Pandemic policies fuel long-term Republican challenges to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has entered $ 55 million for his re-election campaign, 73% approval among Republicans and a endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

And, thanks to the restrictive abortion and voting laws Abbott has signed in recent months, Texas has become an epicenter of the national conservative causes that unite the Republican Party base.

All of this, however, has not stopped a group of critics, including Allen West, a former Florida congressman with right-wing supporters who briefly served as president of the Texas GOP, from announcing his plans to challenge Abbott in the primary. next year.

His complaint is not so much that Abbott is not a conservative. It’s that he’s not the hard-line conservative they think jeans want, especially when compared to some fellow Republicans and their practical approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not Ron DeSantis, and it’s not Kristi Noem,” said a veteran of Texas GOP policy, who referred to the governors of Florida and South Dakota who have raised their national profiles by resisting prolonged closures, mask warrants and vaccines and other restrictions to limit the spread of Covid.

Pandemic policies are likely to unfold in GOP government primaries elsewhere, most notably in Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine already has two challengers on his right who disapprove of the cautious approach he took at the start of the crisis. . In Texas, West is one of at least four Republicans already campaigning against Abbott. Also taking part in the race are Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator from the Dallas area who has the endorsements of former Trump aide Katrina Pierson and Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky .; Chad Prather, a conservative comedian and BlazeTV commentator; and Paul Belew, a criminal defense attorney with a “Better Call Paul” television-inspired slogan.

Abbott’s allies are not baffled by the first moves against him. The governor won the primaries in 2014 and 2018 with more than 90% of the vote and comfortably won his first two terms. In a huge state with expensive media markets, it has a cash advantage that is likely to be even the wealthy independent Huffines, who have already lent their campaign $ 5 million.

“They don’t have money, they don’t have any fundraising capacity,” said John Wittman, a former Abbott communications director who now runs a public affairs firm in Austin. “They all fight for the same 10 to 12 percent of Republican primary voters.”

Dave Carney, Abbott’s political strategist, said he doesn’t take anything for granted, but that he is “not at all worried” about the challenges of the right.

“We’re really focused on the general election,” he added. “Primary is a great opportunity to do a general rehearsal.”

Abbott’s rivals could be a nuisance, however, in his candidacy for a third term. During the first months of the pandemic, he is repeatedly hammered out to close companies and mask mandates. And they don’t give him credit for being among the first governors to heed those orders, using surprisingly similar rhetoric to dismiss his decisions as an affront to freedom.

West said, “I mean, you can’t return something you didn’t really have a right to take.”

Huffines said, “That would be like thanking a thief for returning some of your stolen property.”

Prather said, “When you act like an arsonist and a firefighter, hypocrisy bleeds pretty quickly.”

Abbott was careful not to name the public health measures he took in April 2020 as a “stay-at-home order,” although he later clarified in a video message that he demanded that “all jeans stay.” at home except to provide essential services or do essential things like going to the grocery store ”. It began reopening, with limitations, in May 2020 only to stop these efforts the following month due to a wave of coronavirus cases. A mask mandate quickly followed and remained in place until March of that year, when Abbott completely reopened the state.

Still, using the pandemic as a wedge against Abbott, who last month tested positive for Covid, is not a primary message. More than two-thirds of Republican voters approved of their response to the crisis when they were polled in an August poll by the University of Texas Texas Politics Project in Austin. Other critics, particularly Democrats, have argued that its response to the pandemic has been too lax, pointing especially to its July order banning mask and vaccine warrants from the state despite the highly contagious increase in pandemics. the delta variant.

As of Thursday, confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas had risen 11% in the past two weeks. Deaths increased by 38%.

The main challenges have other complaints.

West, Huffines and Prather accused Abbott of not doing enough to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, even after the governor pledged to deploy more state police and release state funds to continue building a border wall.

Huffines wishes Abbott had asked for what he described as a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election: a business card for right-wing candidates who want to please Trump. (The former president won the state of Texas.)

Prather, mockingly, calls Abbott a “campaign conservative” who talks everything, without action.

“The media gives him a lot of merit because he uses a lot of conservative rhetoric,” Prather said. “But there is a difference between saying and doing. And, you know, Ron DeSantis does. Kristi Noem does it. And Greg Abbott, a politician who lives off his polls, is good to say. “

Several experienced Texas GOP agents downplayed these ideological differences.

“Allen West has a history of pandering the ever-happy crowd,” said Chad Wilbanks, a former state party executive director who supports Abbott’s re-election. “Then you have … Don Huffines, who is also looking for the ever-happy crowd.”

“You know, it will never make everyone happy,” he added, in defense of Abbott. “And a leader who tries to make everyone happy is not very successful.”

The presence of several anti-Abbott candidates could split any anti-Abbott vote that exists. Huffines and Prather see strength in numbers, predicting that a crowded camp could keep Abbott below 50 percent in a primary and trigger a second round in which anti-Abbott voters can consolidate around a candidate. (“I’m not doing the wolf pack thing,” said West, who dismissed that strategy.)

The problem with this thinking is in the numbers in the polls. Abbott’s 73% job approval rating within his party, as measured by last month’s Texas Politics Project poll, has dropped 8 points in the past year, but is still high enough to leave little room for a successful main challenger.

“They assume 5 or 10 percent of the electorate who may want our governor to be more conservative,” is a path to victory, said Matt Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County GOP in Austin and gives personal support to Abbott. “But that challenges third-grade math.”

There is also the Trump factor. The former president supported Abbott in early June, and then joined him at the border to sound the alarm about immigration. Huffines believes Trump’s endorsement, like others who have been wrong, including one earlier this year in a special election to the Texas Congress, is a mistake.

“The president has supported a lot of losers, and that will just be another one in that column,” Huffines said. “And it’s sad: for Trump, it will be sad.”

Prather suggested that Trump could change his mind “since this really heats up.”

That won’t happen, a senior Trump political adviser said.

“President Trump has always respected Governor Abbott and maintained a strong relationship. He was always inclined to support his re-election, but it was Abbott’s leadership in securing the border that sealed the deal.” said the counselor. “Trump loves Texas and he loves fighters: Abbott is definitely a fighter for Texas.”

As for Democrats, so far they lack a known challenger, with former MP Beto O’Rourke, who lost a close race against Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 before launching an unsuccessful presidential campaign, one of the main goals of recruitment.

“If Abbott were weak,” Mackowiak said, “we would already have a Democratic candidate for governor.”

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