Gov. Greg Abbott took a blow from his party’s right wing Monday when conservative millionaire and former state Sen. Don Huffines announced he’ll be challenging Abbott in the 2022 governor’s race. Just a few hours later, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick received the coveted endorsement of former President Donald Trump, in his own re-election race — an announcement sure to beef-up his hardline conservative bonafides and help stave off attacks from the right-most flank of Texas Republicans.
Huffines made his mark as a reliably right-wing legislator during his four years representing Dallas in the Texas Senate. The wealthy real estate developer was defeated in 2018 by Democrat Nathan Johnson, and has kept politically active since losing his reelection race.
He’s been a vocal critic of Abbott’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, blasting him for his statewide mask mandate and for not reopening Texas businesses quickly enough. Huffines spoke at an anti-lockdown “Free Texas” protest in front of the Governor’s Mansion in October, and regularly calls the governor “King Abbott” in social media posts about Abbott’s use of executive orders to put COVID rules in place.
“Texas deserves actual Republican leadership that will act urgently and decisively — no more excuses or lies,” Huffines said in a statement announcing his candidacy. He vowed that if elected, he’ll be “ready to take on the federal government and the entrenched elites of the Austin swamp.”
“We will finish the wall and secure our border — and we’re not going to ask permission to do it,” his statement continues. We will put Texas on a path to eliminating property taxes. And we will enforce our sacred voting laws, so that the voices of lawful voters are preserved and not diluted through corrupt election procedures,” an obvious reference to Trump’s roundly debunked claims that “voter fraud” cost him the presidency.
Neither Abbott nor anyone from the governor’s office had commented on Huffines’s candidacy as of Monday afternoon.
No Democrats have announced a bid against Abbott yet, although former U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke hasn’t ruled out a run for governor. Actor Matthew McConaughey has also hinted he could be interested in the state’s top job, but he’s cagily avoided the topic of whether he’d run as a Democrat, Republican or independent if he chose to get in the race.
Abbott has never faced a serious primary challenge in a statewide election; He was never primaried when running for the Texas Supreme Court or for Texas Attorney General, and only faced small-time Republican opposition in his previous two races for governor.
Huffines could prove a much more formidable opponent. While Abbott has plenty of money — about $38 million is sitting in the coffers of his reelection campaign — the uber-wealthy Huffines could fund a high-dollar campaign with just his own cash. And he’s clearly aligned himself with the growing number of Texas conservatives critical of Abbott’s coronavirus policies, like bomb-throwing state party chair Allen West and our brash rodeo-star Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.
Pundits have speculated that either West or Miller might challenge Abbott for the Republican nomination as well. The rumor mill has also churned with speculation that Miller might throw his sizable cowboy hat in the ring to challenge Patrick for the lieutenant governor gig, fueled in part by Miller’s decision to sue Patrick for what he termed a Big Brother overreach of mandating visitors to the state Senate be tested for COVID-19 (a state court judge threw that lawsuit in the dustbin a few days ago).
But Trump’s coveted endorsement should make it much tougher for a would-be MAGA-mainlining conservative like Miller to peel off enough support from far-right Texans to threaten Patrick’s reelection chances, even though he’s faced some criticism from Second Amendment advocates for not moving more quickly to usher permitless handgun carrying legislation through the state Senate.
Though the permitless handgun bill approved by the Texas House did ultimately pass through Patrick’s Senate last week, his allies had to amend the bill with tighter penalties for felons caught with guns and stricter language about the rights of “Gun Free Zones” like schools, polling places and hospitals to forbid gun-toting to get it approved. Still, the bill’s most ardent backers have criticized Patrick for taking too long to move the legislation forward in its slightly watered-down form.
In a Monday post to his shiny new blog “From The Desk of Donald J. Trump,” the former president called Patrick “a great fighter for the people of Texas.”
Trump wrote that Patrick has stood up for “Life, Liberty the Second Amendment, Border Security, our Military and our Vets, and our God-given Freedoms. He has governed by conservative principles of LOW TAXES and careful spending, always doing what is best for his great State and for America.”
“Texans should re-elect him! He is outstanding and has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump continued.
Patrick, who helped lead Trump’s campaigns in the Lone Star States, was thrilled to secure the former president’s vote of confidence.
“Over the last five years in my roles as Chairman of President Trump’s presidential campaign in Texas, he and I have become good friends. I am honored to have his endorsement,” Patrick said in a statement Monday.
Patrick painted himself as a proud conservative soldier in the fight against President Joe Biden, who he wrote “has led the Democrats off a cliff, completely capitulating to the Marxist left. Now Democrat policies are trying to bankrupt our country, open our borders, indoctrinate our children in public schools, shut down our religious freedoms and take away our guns.”
“I will continue to lead the fight to make sure they gain no ground — not an inch — in Texas,” Patrick continued.
Trump’s endorsement should help Patrick to keep his ultra right-wing foes from inching into his base of supporters. So far, Abbott doesn’t have a shield that strong to fend off his own.