Texas Gov. Abbott overshadowed by Trump GOP as he seeks reelection



HOUSTON — When reports first surfaced that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had flown 48 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, an in-your-face move to protest Democrats’ immigration policies, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was conspicuously silent.

No tweets about the flights. No news conferences. No statements. Some Abbott advisers even initially insisted the flights had originated in Florida and referred questions to DeSantis’s office. By the next day, aides said Abbott had been blindsided — overshadowed by a fellow Republican governor who gave his colleague no notice that he planned to swoop into his state to make a political point.

A day later, Abbott’s camp pivoted to say he welcomed the flights and touted his own migrant busing program, which has diverted thousands of people to blue cities such as Washington, New York and Chicago.

“We will continue sending migrants to sanctuary cities like D.C. until Pres. Biden & Border Czar Harris step up & do their jobs to secure the border,” he tweeted.

If DeSantis is a template for a new generation of reflexively pugnacious Republicans, Abbott represents nearly the opposite: a candidate whose lawyerly, calculating approach leaves him perennially overshadowed, even as he chalks up conservative victories. While he has scrambled to accommodate a party moving sharply to the right, he is testing whether that is enough to please supporters of former president Donald Trump whose support he would need to win higher office without alienating the more moderate Republicans who have so far fueled his career.

On the cusp of a potential third term governing the country’s largest Republican state, aides say Abbott has no intention of running for president in 2024, that his focus is on Texas. But he is campaigning as much against President Biden and other national Democrats as against former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, an indication of his broader ambitions.

“While President Biden has eliminated all the successful border policies that President Trump implemented, I’ve done more than any governor in U.S. history to secure our border,” Abbott said in response to questions from The Post last week. “While my opponent and the socialist left seek to destroy our state’s values that make Texas the land of opportunity for all, I have fought to keep Texas the greatest state in the greatest country in the history of the world.”

DeSantis gets significantly more national attention from conservatives, including 1,452 mentions on Fox News during the past six months, according to the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive. But Abbott is in second place with 1,066 mentions. Other potential 2024 Republican contenders trailed him: Former vice president Mike Pence had 604 mentions; Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) 404; former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley 285.

A search for “Donald Trump” returned 8,186 mentions on Fox News over the same span.

Those who know Abbott, 64, describe the former corporate lawyer, judge and attorney general as a deliberate, constitutionally conservative workhorse.

Texas Secretary of State John B. Scott, an Abbott appointee who has known the governor since their days at the University of Texas at Austin, said Abbott put his conservative principles into action filing dozens of lawsuits against the Obama administration on various fronts, including immigration, environmental policy and voting restrictions.

“He wasn’t just somebody who talked about conservative issues, he was somebody who looked at a path legally to make them come to life in Texas,” Scott said. “It’s something that’s been copied by a number of states since.”

Fellow Republican and former Texas House speaker Dennis Bonnen described Abbott as “not a bully pulpit guy. He’s a get-it-done kind of guy. He’s an intellectual, a jurist.” While Abbott isn’t as “flamboyant” or “bombastic” as DeSantis or Trump, Bonnen said, “Him doing a really good job in our state on the border crisis Biden has created could propel him to higher office.”

Abbott touts his accomplishments this past year: passing legislation to protect businesses that reopened during the pandemic from being sued; barring cities from defunding police; loosening restrictions on guns while passing some of the country’s strictest abortion measures before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

But he has proved less adept at responding quickly in the heat of a crisis.

Abbott has made several high-profile gaffes, notably at a news conference the day after the Uvalde school shooting last spring, where he remarked that it “could have been worse.” The governor responded to criticism of the state’s early abortion ban — which made no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape — with an impossible vow: to eliminate rape.

His comments spawned a slew of political attack ads by O’Rourke, an out-of-state group called Coulda Been Worse and a parent-founded PAC, Mothers Against Greg Abbott.

“He is a cautious, meticulous lawyer who thinks things through, at times to extreme degrees before moving forward. He doesn’t make decisions off the cuff. When he does, it often has an adverse effect,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“As opposed to someone like DeSantis who goes with his gut, more like a Trump, by the time Abbott’s come to a conclusion, that media cycle has passed,” Jones said. “So he’s better off with issues that have a longer shelf life, like immigration.”

Mark Phariss remembers Abbott telling him during their law school days that he wanted to become governor. Then in 1984, when Abbott was 26 and studying for the bar exam in Houston, he was struck by a falling tree while jogging and was paralyzed.

“I was impressed by his resiliency. I never saw any self-pity. I never saw depression,” Phariss said. “He did overcome a lot.”

The accident shaped Abbott’s work ethic, allies said. Afterward, he passed the bar, was elected as a judge and served on the state Supreme Court.

Abbott says he is guided by steadfast beliefs, but his rightward lurch as governor has drawn scrutiny. During the campaign’s sole debate last month in Edinburg, Tex., Dallas Morning News political writer Gromer Jeffers asked Abbott about the shift.

“Have you moved too far to the right, governor?” Jeffers asked, citing the state abortion law and another measure Abbott signed allowing gun owners to carry weapons in public without permits or training.

Abbott at first demurred, but then said, “I’m not changing and constantly flip-flopping positions like other people do. I’m governing from my principles.”

During Abbott’s first campaign in 2014, he promised to free teachers from state mandates, said women should be granted time to make up their minds about having an abortion and noted his success on bipartisan issues.

Last year, however, he went from clashing with longtime Trump supporters such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and the legislature’s right-wing Freedom Caucus to backing their initiatives banning abortion, transgender youths in sports and critical race theory in schools. He also signed the permitless gun measure — an issue he had earlier avoiding taking a stand on.

That has given critics from all sides ammunition to cast Abbott as pandering to an increasingly Trumpian base.

Last month, when conservative Texas radio host Mark Davis pressed Abbott to ban treatments for transgender youths, questioning whether he was afraid to take a stand ahead of the election, the governor doubled down, promising legislation once he’s reelected “to make sure it is more broadly and fully addressed.”

“No minor should have their sexuality destroyed,” Abbott said. ” . . . Doing so right now is child abuse, and we are investigating it and taking action against it.”

Phariss, a gay rights advocate who plans to vote for O’Rourke, said he doesn’t recognize the Abbott he knew in such rhetoric.

“I don’t think Abbott, in his heart of hearts, cares about LGBTQ equality, but his base does,” Phariss said. “So he was willing to hurt LGBTQ Texans for his benefit. That is not the Greg Abbott that I thought I knew.”

Abbott’s conservative allies say the governor is rising to meet the moment in Texas.

“He has not changed, but the times have changed, and he is going to respond in a more aggressive way,” said Abbott aide-turned-lobbyist Daniel Hodge.

While other governors are “pining for national attention,” Hodge said, for Abbott, “Everything he does is through that Texas lens.”

But in modern Texas, that has meant being caught between appealing to Trump loyalists in his own party and the more moderate supporters he has reliably attracted.

Trump endorsed Abbott before the primary, but some in the audience booed the governor when he appeared at a Trump rally in GOP-dominated Montgomery County, north of Houston, in January. Abbott responded by chanting, “Let’s go Trump!” (In a rally Saturday, the former president lauded Abbott as “a great man, a great governor” to applause from the crowd. Abbott was in Florida on a fundraising trip.)

Primary challenger Allen West, a former Texas GOP chair and Florida congressman, attacked Abbott’s border security efforts and initial pandemic lockdown.

“I’m sick and tired of all my friends that I have back there in Florida calling me and telling me how great Ron DeSantis is doing and how great Florida’s doing when Texas, the Lone Star, should be leading,” West said during a January candidate forum in Austin.

Former state representative Jonathan Stickland, an original member of the Freedom Caucus, condemned Abbott before the primary as a “campaign conservative.”

“We’re dealing with a guy who has refused to act,” Stickland told conservative YouTube host Chad Prather, blaming Abbott for failed border security. “North Dakota and Florida go first on everything. We’re getting out-Texas-ed. It’s Republicans who have been shanking us in the back, and the head honcho is Greg Abbott.”

After Abbott won the primary with more than 66 percent of the vote, his critics fell in line. Stickland’s PAC bought a billboard lambasting O’Rourke, and he cheered Abbott online during the debate.

“He’s in a positive position. We’re a red state,” former state representative and El Paso mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, said before entering an Abbott meeting with business leaders at a downtown bank in O’Rourke’s hometown last month. “Culturally, we’re very conservative, very family-oriented,” Margo said.

Mike Knox, a conservative Houston city councilman who often wears a gray Stetson and sports a handlebar mustache, said Abbott had his drawbacks, but for many conservative Texas voters, O’Rourke was too “socialist.” Knox, a former Houston police officer whose son works for the department, attended a meeting with Abbott at a local police union last month where he praised Abbott’s migrant busing program as “sharing the load by sending them to other cities.”

“You’re a sanctuary city?” Knox said, “Let’s see you put your money where your mouth is.”

As Abbott was leaving the meeting, April Aguirre approached to tell him her 9 year-old niece Arlene had been fatally shot on Valentine’s Day in the family pickup truck. A grand jury declined to charge the alleged gunman, who was shooting at an armed robber, saying he had not been aiming at her. Aguirre, 32, was pushing a new law to ensure criminal charges in such cases.

The registered nurse said she felt ignored by local officials; Abbott had his staff write down her phone number. Then he opened his arms and invited her to bend down and hug him.

Aguirre, a former Democrat who voted for Abbott in 2018, said she left the event feeling encouraged. “I don’t agree with everything that man does, but I need somebody who’s going to be tough on crime,” Aguirre said of Abbott.

Texans like Aguirre are a major target of Abbott’s reelection campaign, which has contacted 5 million undecided voters through door-knocking, including Texans of color they hope to get to the polls. Their goal: To turn out 20 percent of the African American vote, 50 percent of the Hispanic vote and 55 percent of the Asian American vote, campaign adviser Dave Carney said.

“We won’t really know until election evening how it’s working, but we feel pretty good,” he said. “There are more nonvoting right-of-center voters than there are nonvoting left-of-center voters.”

Sri Preston Kulkarni, chief strategist for the Austin-based 2 Million Texans Project, a Democratic-sponsored statewide get-out-the-vote campaign, has pressed O’Rourke to corner Abbott about “attacks on our democracy” that could splinter Republican turnout, such as claims that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was justified or that Trump won the 2020 election. Kulkarni said super PACs could still help O’Rourke before the election with ads highlighting how Abbott has failed to back Trump, refusing to join those who claim he won the presidential election and defend the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“That’s enough to get them to stay home, because they’re Trumpers before they’re Republicans,” Kulkarni said. “Right now, Abbott is having it both ways: He’s trying to pretend he’s an average Republican, but he’s supporting all the Trump stuff. If we don’t pin them down on that, they get both.”

Abbott’s advisers consider local television the best way to reach voters, and this month the governor has granted rare one-on-one interviews to stations in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Abbott used the encounters to tout his conservative bona fides, taking aim at Biden and defending migrant busing after a reporter from San Antonio’s Channel 4 questioned spending millions in taxpayer money on a “political stunt.”

“We should be spending nothing because Biden should be securing the border and enforcing the immigration laws,” Abbott said, arguing that he shifted the financial impact of aiding migrants to Democratic-run cities. “ … You’re seeing — whether it be Washington, D.C., or New York or Illinois — they’re having to spend millions upon millions, far more than what we’re spending to bus these migrants out of the state of Texas.”


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