We have to hand it to him: With his border wall plans, no-mask mandates, Texas Legislature antics and all the rest of his recent political hijinks, Gov. Greg Abbott is proving to be more, let’s say, entertaining than we ever expected him to be. In fact, after a political career more defined by being a bit of a snooze on the political stage, Abbott has been getting nationwide attention for his sudden performative show of various I’m-the-most-Republican-style stunts.
“He has abruptly transitioned from being the weathervane in Texas politics to being the most conservative Republican in the room,” University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus says. “Texas politics have become so closely aligned to national trends that he can’t really be in the middle safely anymore. But the politics feel forced. You can see in his face that it’s not comfortable for him.”
It’s been a remarkable political shift to witness, but it hasn’t been prompted solely by the ever-rightward leanings of the Republican Party. From his aggressive involvement with the Lege’s GOP bid to slam through voting restrictions to the no-mask mandate (backed by the Texas Supreme Court), Abbott is sticking to his new playbook. Even as ICUs around the state are hitting max capacity and out-of-state healthcare workers are coming in to help handle the load, he has shown no signs of dropping this Trumpian act, no matter how badly the part seems to fit.
This week Abbott pulled another move from Trump’s playbook. After attending a Republican fundraiser over the weekend where he shook hands and had facetime with mostly unmasked supporters, he tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday. He’s currently isolating in the Austin governor’s mansion while he receives Regeneron treatment, but shows no signs of relenting on his no-mask mandate. He’s chosen his part and he’s going to play it to the hilt.
Why? Politics, of course. Abbott is up for re-election for a third term as governor in November 2022. While that may seem a long way off—there’s not even a clear Democrat candidate yet—the Republican primary is looming. And in a development that owes something to Abbott’s failings, perceived or otherwise, in the past year he is already facing a pair of opponents, former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and real estate developer and former state Sen. Don Huffines.
“The Texas Republican primary can be unpredictable, and that’s likely why we’re seeing him double down,” Rottinghaus says. “West has a big microphone and knows how to use it, and Huffines is going to raise a big war chest of money and that’s what’s making Abbott nervous. He’s not a risktaker.”
Both opponents have gained traction by appealing to the far-right end of the party, the frustrated Trump supporters who see anything but utter capitulation to the former president’s stance on things as a betrayal. Abbott is intent on undercutting both candidates long before Republicans hit the polls next spring.
Meanwhile, this new Abbott persona has another potential benefit. It’s a distraction. After all, if people are so busy talking about the crazy things the uber-Republican governor has been doing over the summer, it potentially takes their mind off thousands of Texans who died of COVID-19 as Abbott first grudgingly closed the state, eagerly reopened, and is now refusing to consider requiring any precautions at all. It may also help them forget how bitterly cold it was in February when the temperatures dipped down to Arctic levels and ERCOT, the state’s power grid (run by Abbott appointees), completely collapsed. Maybe.
However, these failures could also present a rare opportunity for either an Abbott primary opponent or a solid Democrat candidate with the charisma and skill to lay the mistakes at Abbott’s governor’s mansion door.
“Voters generally have short memories, but there are some things that they are very slow to forget, particularly anything that affects their family, their health, or their pocketbook,” Rottinghaus notes. “The power grid failure, the handling of the pandemic—if someone can pin those things on incumbents, and specifically on Abbott, he might be in real trouble.”
In other words, expect to see Abbott continue to play Trump’s greatest hits here in Texas for the foreseeable future. Maybe he’ll even dust off an old Sen. Ted Cruz chestnut and start reading Dr. Seuss from the governor’s mansion if the situation starts looking truly dire.