AUSTIN — It was almost midnight and Bryan Hughes, the usually unshakable state senator from East Texas, paced his Austin hotel room.
His cellphone buzzed with text messages. Every few seconds, he pressed the screen to refresh the U.S. Supreme Court website.
There, on the eve of Sept. 1, Hughes would soon learn whether the country’s strictest abortion ban, a driving goal of his career, would live or die.
This year, Texas Republicans veered hard to the right. Hughes led the way.
He championed policies to dramatically restrict abortion rights, ban social media companies from removing content for its political view and set limits on what educators can teach about race and history. He carried a sweeping rewrite of election law that Democrats considered so harmful to voters, they made national headlines when they fled Texas for weeks to delay its passage.
Yet, most Texans probably haven’t heard of Hughes. In a state full of politicians with outsize personalities, booming drawls and a penchant for seeking the spotlight, Hughes is soft-spoken, reserved, excessively polite.
The 52-year-old attorney, who has been a state lawmaker for nearly two decades, still lives where he grew up in deeply conservative Wood County, a two-hour drive east of Dallas. On weekends, Hughes sings at the small evangelical church he began attending as a teenager. At the moment, he’s staying with his parents.
In all that time as a legislator, first in the House and then in the Senate, Hughes has rarely made headlines.
Now, he’s shouldering the year’s most divisive agenda, which is all the more surprising because he may be one of the best-liked legislators in the building. His friendly, aw-shucks manner endears him even to Democrats.
All that charm, though, doubles as a potent political weapon. It’s hard for opponents to demonize someone who’s so cheerful, and who takes a thrashing on the Senate floor with a perpetual smile.
Hughes’ rising profile isn’t just turning heads in Texas. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently put him on the phone with the former president, he said. Donald Trump had one word for Hughes’ recent performance: “Dynamo.”
A ‘silent scream’
Watching a video with his friend from church, Hughes’ eyes widened. A little body on screen appeared to thrash. The tiny mouth, the narrator said, opened wide in what he called a “silent scream.”
That was the high school junior’s first exposure to the abortion debate.
“It just struck me, it bothered me,” Hughes told The Dallas Morning News recently. “It got my attention.”
The 1984 anti-abortion film The Silent Scream was decried by the medical community as misleading and inaccurate. Doctors said speeded-up footage gave the impression of pain, which a fetus at that stage can’t feel.
But what Hughes saw that day would carry him into politics and become the central focus of his career.
A self-proclaimed history nerd and the first in his family to get a four-year college degree, Hughes always knew he would run for office. That time came sooner than he expected.
At age 32, Hughes was recruited to run as part of a well-funded slate of Republicans, who in 2003 seized control of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction. Hughes edged out a longtime Democrat, a “nice guy,” he said, but whose views on abortion clashed with his own.
Once in the Legislature, Hughes aligned himself with the state’s most hard-line anti-abortion groups. Over the years, he backed laws prohibiting a common abortion method, requiring the burial of fetal remains and setting strict standards for clinics that forced many to shutter.
This year, Hughes pushed something new. He championed the law banning abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy. What makes it so novel, and so resistant to court review, is in the enforcement.
The law offers $10,000 judgments to people who tattle on neighbors, friends, enemies, total strangers — anyone who helps a woman end her pregnancy.
Calls are now streaming into Hughes’ phone. Lawmakers in other states — Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio — want help writing their own.
Opponents say the law is cruel and unconscionable in forcing women to carry pregnancies they don’t want, especially when the order is coming from a man. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, thinks of girls as young as 10 who’ve become pregnant after an assault.
“I don’t know how you can suggest that forcing them to be a vessel for a pregnancy and requiring a child to have a child is in some way a moral high ground,” Howard said.
Hughes defends the law as is. When it comes to rape, he said, “we wouldn’t want to take a terrible situation and make it worse by taking the life of the little unborn baby.”
“Protecting innocent human life is the highest responsibility we have,” Hughes said.
Colleagues say he behaves as a gentleman: kind, respectful, jovial. On the Senate floor, he deflects the most pointed questions with a smile and takes criticism without ever raising his voice.
One Republican lobbyist described him as a “molasses covered knife,” oozing sweetness, while inflicting deep wounds to his political foes.
Democrats openly gripe about the man.
“Bryan is probably one of the smartest people I know,” said Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio. “But he loves to do that country bumpkin thing, hem and haw and kind of get you all confused. By the time you’re done talking to Bryan, he’ll sell you a 20-year-old used car.”
Once in debate, Democratic Sen. John Whitmire asked Hughes if he’d be offended by the name “snake-oil salesman.”
“Not in the least, senator,” Hughes retorted, pausing as a grin spread across his bearded face. “I’m a politician, and a lawyer.”
Hughes knows what he’s doing. Speaking to a conservative crowd in Tyler last month, he offered up some political advice.
“If you make your arguments in a way that’s winsome,” Hughes told them, “you’re going to win over some of those other folks who are maybe on the left, maybe in the middle.”
He may win over his opponents’ hearts, but not their minds. Democrats bemoan that Hughes’ uses his power to advance bills they say hurt women and people of color, assertions he disputes.
It’s this contradiction, some Democrats say, between the man and his causes, that is so confounding.
This year, Sen. Judith Zaffirini pulled Hughes off the Senate floor to give him a gift. As Hughes unfolded the black T-shirt, the longtime Laredo Democrat said, he tipped his head back and laughed.
Across the front in yellow capital letters was: “I CAUSE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE.”
For Zaffirini, the psychological theory is personified in Hughes: How can a man she likes so much push policy she so despises?
“I never expected him to carry this kind of legislation,” she said. “But he seems to like it.”
‘Quite a session’
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick looked into the news cameras. It was a day he’d been waiting for. Texas Republicans had passed the most sweeping — and divisive — elections bill in years. Now it was time for the governor to sign it.
But before saying a word about the legislation, Patrick looked to his right. There sat Hughes.
“Senator Hughes had quite a session,” Patrick declared at the ceremony last month in downtown Tyler, congratulating him on carrying the “four cornerstones of conservative policy.”
Patrick, one of the most powerful Republicans in Texas, leaned heavily on Hughes this year.
He counted on him to head a powerful committee, State Affairs, that heard most hot-button issues. Hughes carried three of Patrick’s top priorities, including the elections bill that further limits early voting methods and empowers poll watchers, one that Republicans said was about security but that Democrats decried as suppression. Hughes was out front defending its most hard-fought provisions, even some the GOP later backed away from and eventually nixed.
Midsession, the lieutenant governor loaded Hughes up with more. After a fellow Republican got in a car crash, Hughes took on his bill intended to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.
When Patrick made the ask, Hughes didn’t hesitate.
“I said ‘of course, I would love to,’” Hughes said. “I had a pretty full plate, but it was an important issue.”
It’s a change of pace from Hughes’ days in the House, when he fanned the flames of GOP division with an unsuccessful challenge to a speaker deemed by some as too moderate. Joining the Senate in 2017, Hughes found an ideological ally in Patrick.
It’s not clear why Patrick turned to Hughes so much this year. He didn’t return a request for comment. But in a chamber where Patrick’s in control, Hughes’ power flows from him.
“If Patrick wasn’t behind him,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, “then he wouldn’t have been able to do all the things that he’s done.”
Wedded to work
On a typical Tuesday night, Hughes is on a stage, advocating for what he believes in among supporters. Last month, it was an Americans for Prosperity event in Tyler, where Hughes stood before a conservative audience eating barbecue off dinner plates. He ended his remarks with a request for the audience to stand.
Then, he dropped the microphone to his side and sang: “God bless America, land that I love.”
The crowd joined his baritone.
When it comes to having fun, Hughes said this — singing, speaking to people — that’s it.
He has never been married and doesn’t have children. Hughes says there’s still time. For now, he’s wedded to his work.
“If there’s an opportunity to be somewhere, to connect with people, to listen to people, that’s probably what I’m going to do,” he said. “That’s how I spend most of my evenings.”
He can’t remember the last time he cooked a meal — does the microwave count? He doesn’t drink alcohol, well, unless declining would be rude. What about hobbies? He has a guitar, but no time to practice.
Even those who count Hughes as a friend in Austin say they know little about his life outside the Capitol. In interviews he offers details of his life, but little insight about how they shaped him.
Hughes’ parents divorced before he was born. His mother and grandmother raised him, while his father raised his older brother. When Hughes turned 18, his parents remarried.
Now, the three live together on a quiet road in Mineola, a city of 5,000 in Wood County that just welcomed its first tattoo parlor and where a sign outside the high school warns teachers may be armed. He moved out of his rental and into their place before the legislative session began, he said, a temporary arrangement while he’s building a new home.
After college, Hughes went to law school at Baylor University. If it weren’t for his colorblindness, he said, he might have followed his father into railroad work. Instead, he became a trial attorney, representing blue-collar workers against the companies accused of hurting them on the job.
“Bryan was always diligent, and always trying to do what was right,” said Mark Lanier, a well-known trial attorney in Texas who was once Hughes’ boss.
The profession isn’t usually a winning ticket in the GOP, whose members have spent years clamping down on what they see as frivolous lawsuits and unmerited jackpots. But Hughes manages to count the trial attorneys’ main political rival, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, as a top campaign donor.
Hughes said he prepares for the Legislature with the same intensity as he prepares for trial: “You use relationships, you use your head and logic, you marshal your evidence, you bring in your witnesses and you make your case.”
Over time, Hughes’ practice has shifted from personal injury to business litigation. Last November, he briefly represented the Trump campaign in its legal battle to stop Pennsylvania from certifying its election results.
Hughes withdrew before a federal judge threw out the case in a scathing order.
He won’t say whether he agrees with Trump’s unfounded assertions that the 2020 election was stolen.
“Joe Biden is the president,” Hughes said. “The next presidential election is 2024, and I’m looking forward to a Republican winning that one.”
Looking to 2022
In Hughes’ third-floor, corner office of the Capitol, a ring light to brighten his face during television interviews is often spread across his wooden desk. Now, given his newfound celebrity, he doesn’t have to leave the room to go live.
Hughes is promoting his positions on any network that will have him. But the real test will be over the coming months in the courts and at the ballot box.
Hughes has little to fear. He represents a reliably Republican district, one that is poised to only get redder once the Legislature finishes redrawing the state’s political maps in a way that’s expected to cement Republicans’ grip on power for years to come.
In his last election, Hughes handily defeated a Democratic challenger with more than 75% of the vote. With more than $1.2 million in his campaign coffers, he has enough cash to ward off serious GOP challengers.
Hughes says he plans to stay in the Senate, not that he’s ruling anything out.
“I will pray and get counsel, talk to family and friends and our team,” he said.
Attorney general would seem a natural next step. But the embattled officeholder seeking reelection, Ken Paxton, is a friend. They roomed together in Austin while both served in the House.
Not that Hughes won’t run against an ally. In his 2016 Senate bid, Hughes faced off against fellow Republican representative and close colleague David Simpson.
After leaving the microphone at the Americans for Prosperity event, Hughes strode into the crowd wearing black cowboy boots. He posed for pictures between young Republicans and sat on the stage with a man too frail to stand. He was the last person to leave the building, a bundle of blue hydrangeas left over from the table centerpieces tucked under his arm. The time was 10:40 p.m.
He could easily have gone home, a 40-minute drive up the road. Instead, he turned his car toward a destination four hours away. It was time to return to Austin.