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Pandemic politics fuel long-drawn Republican challenges against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

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

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

None of this, however, stopped a crop of critics – including Allen West, a former Florida congressman with a right-wing following who briefly served as Texas GOP chairman – from announcing his intention to challenge Abbott. during next year’s primary.

Their complaint is not so much that Abbott is not a conservative. It’s that he’s not the die-hard conservative they believe Texans are looking for – especially compared to some Republican peers and their hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not Ron DeSantis, and it’s not Kristi Noem,” said a Texas GOP policy veteran, referring to the governors of Florida and South Dakota who have raised their national profile by resisting the prolonged lockdowns, mask and vaccine warrants and other restrictions to limit the spread of covid.

Pandemic politics are likely to play out in GOP primaries elsewhere, notably in Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine already has two challengers to his right who disapprove of the cautious approach he took at the start of the crisis. . In Texas, West is one of at least four Republicans already campaigning against Abbott. Don Huffines, a businessman and former Dallas-area state senator, was also backed by former Trump aide Katrina Pierson and Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky. Chad Prather, curator and commentator for BlazeTV; and Paul Belew, a criminal defense attorney with a television-inspired slogan “Better Call Paul”.

Abbott’s allies were not fazed by the early moves against him. The governor won the primaries in 2014 and 2018 with over 90% of the vote and comfortably won his first two terms. In a huge state with expensive media markets, he has a cash edge that even the wealthy Huffins, who have already loaned $ 5 million to his campaign, are unlikely to match.

“They have no money, they have no fundraising capacity,” said John Wittman, former director of communications for Abbott who now runs a public affairs company in Austin. “They are all fighting for the same 10-12% of Republican primary voters.”

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

“We are 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 still be a nuisance in his candidacy for a third term. They repeatedly hammer him for business closures and hide warrants during the first months of the pandemic. And they don’t give him credit for being among the first governors to relax such orders, using surprisingly similar rhetoric to dismiss his decisions as an affront to freedom.

West said, “I mean, you can’t give back something that you really weren’t allowed to take.”

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

Prather said, “When you play arsonist and firefighter, hypocrisy bleeds pretty quickly.”

Abbott was careful not to label the public health measures he took in April 2020 as a “stay-at-home order”, although he later clarified in a video message that he demanded that ” all Texans stay home except to provide essential services or do essential things like going to the grocery store. It began to reopen, with limitations, in May 2020 only to put such efforts on hold the following month due to an increase in coronavirus cases. A mask warrant quickly followed and remained in place until March of 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 an overwhelming main message. More than two-thirds of Republican voters approved of his response to the crisis in an August poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Other critics, especially Democrats, have argued that its response to the pandemic has been too lax, particularly highlighting its July order banning mask and vaccine warrants in the state despite the wave of the highly delta variant. contagious.

As of Thursday, confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Texas had increased by 11% in the past two weeks. Deaths have increased by 38 percent.

The main challengers have other grievances.

West, Huffines and Prather have all accused Abbott of not doing enough to secure the US border with Mexico, even after the governor pledged to deploy more state police and free up public funds to continue building. a border wall.

Huffines wished Abbott had called for what he called a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election – a calling card for right-wing candidates keen to please Trump. (The former president won the state of Texas.)

Prather mockingly calls Abbott a “campaign conservative” who speaks only of talk, not action.

“The media gives him a lot of credit because he uses a lot of conservative rhetoric,” Prather said. “But there is 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 to say.

Several senior Texas GOP agents downplayed these ideological differences.

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

“You know, you’re never going to make everyone happy,” he added, defending Abbott. “And a leader who tries to make everyone happy isn’t very successful.”

The presence of multiple anti-Abbott candidates could divide any existing anti-Abbott vote. Huffins and Prather see strength in numbers, predicting that an overcrowded field could keep Abbott below 50% in a primary and trigger a second round in which anti-Abbott voters can rally around a candidate. (“I’m not doing the wolf pack thing,” said West, who rejected such a strategy.)

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

“They assume that 5 or 10 percent of the electorate who want our governor to be more conservative,” said Matt Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County GOP in Austin and personally supports Abbott. “But it challenges third-grade math.”

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

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

Prather suggested that Trump might change his mind “because this thing is really heating up.”

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

“President Trump has always respected Governor Abbott and maintained a strong relationship. He has always been 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 the Democrats, they have so far lacked a well-known challenger, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost a close race to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 before launching an unsuccessful presidential campaign, a target of leading recruiting.

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

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