Two of Texas' top Republicans took part Saturday in a protest of Gov. Greg Abbott's coronavirus restrictions outside the Governor's Mansion, a striking display of intraparty defiance three days before early voting begins for a momentous November election.
The "Free Texas" rally featured speeches from Texas GOP Chair Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, both of whom invoked the governor critically. At one point, Miller turned toward the mansion with a message for Abbott.
"Quite frankly, governor, your cure is worse than the disease," Miller said.
West, who took over the party in July and has been an open critic of some of Abbott's coronavirus decisions, read a resolution that the State Republican Executive Committee passed last month. The resolution tells Abbott: "No Exceptions, No Delays….Open Texas NOW."
"We call upon the governor to do what is right by the people of the great state of Texas so that Texas can continue to be a leader," West added. "And if the governor did not get this resolution, I'm gonna leave it right here, at the gates of the Governor's Mansion."
The protest drew at least 200 people, a virtually maskless crowd, to a parking lot steps away from the Governor's Mansion in downtown Austin. After hearing from a lineup of speakers that also included state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, the group marched on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the mansion, chanting, "Open Texas now!"
The audience was filled with signs expressing disgust at Abbott's decisions to institute a statewide mask mandate and shut down certain businesses throughout the pandemic. One sign called Abbott the "#1 Job Killer in Texas," while another called to "IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO."
Abbott has gotten it from both sides as he has sought to steer the state through the pandemic, with Democrats saying he has has not acted decisively enough to curb the spread of the virus. In addition to the mask requirement, Abbott has miffed some in his own party with what they see as too of slow of reopening of the economy. Abbott announced Wednesday that bars can resume in-person service at 50% capacity next week — but only if county governments say so — a move that his intraparty critics called too little too late.
West in particular has stoked the anti-Abbott sentiment on the right. He ran for state party chair this year railing against coronavirus shutdowns, handily defeating incumbent chair James Dickey. He has voiced opposition to Abbott's mask requirement and joined a lawsuit last month challenging Abbott's extension of the early voting period due to the pandemic.
Abbott has defended his handling of the pandemic against West's criticism, saying in August that the "proof is in the pudding" that case numbers declined after he issued his statewide mask order. Abbott's office declined to comment on the protest.
Abbott was apparently not at the mansion Saturday morning. Two hours before the protest began, he was due in Dallas to hold a get-out-the-vote kickoff call with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Genevieve Collins, the GOP challenger to U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas. At 12:20 p.m., Abbott tweeted a picture of himself at the Red River Showdown, the annual Texas-Oklahoma college football game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Early voting begins Tuesday for the Nov. 3 election.
At the rally, West acknowledged his attendance was a sensitive subject, recalling how a county party chair emailed him earlier this week asking why West would participate in the anti-Abbott rally "at a time right now before we start voting in this election cycle." West said he "responded to him very succinctly," invoking a lesson he said he learned in the Army.
"I told him that true leaders don't pick and choose when they do what is right," West said. "They do what is right all the time."
West's criticism of Abbott's pandemic decisions has fueled speculation that he could run against the governor in 2022. As West prepared to start speaking at the rally, there were a couple chants of "West for governor!" which he sought to brush off, saying, "Oh, stop it, stop it, stop it." Then there was another chant that drew cheers, prompting West to shake his head lightheartedly.
"Paid political announcement by a bunch of knuckleheads," he said jokingly.
In addition to Miller, West and Hall, the rally included remarks from former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving; Don Huffines, the former GOP state senator from Dallas; Rick Green, the former Republican state representative from Dripping Springs; and Michael Quinn Sullivan, the leader of the hardline conservative activist who leads Empower Texans. After marching around the perimeter of the mansion, the protesters were greeted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who spoke from the top of a car and told the protesters he saluted their cause.