In the span of a week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed bills restricting the teaching of critical race theory and allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license. He’s preparing to order state lawmakers back into a special session to pass legislation restricting voting access, a GOP priority. And in the most pugilistic affront to President Joe Biden’s White House yet, he announced Texas will build its own border wall.
Less than six months into Biden’s presidency, Texas conservatives are in revolt against the new administration. And Abbott, the often overshadowed governor of the nation’s biggest red state, is emerging as an unlikely leader of the Biden resistance.
“We are the tip of the spear, we are on the front of the battle lines, no question,” said James Dickey, the former chair of the Texas Republican Party. “With the federal government entirely abdicating their responsibility, that leaves us on the border needing to take up the fight, and Governor Abbott is clearly doing that.”
In part, raising the Texas flag is a return to form for Abbott, who made a political career out of suing the Obama administration. As state attorney general, his posture toward Washington was so hostile that he said of his job in 2013, “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
But in restoring Texas to its place as Washington’s chief antagonist, Abbott is also doing something more revealing: Facing criticism from Republican activists for the mask mandate and business restrictions he imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, he is covering his right flank, while re-elevating immigration and border security — a major concern to Republican base voters — as a national issue. Just as important, he is carving out a distinct lane in the GOP’s presidential sweepstakes at a time when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is beginning to rise in stature among the party grassroots.
Bill Pozzi, the GOP chair in heavily Republican Victoria County, said Abbott’s aggressiveness on border policy represents a “mea culpa” to conservatives for his handling of the pandemic. Still, he said Abbott is “doing the exact right thing.”
“I don’t get why we’re so reluctant to challenge the federal government,” Pozzi said. “The federal government is vulnerable, and when they’re making so many terrible decisions, come on. Who made them God? They’re not God.”
It was only four months ago that Abbott was suffering a beating in Texas for his handling of the deadly winter storm and electrical grid failure in the state. Millions of Texans were left freezing in their homes, while Abbott came under criticism for echoing misleading claims that renewable energy was to blame. Meanwhile, Abbott’s issuance of a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic enraged conservatives.
In a major lift for his rehabilitation with the base, former President Donald Trump, who has already endorsed Abbott’s reelection campaign, will appear with him along the U.S.-Mexico border next week — a coronation of sorts in the GOP’s anti-Biden crusade.
“With Trump’s endorsement and his trip down to the border, and frankly what [Abbott] has said on the border the last couple of weeks, I think it’s a stroke of, maybe not genius, but … I just think it’s really smart, and I think it’s going to help him politically,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist based in Austin.
He said, “He really has a very good political barometer.”
Abbott, in announcing his plan to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, insisted that he was not making a political calculation, saying “anyone who thinks this is politics doesn’t have a clue what’s going on at the border.”
“This ain’t Dr. Seuss or some other manufactured outrage,” said Republican strategist Dave Carney, who advises Abbott. “This is a serious public policy problem that’s going to affect the whole country.”
Still, Abbott would not be the first Texas governor to use his perch to advance a national profile. His two immediate predecessors, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, both ran for president.
Regardless of the motive, the political advantage that Abbott is gaining from the border controversy — and his positioning against Biden — could hardly be more obvious. In his bid for a third term in 2022, Abbott is facing a challenge from the right flank, with Don Huffines, a former state senator, already in the race.
Allen West, the firebrand former Florida congressman and outgoing chair of the Texas Republican Party, is also considering a bid. Even Abbott’s critics say his focus on immigration — and the thumb he’s putting in Biden’s eye on Texas’ behalf — is likely to help blunt conservatives’ frustrations with his handling of the pandemic.
“That’s what Texans like,” said Republican state Rep. Bryan Slaton, who introduced a bill earlier this year to finish building a border wall. “They love telling D.C. what to do.”
Slaton, who questioned why Abbott is only now championing the idea, said Abbott should be pushing the border wall through the legislature in a special session, not making a “unilateral decision.” Still, Slaton, who said he won’t support Abbott in the Republican primary, said he is “pretty sure” Abbott’s effort will provide him with an advantage in the race.
The border exercise may also help Abbott nationally. Trump demonstrated in 2016 that a Republican could ride anti-immigrant sentiment to the White House, and the issue remains at the top of GOP voters’ concerns. About one-fifth of Republicans rated immigration as the nation’s most important problem in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in March, and three quarters of Republicans nationally support building a wall or fence along the border, according to a more recent NPR/Ipsos survey.
“With a little less intensity, immigration and border security serve the same purpose with national Republicans as they do here,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, which consistently reports border security and immigration polling is at the top of Texas Republican voters’ minds. “And I think we saw that with Donald Trump’s success five, six years ago.”
For the four years that Trump held the White House, Republicans outside of Washington were overshadowed on the issue by him, unable to wield immigration as an example of the federal government’s perceived failures. Now, Henson said, “with a Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in Congress, that game’s back on.”
Abbott is on the outer periphery of potential contenders for president in 2024 — he’s not ruling out a run, but not aggressively preparing for one, either. The widely held view of Republican strategists, including many of Abbott’s own supporters, is that he is not distinctive enough to electrify primary voters outside of Texas.
One prominent Texas Republican said, “He’s not going to be the guy to have an ‘oops’ moment, but I don’t see how he beats DeSantis on stage.” Said another: “He is a ‘measure twice, cut once’ type of candidate. Terrible for POTUS.”
Carney, Abbott’s adviser, said Abbott “has not ever discussed it either way,” but that, “If he was going to do that, we’d be doing stuff” like traveling to early primary states, which Abbott is not.
“It’s nothing we’re working on,” Carney said.
Still, there are signs in how the governor has handled the border wall issue that Abbott wants to expand his footprint beyond Texas. While announcing his border security plans last week, the governor made a point of thanking several states, including DeSantis’ Florida, for sending law enforcement officers to Texas to help along the border. In addition, by calling for the use of a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the wall, Abbott is inviting Republicans from across the country — who may not previously have been familiar with him — to participate in the cause.
Steinhauser called it “a great media and marketing campaign.”
A White House official dismissed the border wall as ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money, accusing Abbott of engaging in "political posturing and a return to immigration policies of the past."
In Texas, too, Democrats are scoffing.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said the fact that the federal government already acquired sections of land along the border, along with hurdles like federal environmental regulations and the likelihood that many landowners will resist — means Abbott’s plan is probably unfeasible.
But the politics of Abbott saying a wall can be built by the state, he said, are clear.
“He is just flat-out lying to the people of the state of Texas in order to somehow put himself in the better position of beating back these right-wing extremists that are running against him, in the state that has the most right-wing extremist Republican Party in the nation,” Hinojosa said. “That’s all it’s about.”