Republican dissent over Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic response animates state Senate special election

Shelley Luther and state Rep. Drew Springer are among six candidates looking to replace state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper. (Credit: The Texas Tribune)

STEPHENVILLE — Gov. Greg Abbott may not be on the ballot this fall, but his response to the coronavirus pandemic, maligned as overreach by some in his own party, is reverberating through a special election for a Texas Senate seat.

In the race to replace Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, the intraparty reckoning is being forced by Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was jailed this year over her refusal to shut down her business due to coronavirus restrictions. Tuesday’s special election is unfolding in safely red rural territory, the kind of place where conservative angst toward Abbott has risen amid the pandemic, even as the state’s Republicans try to keep their ranks focused on a momentous Nov. 3 general election.

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Campaigning Tuesday evening in this town about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth, Luther peppered her stump speech with criticism of Abbott’s handling of the pandemic. She said “our tyrant governor has embarrassed us completely” with business shutdowns due to the coronavirus. As she boasted of her efforts in defiance of coronavirus restrictions, she scoffed at more traditional politicians who pushed back in less dramatic ways.

“What did they do when Texas was shut down?” she said. “They said, Oh, I wrote a letter or I — what?! Wrote a letter?!”

“If we need to open Texas,” she added, “as soon as I’m elected, you watch how quickly it opens — because it’s going to be on.”

Luther faces five special election opponents, including state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. He started the race in a strong position but has had to increasingly confront an unconventional foe in Luther as she leans in to her political outsider status and pitches herself as more forceful agitator against Abbott’s pandemic management.

“From the standpoint of let’s open Texas, I think honestly out of all five Republican candidates, we’re all on the same boat,” Springer told The Texas Tribune. “We should be fully open right now — 100%.”

“You can get into the tactics — how do you accomplish that?” Springer added. “Can you only be a true champion if you’ve gone to jail?”

Springer said he has called for a special session to check Abbott’s response, advocated for reining in the governor’s emergency powers and pushed to let bars and wineries reopen. And when it comes to arguably Abbott’s most controversial decision among fellow Republicans, his statewide mask mandate, Springer said he worked with the governor’s office to exempt small counties with few cases like those in his House district.

Medical experts have said requiring masks is a key way to slow the spread of the virus, and Abbott has defended his decision to institute a statewide mandate amid criticism from his right. “The proof is in the pudding,” he said in late August, pointing to coronavirus statistics that began trending downward after he put in place the mask requirement.

The special election was triggered by Fallon’s nomination in August to replace former U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, on the November ballot now that he is director of national intelligence. Fallon is likely to win the November election in the bright-red 4th Congressional District, and he submitted his state Senate resignation late last month, allowing Abbott to quickly call a rapid-fire special election for the seat in Senate District 30.

The special election drew four candidates in addition to Luther and Springer. They include three Republicans: Decatur engineer Andy Hopper, 2018 SD-30 candidate Craig Carter and Denton Mayor Chris Watts, as well as one Democrat: Jacob Minter, recording secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 20.

Early voting began Sept. 14 and ends Friday.

On Tuesday, Springer tried to turn the tables on Luther, calling her “Shutdown Shelley” while releasing since-deleted Facebook posts from early in the pandemic that he said ran counter to her current messaging. In one of them from mid-March, Luther said, “If some major cities are closing down buildings where large gatherings occur, then EVERY city should. The problem will not fix if some people are out and about, and some aren’t."

Speaking with reporters after her Stephenville event Tuesday night, Luther said Springer was referencing posts from “before the shutdown even happened and before we even knew what the virus was.”

“My biggest quote there was — and it was taken out of context from him — it doesn’t make sense for just one city or town to close and some be open,” Luther said. “My point was that if we’re gonna shut anyone down, we should shut everybody down, right? And then everybody open back up if we’re really gonna try to kill this. It doesn’t really make sense to spot-check people. But my opinion will always be that there should never be a shutdown — ever.”

On the campaign trail, Luther told reporters, the sentiment against Abbott’s pandemic management is "intense." Voters, she said, do not like that the state was shut down in the first place — Abbott issued a stay-at-home order for most of April — and believe the governor “doesn’t feel like we have personal responsibility for ourselves, that he feels that he can manage our safety, when that’s not what government is for.”

A win by Luther could be considered the biggest triumph for Abbott’s coronavirus response critics on the right since the pandemic began. It is a faction that has grown to include a high-profile leader in the new state GOP chairman, Allen West, who has plainly voiced disagreement with some of Abbott’s decisions.

Fallon, who has endorsed Springer, has become something of a lightning rod in the race. Stumping for Springer recently, Fallon said the district does not “want somebody that’s gonna be at odds with our Republican governor,” a sentiment that Luther responded to by vowing to “oppose [Abbott] when he pushes unilateral dictates that shut down our local businesses.” After the event, Fallon and Luther got into a heated exchange about her conservative credentials that was captured in a nearly four-minute video.

Also on the campaign trail for Springer, Fallon apparently revealed that Springer’s wife had contracted COVID-19, prompting at least one rival, Watts, to suggest Springer was not being straight with voters about a matter of public health. Springer subsequently confirmed his wife was infected and said he had taken his campaign mostly virtual while quarantining, sidelined from the campaign trail for the closing days of the already-abbreviated race.

Despite the race’s short timeline, it has drawn major money. Conservative megadonor Tim Dunn has loaned $1 million to Luther’s campaign, helping her outspend Springer on their latest campaign finance reports — and enter the homestretch with a nearly 3-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage.

The loan, along with a $100,000 donation from another hard-right megadonor, Farris Wilks, made up 93% of the total receipts in Luther’s latest campaign finance filing.

Springer is airing a TV ad that seizes on Dunn’s loan and further injects Abbott into the race, saying Luther “calls herself conservative, but Luther took $1 million from a West Texas political insider who funds a dark-money group that viciously attacked Gov. Abbott.” (Earlier this year, two staffers for the Dunn-backed Empower Texans were caught on a podcast outtake disparaging Abbott and joking about his use of a wheelchair.)

Abbott has not endorsed in the special election, and a spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the race.

Another statewide political figure who looms over the special election is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate. He has not endorsed anyone but expressed something of an affinity for Luther and her unconventional background in an interview last month with The Dallas Morning News. “I like people with spunk,” he said.

The specter of Abbott, though, looms the largest. Luther has called his statewide mask mandate “ridiculous,” saying businesses should be able to decide on their own whether to require face coverings. And in a TV ad, she declares her belief that “every job is essential,” a reference to the distinctions that Abbott and other governors have made in shuttering businesses during the pandemic.

Among the Republican candidates, the referendum on Abbott’s pandemic decisions is not limited to Springer and Luther. Watts is also seeking to tap into the frustrations.

“My first priority will be to look at the emergency powers statutes to make sure that the voice of Texans are heard as we have an extended period of emergency power declaration,” Watts says in one commercial, adding that his second priority is to “get this economy open as quickly as possible.”

In the race’s final days, the pandemic is not the only issue fueling tensions between Springer and Luther. Springer and his allies are attacking Luther as an unproven conservative, pointing out that she has never voted in a Republican primary. (She voted in the July primary runoff but no intraparty contests prior to that, according to the secretary of state’s office.)

Luther has happily used the line of attack to further brandish her outsider pitch. “I love it,” she told reporters. “It’s like a badge. I’m not the typical person” running for office.

Luther and her supporters, meanwhile, are targeting Springer for working for the Dallas tax-consulting firm Ryan while serving on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Given that the Texas Legislature is part-time, it is not unusual for lawmakers to maintain professional careers that sometimes overlap with their duties in Austin, raising ethical questions from time to time.

A TV ad from the Luther campaign alleges Springer “used his office for personal gain” and “literally works for” lobbyists and special interests, “not for us.”

Springer denied that he ever leveraged his position in the Legislature to specifically help Ryan, even if the firm was part of coalitions backing legislation he carried. He said Ryan has a team of lobbyists just like any large company in Texas, and he “never directly worked for” them. That includes, he added, the firm’s high-powered CEO, Brint Ryan, who is also a registered lobbyist.

As Tuesday nears, though, Abbott and the pandemic seems to remain front of mind for voters. State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, who has endorsed Springer, said the state’s coronavirus response is "certainly" looming over the election and argued that Springer is best positioned to address the issue.

“I think he would agree with Luther in her frustration in the way the state has handled it, but I also think he clearly has the experience knowing all the other issues he’ll have to deal with,” Frank said.

Luther’s appeal was evident as she spoke Tuesday evening to a crowd of about three dozen maskless people in Stephenville’s Purple Goat restaurant. A former City Council member introduced her as a “real person” and “not a typical politician,” and in interviews afterward, two attendees likened her, unprompted, to President Donald Trump.

Rick Gann, the Erath County GOP’s vice chair, said he agreed heartily with Luther’s assessment of the state’s coronavirus handling.

“We shouldn’t be telling businesses who can open and who can’t,” Gann said. “And I obviously feel like Gov. Abbott, if he comes up for election, Texas is gonna realize this and they’re gonna remember.”

Another Luther supporter who saw her speak, Carroll Cawyer, said he liked her “courage” as well but offered a more sympathetic view of Abbott’s pandemic response.

“The governor has tried to do what he thought is best for the state, and I’m not gonna second-guess him on that because I don’t know” what it is like to be in that position, said Cawyer, a 77-year-old retiree from Stephenville.

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