Pandemic politics fuel long-shot Republican challenges to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has $55 million banked for his re-election marketing campaign, a 73 p.c approval ranking amongst Republicans, and an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

And, because of restrictive abortion and voting payments Abbott has signed in current months, Texas has develop into an epicenter of the nationwide conservative causes that rally the GOP base.

None of that, although, has stopped a crop of critics — together with Allen West, a former Florida congressman with a right-wing following who briefly served because the Texas GOP chairman — from asserting plans to problem Abbott in subsequent 12 months’s major.

Their criticism isn’t a lot that Abbott isn’t a conservative. It is that he isn’t the hard-line conservative they imagine that Texans crave — notably when put next with some Republican friends and their hands-off method to the coronavirus pandemic.

“He’s not Ron DeSantis, and he’s not Kristi Noem,” one veteran of Texas GOP politics stated, referencing the governors of Florida and South Dakota who’ve upped their nationwide profiles by resisting prolonged lockdowns, masks and vaccine mandates and different restrictions to restrict the unfold of Covid.

Pandemic politics are prone to play out in GOP gubernatorial primaries elsewhere, most notably in Ohio, the place Republican Gov. Mike DeWine already has two challengers on his proper who disapprove of the cautious method he took early within the disaster. In Texas, West is one in every of not less than 4 Republicans who’re already campaigning towards Abbott. Additionally within the race are Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator from the Dallas space who has endorsements from former Trump aide Katrina Pierson and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Chad Prather, a conservative comic and commentator for BlazeTV; and Paul Belew, a prison protection lawyer working with a television-inspired “Higher Name Paul” slogan.

Abbott’s allies are unfazed by the early strikes towards him. The governor gained primaries in 2014 and 2018 with greater than 90 p.c of the vote and comfortably gained his first two phrases. In an enormous state with costly media markets, he has a money benefit that even the independently rich Huffines, who already has loaned his marketing campaign $5 million, is unlikely to match.

“They don’t have any cash, they don’t have any fundraising means,” stated John Wittman, Abbott’s former communications director who now runs a public affairs agency in Austin. “They’re all preventing over the identical 10 to 12 p.c of Republican major voters.”

Dave Carney, Abbott’s political strategist, stated he takes nothing without any consideration however is “not fearful in any respect” about challenges from the proper.

“We’re actually centered on the overall election,” he added. “The first is a superb alternative for us to do a gown rehearsal.”

Abbott’s rivals might be a nuisance nonetheless in his bid for a 3rd time period. They repeatedly hammer him for enterprise closures and masks mandates throughout the early months of the pandemic. And so they don’t give him credit score for being among the many first governors to ease off such orders, utilizing strikingly comparable rhetoric to dismiss his choices as an affront to liberty.

Mentioned West: “I imply, you possibly can’t give again one thing that you simply actually had no proper to take.”

Mentioned Huffines: “That may be like thanking a thief for bringing a few of your stolen items again.”

Mentioned Prather: “Once you play arsonist and firefighter, the hypocrisy bleeds via fairly quick.”

Abbott was cautious to not name public well being measures he took in April 2020 a “stay-at-home order,” although he subsequently clarified in a video message that he was requiring “all Texans to remain at residence besides to supply important providers or do important issues like going to the grocery retailer.” He started reopening, with limitations, in Could 2020 solely to pause these efforts the subsequent month due to a surge in coronavirus instances. A masks mandate rapidly adopted and stayed in place till March this 12 months, when Abbott absolutely reopened the state.

Even so, utilizing the pandemic as a wedge towards Abbott, who final month examined optimistic for Covid, isn’t a slam-dunk major message. Greater than two-thirds of Republican voters accredited of his response to the disaster when surveyed in an August ballot by the Texas Politics Challenge on the College of Texas at Austin. Different critics, notably Democrats, have argued his pandemic response has been too lax, pointing specifically to his July order barring masks and vaccine mandates within the state regardless of the highly-contagious delta variant surge.

As of Thursday, confirmed coronavirus instances in Texas had been up 11 p.c during the last two weeks. Deaths had been up 38 p.c.

The first challengers produce other grievances.

West, Huffines and Prather all accused Abbott of not doing sufficient to safe the U.S. border with Mexico, even after the governor pledged to deploy extra state police and unencumber state funds to proceed constructing a border wall.

Huffines needs Abbott would have known as for what he termed as a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election — a calling card for right-wing candidates desperate to please Trump. (The previous president gained the state of Texas.)

Prather mockingly calls Abbott a “marketing campaign conservative” who’s all speak, no motion.

“The media provides him numerous credit score as a result of he makes use of numerous conservative rhetoric,” Prather stated. “However there’s a distinction between saying and doing. And, you already know, Ron DeSantis does. Kristi Noem does. And Greg Abbott, a politician who lives off his polls, is sweet at saying.”

A number of skilled Texas GOP operatives downplayed these ideological variations.

“Allen West has a historical past of pandering to the never-happy crowd,” stated Chad Wilbanks, a former govt director of the state get together who helps Abbott’s re-election. “Then you’ve got … Don Huffines, who’s additionally pandering to the never-happy crowd.”

“You recognize, you are by no means going to make everyone blissful,” he added, in protection of Abbott. “And a pacesetter who tries to make everyone blissful isn’t very profitable.”

The presence of a number of anti-Abbott candidates may break up no matter anti-Abbott vote exists. Huffines and Prather see power in numbers, predicting {that a} crowded subject may maintain Abbott under 50 p.c in a major and set off a one-on-one runoff through which anti-Abbott voters can consolidate round one candidate. (“I’m not doing the wolf pack factor,” West, who dismissed such a method, stated.)

The issue with that considering is within the ballot numbers. Abbott’s 73 p.c job approval ranking inside his get together, as measured by final month’s Texas Politics Challenge survey, has fallen 8 factors during the last 12 months, nevertheless it’s nonetheless excessive sufficient to go away little room for a profitable major challenger.

“They’re presuming that 5 or 10 p.c of the voters that may need our governor was extra conservative,” is a path to victory, stated Matt Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County GOP in Austin and personally helps Abbott. “However that defies third-grade math.”

There’s additionally the Trump issue. The previous president endorsed Abbott in early June, then joined him on the border to boost alarm about immigration. Huffines believes Trump’s endorsement, like others which have gone incorrect, together with one earlier this 12 months in a particular Texas congressional election, is a mistake.

“The president has supported numerous losers, and that is simply going to be one other one in that column,” Huffines stated. “And it’s unhappy — for Trump, it’s going to be unhappy.”

Prather advised Trump may change his thoughts “as this factor actually heats up.”

That gained’t occur, a senior political adviser to Trump stated.

“President Trump has all the time revered Gov. Abbott and maintained a robust relationship. He was all the time inclined to help his re-election, nevertheless it was Abbott’s management on securing the border that sealed the deal,” the adviser stated. “Trump loves Texas and loves fighters — Abbott is certainly a fighter for Texas.”

As for Democrats, they to date lack a well known challenger, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who misplaced a detailed race towards Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 earlier than launching an unsuccessful presidential marketing campaign, a prime recruiting goal.

“If Abbott had been weak,” Mackowiak stated, “we’d have a Democratic candidate for governor already.”

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