“We need a proven winner who will fight to secure Texas’ future,” Abbott said to the crowd, officially announcing his re-election campaign.
And that’s as much airtime as the incumbent governor gave anything slightly resembling the primary, quickly turning his focus instead to the general where Democrat Beto O’Rourke will likely await.
But 50 days away lies that first obstacle Abbott must hurdle, the first serious primary challenge the governor has faced in his long political career. His opponents — former Texas GOP Chair Allen West, former state Sen. Don Huffines, and BlazeTV Host Chad Prather — have slung a constant barrage of criticism at the incumbent since jumping into the race.
Despite not once acknowledging their existence by name, that barrage has yielded policy responses from Abbott. Huffines’ spotlight spurred two instances of change within a state agency.
The first was the removal of an LGBT resource page on the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) website that read “The educational and support resources on this page are dedicated to helping empower and celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, alley, and non-heterosexual (LGBTQIA+) youth, their peers, and family.”
The second came last week when the DFPS removed an employee course that read, in part, “Any institutional activity that creates racial inequalities and results in the subordination or oppression of people of color is institutional racism.” Huffines accused the agency of promoting Critical Race Theory in its internal documents back in November.
Another issue that has drummed up a response from the incumbent is the Secretary of Defense’s vaccine mandate for all military members, including the Texas National Guard. After months of criticism by West, as well as Huffines and Prather, Abbott announced a lawsuit against the Biden administration over the mandate.
Vaccine mandates in Texas of all stripes have been banned by Abbott’s executive order but some entities, such as Rice University, have moved forward with such requirements. Various mandates, including a few by the Biden administration, are working their way through the legal system.
Again, after substantial pressure, Abbott added a legislative vaccine mandate ban to the call late in the third special session, but it went nowhere. A legislative ban hasn’t been mentioned since by the governor despite growing support within Republican ranks.
While Abbott has avoided explicitly acknowledging his primary challengers, spurning all debates with them, their presence has had a clear effect. But the incumbent is still advantaged, thanks to his record-breaking war chest of $55 million — that may yet grow after the next finance reports are made public this month.
Where Abbott has tacitly acknowledged the primary with his actions, he has explicitly homed in on O’Rourke rhetorically.
His “Wrong Way O’Rourke” campaign push has released a handful of attack ads on the Democrat’s positions on police defunding, the Green New Deal, illegal immigration, firearms, and Medicare-for-All.
“Mark my words, freedom is on the ballot,” Abbott said on Saturday.
The governor’s touted accomplishments include the establishment of a Level 1 Trauma Center at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg; the state’s job growth that has accelerated after government lockdowns created record unemployment and business closures in 2020; and $18 billion in property tax cuts throughout Abbott’s time as governor, which he then stipulated many Texans hadn’t truly felt because of rising appraisals.
Legislative items Abbott noted include the police defunding prohibition for Texas’ largest cities, a constitutional amendment banning local governments from closing churches during declared emergencies, COVID-19 liability protections for businesses, and the state’s rural broadband expansion legislation.
Two “bills of rights” were proposed by the governor, one for taxpayers and another for parents cementing their authority over their children’s education.
And on perhaps the state’s most crucial industry, Abbott issued a rhetorical broadside against Green New Deal-type proposals. “We cannot allow promoters of the Green New Deal to destroy those high-paying jobs. One of the reasons I’m running for re-election is to secure the future of energy jobs in Texas,” he said.
Texas has maintained an “all of the above” approach in its energy industry during Abbott’s tenure. Oil and gas is still king, but the state has embraced wind and solar power with tax breaks at all levels of government. The state’s much maligned power grid has featured a drastic increase in renewable energy generation while it hasn’t added new thermal capacity in years.
The grid has been a focus for Abbott’s opponents, Democrats and Republicans alike, though with somewhat different approaches. Both have criticized Abbott for not adequately “fixing the grid,” while O’Rourke has called for connecting the grid to the national system, ending Texas’ isolation, and his Republican challengers have jabbed the influx of renewables.
Perhaps the biggest issue in the area Abbott visited this weekend is the border, and the state’s attempt to stem the tide of illegal migrants flowing across the southern border. For nearly a year now, Operation Lone Star has attempted to secure the border but U.S. Customs and Border Patrol numbers show the apprehensions have been at record highs since March 2021. Additionally, some internal issues have come to light as a small wave of suicides hit the Texas National Guard.
The state has allocated resources to the operation, including another $38.4 million directed by Abbott in December on top of the $1.8 billion appropriated by the legislature. In addition to the 1,500 troops currently deployed in the operation, of its 19,000 total, the state is also in the process of constructing a barrier across the border in an homage to the Trump administration’s project that was nixed once Joe Biden assumed office.
Abbott’s appearance Saturday in the Rio Grande Valley represents Republicans’ renewed focus and hope in South Texas being the new electoral frontier — no longer an assumed win for Democrats.
The governor has never lost a race before and doesn’t seem keen on breaking that trend this year. Before any discussion of his rumored 2024 presidential hopes can reach maturation, the 2022 midterm lies ahead with no break from now until March and then through to November.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.