At the Republican Party of Texas’ virtual convention last weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott knew he had to talk about his executive order requiring — in most cases — facemasks in public.
“I know that many of you do not like the mask requirement. I don’t either,” he said in a recorded address. “It is the last thing that I wanted to do. Actually, the next to last.”
The last thing he wants to do, he said, is impose another stay-at-home order like the one he lifted at the end of April.
The effort to shore up support among party activists comes as Abbott is under fire over his response to the coronavirus outbreak. Eight county Republican parties have now formally censured him. Hardline conservatives are rebelling over the mask order and other restrictions.
“When we have executive orders and mandates, people telling us what we can and cannot do, who is essential and who is not essential, it’s time for us to stand up. It’s time for us to fight,” he said.
One of the county Republican parties that censured Abbott is Llano County, situated northwest of Austin.
Doug Sanders, chairman of the Llano GOP, said Abbott’s executive orders violate the state and federal Constitutions and Republican Party principles.
“If he believes that restrictions ought to be placed on the citizens of Texas, then he needs to call a special session of the Legislature,” Sanders said.
Lawmakers, he argued, would listen to their constituents and be held accountable for bucking the wishes of their districts.
Abbott’s coronavirus actions
It may not only be what Abbott’s doing, but how he’s doing it that is making it easier for opponents to hammer him.
Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune, said the governor’s inconsistency has opened him up to criticism.
“The inconsistency of it makes it more difficult for [a] governor, or a president, or anybody else to kind of sell the idea that, ‘Hey, here’s the problem, carefully described, here are the remedies, carefully described, [and] we’re all in this together,'” Ramsey said. “We haven’t had a consistent message like that.”
Early in the outbreak, the governor allowed local government officials to manage the response. He then took control, limiting nonessential activity and saying state orders take precedence over local ones. Abbott initially did not allow local governments to levy fines for violating a mask order, but later said local officials could make businesses require masks.
After quickly reopening the state in May, a dangerous spike in coronavirus cases led to Abbott’s own statewide mask order on July 2.
Despite attacks from both inside and outside his party, Abbott is still probably the state’s strongest political force. His political committee has almost $38 million in the bank, which he’s expected to use this fall to defend Republican seats in the state House.
The Republican Party of Texas, meanwhile, celebrated eclipsing $1 million in an unrestricted account about a year ago.
Austin-based lobbyist Robert Miller said it’s too early to pass judgement on how Abbott’s handled the coronavirus crisis.
“After we’re through this, I think that’s the time to make judgments whether or not his leadership styles or his leadership characteristics were right for this time,” Miller said. “And I think overall they will prove to be correct.”
The governor’s office didn’t respond to an email seeking an interview.
A sensitive time
The dissent among Republicans in Texas does come at a sensitive time, ahead of the November election, when Democrats have a real chance of taking the state House.
As for whether anger at Abbott could keep Republican voters away from the polls, Representative Dan Flynn doesn’t see that happening.
“I think at the end of the day, when the presidential election heats up, when the Senate election heats up, [people] are going to recognize the distinct difference between the two parties,” he said.
Flynn just lost his primary runoff election in a conservative district northeast of Dallas, even though he was backed by the governor. The winner had challenged Flynn twice before and was supported by the hardline group Empower Texans, another Abbott adversary.
Even if Abbott does power Republicans to a strong finish in November, it doesn’t mean he’s in the clear. He could still face a Republican rival in his next gubernatorial primary, in 2022.
That seems a long way off, but Doug Sanders of the Llano County GOP said anger over how Abbott is handling the pandemic won’t have died down by then.
“The Republican Party’s moniker is an elephant,” Sanders said. “And elephants do not forget.”