Robert Nichols not always in lockstep with Texas Republican state senators

Published 11:31 am Monday, May 22, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Months before this legislative session, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, made headlines when he became the first Republican in the Legislature to say he would vote for a rape exception to the state’s new abortion ban.

That was only the beginning.

Nichols has bucked his party multiple times this legislative session, emerging as the closest thing to a maverick in a chamber where Republicans tend to march in lockstep with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Nichols was the only Senate Republican to vote against Patrick’s priority bill on school choice. He was the only Republican on a Senate committee to oppose legislation requiring E-Verify across Texas. And last week, he was the only Senate Republican to vote against a far-reaching bill to preempt local authority.

Nichols has not necessarily changed, but his position in the GOP majority has. In some ways, he has taken the place of former Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who split with Patrick on several key issues before the lieutenant governor helped drive him into retirement last year.

Nichols’ moves have invited political peril and raised questions about whether he plans to run for reelection in his solidly red district. However, his seat is not up for election until 2026, so it’s a question he will not immediately have to answer.

Nichols has not spoken much about his party-splitting votes this session, and he declined to be interviewed for this story. But he has previously voted against proposals to let parents use tax dollars to take their kids out of public schools, and he reiterated before this session that he is “very much opposed to it.”

During a committee hearing Thursday, Nichols again showed why he has been standing out among Senate Republicans.

He questioned why an economic-incentives bill excluded companies that “do ESG [environmental, social and governance] scores,” referring to the socially conscious investing strategies that many of his fellow Republicans have increasingly targeted. Noting that such a provision would “pretty much wipe out for consideration everybody that does business in the S&P 500,” Nichols called the carve-out too broad and “very dangerous.”

Nichols then wondered aloud why the bill was also singling out companies that boycott Israel. In 2017, Nichols was the only Republican in the entire Legislature to vote against House Bill 89, which prohibited governmental entities from doing business with companies that boycott Israel. A federal judge struck down the law two years later, and lawmakers went on to rewrite the law to be narrower.

“I went on record as being against that” in 2017, Nichols said. “I think it was unconstitutional. I think the court proved that was right.”

Coincidentally, Nichols made the comment while sitting next to the House author of that bill, Phil King, who is now a senator.

Nichols arrived in a different Senate era

With Seliger gone, Nichols is now the most senior Republican in the Senate. He was first elected in 2006 to represent Senate District 3, which covers a large area of East Texas stretching from the Houston suburbs to south of Tyler.

Nichols already had a long career in government in the 1980s and 1990s, having served as a state transportation commissioner and as mayor and City Council member for Jacksonville, a city of 14,000 about a half-hour south of Tyler.

He won reelection last year without any primary opposition and nearly 80% of the vote in November.

Steven Galatas, a government professor at Stephen F. Austin University in Nichols’ district, noted that Nichols’ seniority dates him back to a different political era in Austin.

“At that point in time, the Senate was less partisan than it is now, in general,” Galatas said. “There are a bunch of norms and traditions that have dominated historically the functioning of the Senate, including this recognition that party is important … but there’s also a recognition in the Texas Legislature that party isn’t everything.”

The partisanship of the Senate has especially intensified since Patrick became lieutenant governor in 2015. He has appointed fewer Democrats as committee chairs and spearheaded multiple rules changes designed to let Republicans advance bills without Democratic support.

Nichols has not always gone along with Patrick’s efforts to marginalize the minority party. During one of the special sessions in 2021, he was the only Senate Republican to vote against a proposal to make it harder for the minority party to break quorum after Democrats halted legislative business by leaving Texas for Washington, D.C.

Nichols’ opposition helped keep the proposal below the vote threshold needed for final approval in the Senate. Patrick never brought it to the floor again.

“I’m not with my caucus” on school choice

In a way, Nichols set the tone for this session when he appeared last September at The Texas Tribune Festival, where he said he would support an exception allowing rape victims to seek an abortion.

Within days, he lost the support of Texas Right to Life, the hardline anti-abortion group. Only one other Senate Republican, Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, would go on to voice support for a rape exception.

While Nichols did not speak out further about a rape exception, he went on to champion a proposal to provide paid parental leave for all state employees. That aligned him with Republicans who believe Texas needs to do more to support new mothers after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

“As one of the largest employers in the state, Texas should be a leader in supporting mothers and their babies,” Nichols said.

Nichols’ parental-leave legislation, Senate Bill 222, received unanimous support in the Senate in March. The House approved it a month later, and it is currently in conference committee.

At the same 2022 appearance at TribFest, Nichols made clear he would remain a GOP holdout on school vouchers, even as it was shaping up to be a major priority for Gov. Greg Abbott.

“I’ll be very candid: I’m not with my caucus, I would say, on that,” Nichols said. “I’m very much opposed to it. I will be doing everything I can in my power to stop it and slow it down. I do not think it is good for rural Texas.”

Nichols made good on that opposition in April when he voted against Senate Bill 8, Patrick’s priority bill to establish state-funded education savings accounts that parents could use to pay for private schools. While the legislation is all but dead for the regular session that ends May 29, Abbott is expected to revive it in a special session.

A teachers union that has fought the proposal, Texas American Federation of Teachers, said it had not talked to Nichols beforehand and did not know how he would vote.

“We appreciate that he seems to be listening to his constituents, though,” Texas AFT spokesperson Nicole Hill said.

Nichols broke with his party again around the same time when he was the only Republican on the Senate Business and Commerce Committee to vote against Senate Bill 1621, which would require all employers in Texas to use E-Verify. E-Verify is the federal system that employers can use to check whether a job applicant is authorized to work in the United States. Supporters say it is essential to removing a major incentive for illegal immigration.

SB 1621 advanced out of the committee despite Nichols’ opposition, but Patrick did not bring it up for a floor vote before a key deadline, leaving the legislation all but dead this session.

Nichols’ opposition to the E-Verify bill drew a rebuke from Texans for Strong Borders, a hard-line border security group.

“It was shameful to see Sen. Nichols side with businesses reliant on cheap foreign labor, rather than American workers and the rule of law,” the group’s president, Chris Russo, said in a statement. “Sen. Nichols and several of his colleagues are totally out of step with other members of his party and with his constituents, who overwhelmingly support this policy.”

More recently — last week — Nichols served as the only GOP vote in the Senate against House Bill 2127, an Abbott-endorsed bill to prevent local governments from making their own rules in a broad range of policy areas. Critics rang the alarm, calling it the “death star” of state preemption proposals, the boldest effort yet to rein in local control.

While Nichols did not comment on his vote against HB 2127, Capitol observers speculated he was leaning on his prior experience in local government. He is the only Republican left in the Senate who once was a mayor.

Will there be retaliation?

It remains to be seen what kind of political repercussions await Nichols after this session.

The abortion ban had been a priority for the lieutenant governor, who is known to be vindictive, but if Nichols upset Patrick by supporting a rape exception, it did not show. Patrick did not take issue with Nichols’ position when asked about it in a TV interview days later. And, for the 2023 session, he reappointed Nichols as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, a post the senator has had since 2011.

In addition, Patrick signaled his confidence in Nichols in 2022 when he picked him to lead a special committee in response to the Uvalde school shooting. As chair of the Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans, Nichols promised to “leave all options on the table,” including a Democratic-championed proposal to raise the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21. The committee ultimately chose not to recommend that, citing a “strong lack of consensus.”

Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

If Nichols decides to seek reelection, he won’t face voters for three years. The last time he had a primary opponent was in 2012, when he defeated a Tea Party-inspired challenger, Tammy Blair, by 50 percentage points.

Mark Owens, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, said Nichols has thus far managed to evade the kind of intraparty revolt that typically awaits Texas Republicans who buck their party.

“There’s really less attention on this,” Owens said. “I think it’s also the fact that he has those years of service. … He is a force in and of himself.”

Written by Patrick Svitek of The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.