For most of his governorship, Gov. Greg Abbott has enjoyed a relatively charmed life inside his party, flush with campaign cash, high approval ratings and agenda items with broad Republican support.
He has not been immune to internecine conflict — no Republican official is in Texas, the country’s largest red state — and he has even instigated it himself, campaigning against a trio of state House Republicans in 2018, for example. But in most cases, he has eluded open attacks from within his party and emerged from family fights largely unscathed.
The coronavirus pandemic changed that, auguring the most uncomfortable stretch of intraparty dissent since Abbott took office in 2015. The past year has seen the rise of fierce Abbott detractors from the activist wing of his party, like Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was jailed over her refusal to close her business due to pandemic orders. Then there was the election of Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, who has openly disagreed with some of Abbott’s coronavirus decisions. And in the Legislature, GOP lawmakers became increasingly willing to speak out about Abbott’s use of executive power to fight the virus.
On Tuesday, Abbott made his starkest move yet to answer his pandemic-era Republican critics, announcing he was ending the statewide mask mandate and letting all businesses reopen at 100% capacity. In doing so, Abbott thrust himself into a national GOP fervor over governors who have been on the vanguard of reopening their states, a quality that is already shaping the nascent field for the 2024 presidential race.
The announcement came despite Texas still being in the throes of the pandemic — and only a tiny fraction of the population fully vaccinated — but it was welcome news to at least some of the Republicans who have made Abbott’s life difficult over the past year in Texas.
“There’s no doubt people are gonna wish it had come sooner,” state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday evening. “But I think at this point, all of us who’ve wanted Texas to be open are just happy to now have it open, and I hope we can continue this.”
Democrats thrashed Abbott's move as irresponsible and one that will cost lives, especially among the more vulnerable who are exposed might be exposed to maskless Texans at work, in public transit or other high-risk areas.
“It’s reckless and dangerous for Governor Abbott to intentionally undermine public safety because he thinks it’s good politics,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said in a statement. Castro added that “Abbott’s following the example of Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, both auditioning to be the next Donald Trump, and putting politics above the people of Texas.”
Abbott remains popular with his Republican base — though not as much as when the pandemic began. In University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling, Abbott’s approval rating among Republican voters slipped from 88% in April to 79% last month.
As the pandemic has dragged on, he has been hounded by a band of GOP dissenters whose most notable and vocal members include Luther, West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Empower Texans leader Michael Quinn Sullivan, former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Irving and former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland. Offering his initial thoughts on Abbott’s news Tuesday, Rinaldi said it was “better than I thought it would be, but Texas is certainly not 100% open,” noting that Abbott is still letting county judges re-impose certain restrictions if hospitalizations spike in their regions. Stickland was less forgiving, calling Abbott’s moves “far too late.”
“Texans deserve better, you’ve got to go,” Stickland tweeted, using the hashtags “#FireAbbott” and #2022Primary.”
To be sure, Abbott has had some success in pushing back on the fellow Republicans who have assailed his pandemic management. Most prominently, he helped then-state Rep. Drew Springer soundly defeat Luther in a special election runoff for a state Senate seat last year, a contest that had become a referendum among conservatives on Abbott's coronavirus handling.
Abbott was clearly enthused to make a splash Tuesday. He first teased the announcement Thursday, saying it was coming “pretty soon.” On Monday afternoon, his office advised a “statewide announcement” the next day in Lubbock. On Monday night, he tweeted that he was preparing to deliver “exciting news.” And 15 minutes before the event Tuesday afternoon, he told his followers to “get ready.”
After the announcement, Abbott said in an radio interview he wanted to make it even sooner — the start of last week — but decided to hold off until the coronavirus vaccine distribution process could bounce back from disruptions due to the winter weather crisis.
The 2024 shadow primary
Abbott has also become surrounded by intraparty pressures at the national level. Fellow GOP governors like DeSantis and Noem have become heroes to conservatives for their aggressive moves to keep their states open, and Abbott’s GOP antagonists at home like to invoke the two other governors to ding Abbott.
Sure enough, West quickly responded to the news out of Lubbock by saying he was “glad Governor Abbott is following the example of Gov. [DeSantis] of FL & [Noem] of SD & opening up Texas.”
Both DeSantis and Noem are widely considered potential 2024 presidential candidates, and while Abbott has not been as openly positioning himself for a run as they have, he has not ruled it out. Already, several early polls of the potential 2024 field have included Abbott, showing almost nonexistent support.
By contrast, DeSantis in particular is enjoying a moment with GOP voters. Over the weekend, he had the strongest showing of any non-Trump Republican in a 2024 straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. DeSantis got 21% of the vote, Noem received 4% and Abbott 0%. DeSantis and Noem spoke at the event; Abbott did not. (Luther spoke also, reportedly criticizing Abbott and saying “any government official that wants to take away liberty needs to go fast.”)
DeSantis and Noem have not been strangers to Texas Republicans in recent months. DeSantis was a headliner in January at the Policy Orientation conference hosted every year in Austin by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative think tank. Speaking hours before Abbott himself took the stage, DeSantis declared to applause that “Florida is open” and that there are “no restrictions and mandates from the state of Florida whatsoever.”
Noem has made multiple trips to Texas in recent months, spreading the word about her pandemic handling, and she is due back in April to headline one of the state’s biggest Republican fundraising events: the Harris County GOP Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.
A conversation awaits in Austin
While Abbott’s announcement Tuesday may take some intraparty heat off him, a sensitive conversation awaits him at the Legislature, where some Republicans want to rein in the governor’s emergency powers. While Abbott has expressed openness to reforming executive authority, it remains to be seen how much power he is willing to give up.
That conversation ramped up this week in the House after Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, a lieutenant of Speaker Dade Phelan, filed an omnibus bill that would overhaul how the state responds to pandemics. The legislation was given a low bill number — HB 3 — indicating it is a priority of leadership.
Burrows joined Abbott on Tuesday in Lubbock, sitting nearby as he made his announcement at a local Mexican restaurant, and said afterward he was “proud” to be with the governor for the moment.
TPPF, which is generally aligned with Abbott, alluded to the coming debate over emergency powers in a statement applauding his Lubbock announcement.
“Perhaps the biggest hidden casualty from all this is the diminished confidence and trust Texans have in certain institutions to respond appropriately, decisively, and transparently during an extended emergency,” said TPPF’s executive director, Kevin Roberts. “We have the opportunity now to take stock and learn the lessons of what went right and wrong, and develop better practices that protect both our lives and liberties.”
Of course, scrutiny of Abbott’s pandemic response is not limited to those in his own party, and Democrats jumped on his Tuesday announcement as dangerously premature. California Gov. Gavin Newsom called Abbott’s decision to remove the mask requirement “absolutely reckless.” At home, Beto O’Rourke offered perhaps the most severe criticism, saying Abbott was issuing a “death warrant for Texans” and “killing the people of Texas.”
Democrats also wasted little time accusing Abbott of making the announcement to distract from the winter weather emergency that left millions of Texans without power earlier this month. The Democrats making that point notably included Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a rising star within her party who has generally steered clear of openly sparring with Abbott during the pandemic.
O’Rourke is considering running against Abbott in 2022, but by most appearances, Abbott is more concerned for now with the primary, especially following the choppy intraparty currents he has had to navigate over the past year.
“I would say this has been the rockiest year that many of us have seen — for a variety of reasons,” Hall said. “It’s been a tough year for all of us to get through, and some of it’s got no perfect answer to it.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas and the Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.