GOP primary challengers line up against Texas Gov. Abbott, despite Trump's endorsement

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

And, thanks to restrictive abortion and voting bills Abbott has signed in recent months, Texas has become an epicenter of the national conservative causes that rally the GOP base.

None of that, though, has stopped a crop of critics — including Allen West, a former Florida congressman with a right-wing following who briefly served as the Texas GOP chairman — from announcing plans to challenge Abbott in next year’s primary.

Their complaint isn’t so much that Abbott is not a conservative. It's that he's not the hard-line conservative they believe that Texans crave — particularly when compared with some Republican peers and their hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

“He’s not Ron DeSantis, and he’s not Kristi Noem,” one veteran of Texas GOP politics said, referencing the governors of Florida and South Dakota who’ve upped their national profiles by resisting extended lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates and other restrictions to limit the spread of Covid.

Pandemic politics are likely to play out in GOP gubernatorial 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 early in the crisis. In Texas, West is one of at least four Republicans who are already campaigning against Abbott. Also in the race are Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator from the Dallas area who has endorsements from former Trump aide Katrina Pierson and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Chad Prather, a conservative comedian and commentator for BlazeTV; and Paul Belew, a criminal defense attorney running with a television-inspired “Better Call Paul” slogan.

Abbott's allies are unfazed by the early moves against him. The governor won primaries in 2014 and 2018 with more than 90 percent of the vote and comfortably won his first two terms. In a huge state with expensive media markets, he has a cash advantage that even the independently wealthy Huffines, who already has loaned his campaign $5 million, is unlikely to match.

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

Dave Carney, Abbott’s political strategist, said he takes nothing for granted but is “not worried at all” about challenges from the right.

“We’re really focused on the general election,” he added. “The primary is a great opportunity for us to do a dress rehearsal.”

Abbott's rivals could be a nuisance nevertheless in his bid for a third term. They repeatedly hammer him for business closures and mask mandates during the early months of the pandemic. And they don’t give him credit for being among the first governors to ease off such orders, using strikingly similar rhetoric to dismiss his decisions as an affront to liberty.

Said West: “I mean, you can’t give back something that you really had no right to take.”

Said Huffines: “That would be like thanking a thief for bringing some of your stolen goods back.”

Said Prather: “When you play arsonist and firefighter, the hypocrisy bleeds through pretty fast.”

Abbott was careful not to call public health measures he took in April 2020 a “stay-at-home order,” though he subsequently clarified in a video message that he was requiring “all Texans to stay at home except to provide essential services or do essential things like going to the grocery store.” He began reopening, with limitations, in May 2020 only to pause those efforts the next month because of a surge in coronavirus cases. A mask mandate quickly followed and stayed in place until March this year, when Abbott fully reopened the state.

Even so, using the pandemic as a wedge against Abbott, who last month tested positive for Covid, is not a slam-dunk primary message. More than two-thirds of Republican voters approved of his response to the crisis when surveyed in an August poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Other critics, particularly Democrats, have argued his pandemic response has been too lax, pointing in particular to his July order barring mask and vaccine mandates in the state despite the highly-contagious delta variant surge.

As of Thursday, confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas were up 11 percent over the last two weeks. Deaths were up 38 percent.

The primary challengers have other grievances.

West, Huffines and Prather all 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 free up state funds to continue building a border wall.

Huffines wishes Abbott would have called for what he termed as a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election — a calling card for right-wing candidates eager to please Trump. (The former president won the state of Texas.)

Prather mockingly calls Abbott a “campaign conservative” who is all talk, no action.

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

Several experienced Texas GOP operatives downplayed these ideological differences.

“Allen West has a history of pandering to the never-happy crowd,” said Chad Wilbanks, a former executive director of the state party who supports Abbott’s re-election. “Then you have … Don Huffines, who's also pandering to the never-happy crowd.”

“You know, you're never going to make everybody happy,” he added, in defense of Abbott. “And a leader who tries to make everybody happy is not very successful.”

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

The problem with that thinking is in the poll numbers. Abbott’s 73 percent job approval rating within his party, as measured by last month’s Texas Politics Project survey, has fallen 8 points over the last year, but it’s still high enough to leave little room for a successful primary challenger.

“They’re presuming that 5 or 10 percent of the electorate that may wish our governor was more conservative,” is a path to victory, said Matt Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County GOP in Austin and personally supports Abbott. “But that defies third-grade math.”

There’s also the Trump factor. The former president endorsed Abbott in early June, then joined him at the border to raise alarm about immigration. Huffines believes Trump’s endorsement, like others that have gone wrong, including one earlier this year in a special Texas congressional election, is a mistake.

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

Prather suggested Trump could change his mind “as this thing really heats up.”

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

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

As for Democrats, they so far lack a well-known challenger, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost a close race against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 before launching an unsuccessful presidential campaign, a top recruiting target.

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

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