When CPAC, the nation’s leading conservative political conference, met in Dallas earlier this month, speakers included former Dallas state Sen. Don Huffines. And while Huffines bashed President Biden, he spent most of his time on stage blasting a fellow Republican: Gov. Greg Abbott.
Huffines invoked the story of the Alamo and praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, then said, “Well, we don’t have a Donald Trump as governor. We don’t have Ron DeSantis as governor. We don’t have William B. Travis as governor. Unfortunately, we’ve got a career politician that’s a political windsock, a RINO (Republican in name only.)”
Abbott, citing the kickoff of the legislative special session, wasn’t there to defend himself. Huffines used his absence against him, attacking Abbott’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He doesn’t want to face you,” Huffines said, “because he shredded our constitution. He put 3 million Texans on unemployment and dependent on the government in one day.”
But Huffines wasn’t just speaking out of passion. He’s also one of two candidates challenging Abbott as the governor seeks a third term in 2022. The other: former Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West, who’s made many of the same charges against Abbott’s pandemic response.
Gov. Greg Abbott is seeking a third term in 2022. He’s currently facing two challengers in the Republican Party primary next March.
The state Republican party’s been shifting rightwards. But, with eight months to the primary, political experts still say it’s Abbott’s race to lose.
“The support for Huffines and the support for West are one in the same,” said Craig Murphy, president of Murphy Nasica & Associates, an Austin-based political consulting firm. In other words, Huffines and West could cancel each other out.
“In the case of Huffines,” Murphy added, “he didn’t win his own seat when he ran for Senate (in 2018), and it’s a seat that was more Republican than the state as a whole when he lost it. So, I don’t see him doing better when he runs statewide.”
According to Houston-based Republican strategist Jessica Colón it’ll be hard to convince GOP primary voters that Abbott isn’t conservative enough.
“He’s built an incredible record that it’s it will be challenging to dismantle and challenge,” Colón said.
That record includes a staunchly conservative agenda in the legislative session that concluded in June. In the current special session, House Democrats have stymied Abbott’s demand to tighten election laws and pass other conservative priorities by walking out and leaving the state.
But Abbott could make that work to his advantage as well.
Southern Methodist University political science professor Call Jillson said the odds are that Republicans will ultimately get everything they’re pushing in the current special session, even if it takes several more special sessions to get those priorities passed.
“Right now, the Republicans have the Democrats strung up by their thumbs with their feet barely touching the ground,” Jillson said. “I think the Republicans are going to win on the substance, and how the Democrats frame their eventual loss very much will determine whether or not the two bases are equally energized by this fight or one is energized more than the other.”
And then there’s money. Abbott’s currently sitting on a campaign war chest of more than $55 million, dwarfing those of his Republican opponents.
Austin-based Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak said that Abbott’s standing within the Republican Party may not be as strong as it was half a year ago, but he still believes Abbott will win renomination easily.
“Ultimately I believe Abbott’ll win with 60% or 70% of the primary electorate vote,” Mackowiak said.
Victoria De Francesco Soto, assistant dean for civic engagement at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, sees only one thing that could cost Abbott the GOP primary, let alone the general election: The state’s power grid.
“One big question mark is if we start having blackouts in the summer,” De Francesco Soto said. “That that is one thing I see actually serving as a curveball to the governor’s race, because I think that that really put all of us Texans on our heels.”
Abbott notably left power grid and ERCOT reforms off the special session agenda. That, and the state’s handling of Winter Storm Uri, have been major talking points for Democrats.
But despite rampant rumors that former Congressman Beto O’Rourke or even actor Matthew McConaughey will get into the race, Democrats still don’t have a declared candidate for governor. And as the old political saying goes: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
“If Democrats don’t come out of the special session with a leader, somebody who they can point to as the challenger to Greg Abbott, then politically this (special) session will be a disaster for them,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston. “The longer they wait, the harder it gets for them to establish that credibility, raise that money, and then unify the Democratic Party.”