facilitate abortions. Even justices believed to be hostile to the Roe precedent enshrining abortion rights sounded dubious about the approach.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for instance, argued that outsourcing enforcement in this way could put other constitutional rights at risk. “There's a loophole that's been exploited here or used here,” Kavanaugh said. “It could be free speech rights. It could be free exercise of religion rights. It could be Second Amendment rights, if this position is accepted here.”

Sen. Hughes, of course, defends his bill. “The Heartbeat Act was necessary because Roe v. Wade attempted to take the question of abortion out of the hands of American democracy,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion column. “In contexts other than abortion, citizens often sue to enforce laws that are otherwise difficult for the government to enforce through traditional channels.”

Hughes, the first member of his family to finish college, is a trial lawyer. He was first elected to the House back in 2002, winning his Senate seat in 2016. Texas Senate districts are large – each senator represents nearly a million people – and Hughes represents Tyler and a 16-county area in northeastern Texas that is arguably one of the most conservative and certainly one of the most Southern parts of the state. “He has that kind of old-school East Texas charm, with the nice Southern accent,” says Chad Ennis, a senior fellow with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Hughes hasn’t shied from conservative causes. In 2019, Patrick elevated him to chair of the State Affairs Committee, which claims such wide jurisdiction that the same hearing might feature abortion and elections. That year, Hughes sponsored a religious liberty bill that LGBTQ individuals argued was discriminatory against them. He also sponsored the “Save Chick-fil-A” law, which blocks government entities from taking “adverse actions” against companies or individuals based on their affiliations with religious organizations, which was also seen as undermining LGBTQ rights.

“He really takes the laboring oar on all the controversial bills,” Ennis says.

Conservative But Zen


Hughes is consistently ranked among the most conservative legislators in Texas. Ideological legislators at either end of the partisan spectrum often come across as strident, but Ennis argues that Hughes’ belief in what he’s doing has instead lent him a thick skin. Hughes is known to be unfailingly patient and polite with both reporters or people lighting into him during hearings.

“Given the hot-button issues that he’s tackled, he’s able to take the mean spirits that he faces in stride,” Ennis says. “I couldn’t sit on the dais and be called a racist, sexist homophobe for 20 hours at a time and be as graceful as he is there.”

Hughes allows people to underestimate him by not insisting on showing off his intelligence. He’s like the Ted Lasso of Texas politics, unflappably amiable. Even his political opponents describe him as congenial. “He is the most down-to-earth, sincere person in politics in Texas,” says Carney, the GOP consultant.
Lasso.jpg
The real Ted Lasso, portrayed by actor Jason Sudeikis. (Imdb.com)
Hughes has been known to share rides on the long drive back from Austin with neighboring Democratic legislators. Since entering the Senate six years ago, he’s had zero staff turnover.

Given the tilt of the Texas Legislature, it’s likely that most if not all of the bills Hughes sponsored would have become law without his help. Nonetheless, his nonconfrontational and nonabrasive manner – and his ability to work with Democrats and more moderate Republicans to find compromises that eased passage of certain bills – has limited the possible negative repercussions from some of the more controversial legislation, says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.

He notes that his own polling shows the abortion and election laws are supported by majorities of Texans. “He wasn’t the reason they passed, but may be the reason they were able to pass with less public blowback than might have otherwise been the case,” Jones says.

Hughes may be genial, but he’s also a forceful advocate for whatever policy he’s promoting. And his skill at navigating the legislative process shouldn’t be undervalued. Over on the House side, procedural mistakes in moving the election bill opened the door for Democrats to make their well-publicized flight out of Texas this summer, depriving the chamber of a quorum and delaying passage for weeks.

“You wouldn’t want to underestimate the basic competence factor,” Henson says.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
The 2021 Ideas Challenge recognizes innovative public policy that positively impacts local communities and the NewDEAL leaders who championed them.
Sponsored
Drug coverage affordability really does exist in the individual Medicare marketplace!
Sponsored
Understand the differences between group Medicare and individual Medicare plans and which plans are best for retirees.
Sponsored
For a while, concerns about credit card fees and legacy processing infrastructure might have slowed government’s embrace of digital payment options.
Sponsored
How expanded financial assistance, a streamlined application process and creative legislation can help Black and brown-owned businesses revive communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.