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| Opinion |

Abbott Charts A Right-Wing Path Toward Re-election In Primetime Speech

Gov. Greg Abbott laid out his priorities for the new session of the Texas Legislature Monday night.
Gov. Greg Abbott laid out his priorities for the new session of the Texas Legislature Monday night.
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In his biennial State of the State address this week, Gov. Greg Abbott argued that he’s a tried-and-true conservative leader who Texans can trust to keep their state “the freedom capital of America.” He tried to make the case that the coronavirus pandemic’s worst days are behind us, and threw out a laundry list of right-wing policy priorities to set the stage for his 2022 re-election campaign — and potentially, a 2024 White House run after that.

Texas governors typically give the State of the State speech sometime in the middle of the afternoon before a joint session of the Texas Legislature, but due to the ongoing pandemic, the state’s leaders clearly decided it wouldn’t be wise to bring that many people together in such close proximity just for the pomp and circumstance of it all.

Instead, Abbott aimed for the masses with a speech delivered smack-dab in the middle of primetime that was carried by local news outlets and beamed into the homes of Texans across the state Monday night. Abbott gave his made-for-TV address from a small business in Lockhart, but the staging and tone certainly didn’t give off a mom-and-pop vibe.

“It certainly looked very presidential,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist and state politics expert at Rice University. “I think it’s definitely clear that no expense was spared on the television production… Everything here was designed to maximize the positive impression of Gov. Abbott on a Texas audience for sure, but also a national audience.”

Abbott has said he’s currently focused on winning re-election in 2022, but when a Dallas radio station asked him about a presidential run a few months ago, he responded with a coy “We’ll see what happens.”

Texas Democrats hit back at Abbott with a salvo of angry rebukes in an overstuffed video presentation that aired immediately after his speech. State party chair Gilberto Hinojosa was joined by  progressive activists and liberal Texas lawmakers like former Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, all of whom took turns unloading on Abbott’s coronavirus response in apocalyptic terms.

Based on Abbott’s near laser-focus on hard-line conservative posturing and Democrats’ bitter, accusatory response, it feels like the hopes many Texans had for some non-partisan cooperation around speeding up our state’s pandemic recovery might already be dead on arrival less than a month into the new legislative session.

The governor kicked off his Monday night speech by addressing the highly-contagious, life-threatening elephant in the room: “Our hearts are with those who have suffered from COVID,” he said, “and we mourn for every single Texan who lost their lives to the virus. We pray to God that their families will heal from the hurt of losing a loved one, and we also pray for all of the Texans who are still recovering from COVID.”

But lest his tone stay dour for too long, Abbott made sure to remind his national audience that “more than two million Texans have recovered from COVID.” He boasted that “Texas remains the economic engine of America” and that “our comeback is already materializing.” He pointed to eight straight months of job growth in Texas as proof, a stat that sounds impressive until you remember that eight months ago we were in some of the direst days of pandemic unemployment. Abbott also boasted that Texas has already “exceeded two million vaccinations,” even though that only accounts for about 7 percent of all 29 million-plus Texans.

The main function of the State of the State address is that it’s an opportunity for Texas’ governor to set the agenda for that year's legislative session. The Texas Constitution dictates that during the first 60 days of a session, the Legislature can only vote on issues that the governor declares “emergency items.”

Abbott’s list of so-called emergencies includes right-wing red meat such as defending law enforcement and protecting “election integrity” (in a state that already has some of the strictest voting laws in the nation) to less partisan issues like expanding broadband internet access. That said, it’s definitely tilted hard to the conservative side, and feels tailor-made to give Republicans in Texas and across the country plenty to get behind.

The need to make high-speed internet more widely available was made clear by pandemic-inspired shifts to telemedicine and virtual schooling, Abbott said. “From medicine to education to business, broadband access is not a luxury,” he argued.

It was one of the only emergency items that had anything at all to do with the pandemic; The other COVID-related emergency item Abbott trotted out was protecting Texas business owners from “the crosshairs of lawsuits” about people catching COVID-19 on the job or while patronizing a business.

Abbott believes state businesses “that have operated in good faith” shouldn’t have to worry about getting sued, which is why he asked the Lege “to quickly get a bill to my desk that provides civil liability protections for individuals, businesses, and healthcare providers that operated safely during the pandemic.”

Jones thinks it’s no coincidence that Abbott didn’t ask the Legislature to pass any new laws to help struggling Texans through the still-raging pandemic, partly because it could have backfired given how aggressively he leaned on his executive powers to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

“Abbott had almost complete power, unilateral power, to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jones said, “and so you wouldn’t want to be bringing up any legislation right now that you need, because then the question would be ‘Why didn’t you already do it?’

“I think from Abbott’s perspective, the message is ‘The light’s at the end of the tunnel. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re getting there, and so we need to look forward.’”

As expected after months of making political hay out of Austin’s decision to shift some police funding to other government agencies, Abbott declared that punishing cities for “defunding police” was another emergency priority of his, even though none of the leaders of Texas’ other major cities have said they have any interest in slashing police budgets.

“We’re not going to let cities in Texas follow the lead of cities like Portland and Seattle and Minneapolis by defunding the police. That’s crazy,” Abbott said. In the past few months he’s floated freezing property tax rates and withholding cash from sales taxes as possible penalties for police defunders, but didn’t mention either penalty (or how he’s defining “defunding”).

Abbott did acknowledge “the need to improve policing” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the months of outcry for police reform that followed. “This session, we must provide law enforcement with the tools and the training they need to ensure the safety that their communities deserve,” Abbott said. But his speechwriters clearly didn’t want to linger on the topic for too long though, because he quickly pivoted to railing against “the federal government’s open border policies” under new President Joe Biden, another right-wing exaggeration that was surely music to Republican ears.

Abbott also raised “election integrity” as an emergency priority, a clear wink and nod to the widely-debunked claims of rampant voter fraud pushed by Abbott’s administration and by Donald Trump ahead of last November’s election. Even though he thought it warranted emergency designation, Abbott didn’t lay out any specific reforms or election law tweaks he wants to see the legislature take up.

On the topic of bail reform, Abbott showed he’s more worried about potentially violent criminals being out on the street after posting bond than he is about potentially innocent Texans getting stuck behind bars because they can’t afford to pay bail. Abbott brought up the death of state trooper Damon Allen, whose suspected killer was free after making bail for a previous crime. He specifically mentioned “the Damon Allen Act” as another emergency priority for legislators to tackle.

Last session there were two competing bail reform bills named after Allen, one written by Houston Democrat state Sen. John Whitmire and another sponsored by College Station Republican state Rep. Kyle Kacal, an Abbott ally. Last session Abbott threw his weight behind Kacal’s bill as it would have given the governor’s office more power over the bail process. It feels safe to assume whatever version of the Allen Act Abbott will push for this time around would do the same.

Outside of those five emergency items, Abbott made sure to tout his right-wing bonafides by promising to continue to limit abortion access. (“No unborn child should be targeted for abortion on the basis of race, sex or disability,” he said). And without mentioning Beto O’Rourke by name, Abbott invoked his potential 2022 gubernatorial challenger with a reference to O’Rourke’s claim during a 2019 presidential debate that he was open to letting the government take assault weapons away from people.

“Politicians from the federal level to the local level have shouted, ‘Heck yes, the government is coming to get your guns!’ We won’t let that happen in Texas,” Abbott said, and asked the Legislature “to erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas.”

“Texas must be a Second Amendment sanctuary state,” he said.

Abbott reminded the audience that during his time in the governor’s mansion he’s signed ten laws to “protect gun rights in Texas” and 11 laws “that protect innocent lives” by restricting abortion.

Abbott also said he only wants Texans with pre-existing conditions” to be able to get healthcare coverage “without being forced into the Affordable Care Act,” his way of poo-pooing Democratic critics who wish Abbott would push to expand Medicaid coverage as allowed by Obamacare.

Abbott's opposition then stepped up to bat with their all-over-the-place 10-minute assault on Abbott that surely excited diehard Texan progressives, but probably did little to persuade any right-leaning voters to change teams ahead of the 2022 governor’s race. “In every single way, Gov. Abbott has failed. He is the worst governor in modern Texas history,” Hinojosa said in a statement Monday night.

Policy points aside, the whole presentation felt like overeager preaching to the choir of Texans who already think Abbott isn’t doing a great job, instead of an attempt to rally enough Republican voters to the Democratic cause to finally win a statewide race for the first time in years. The video had only racked up a paltry 205 views on YouTube as of Wednesday morning, so it seems like even the choir might have dozed off during this particular sermon.

Given state Democrats’ embarrassing face-plant in the 2020 election, Jones thinks Texas Dems would be better served by a different message and new leadership atop the party. “The Democrats need to find somebody to replace Hinojosa,” Jones said.

“Texas remains a red state,” he explained. “It’s still incumbent upon Democrats to convince people who regularly vote Republican to vote Democrat instead.”

One Democrat who’s shown that ability might be running against Abbott in 2022.

“Beto O’Rourke showed in 2018 that it is possible to do that,” Jones said.

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