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When former President Donald Trump endorsed Gov. Greg Abbott for reelection last week, it was a boon to a governor who, by all appearances, has been working assiduously to neutralize any problems he may have in his next Republican primary.
But one line from Trump’s statement in particular may have been the sweetest victory to Abbott.
“No Governor has done more to secure the Border,” Trump proclaimed.
That is because there is no issue that Abbott has been more openly focused on this year — and competition has been stiff. There has been the coronavirus pandemic, the winter weather crisis and a host of Republican priorities at the state Capitol, including the elections bill that Democrats killed last month and Abbott has promised to revive in a yet-to-be-called special session.
Abbott’s intense concentration on the border reached an apex Thursday evening, when he traveled to Del Rio to make several announcements related to border security — including that Texans would soon build its own border wall. He offered no details beyond that a plan would come next week, and many questions remain about where he’d get the money, land and authority to take such a drastic action. But the context was clear: Abbott is maneuvering to establish himself as a national Republican leader on border security — and the top foil to President Joe Biden on the issue.
Politically, the focus also comes as Abbott faces an electorate persistently worried about the border, a contested 2022 primary for reelection and the lead-up to a 2024 presidential race from which he still has not removed himself from consideration.
The border security summit that Abbott held in Del Rio capped months of ramped-up activity by the governor on the border. He fought with the Biden administration in March about letting in migrants with coronavirus. He ratcheted up the state law enforcement presence on the border through an initiative known as Operation Lone Star. He asked border-area counties to provide estimates of the financial stress they are under so he can request federal reimbursement. He called for the closure of San Antonio migrant shelter over what he said were complaints of child abuse.
Earlier this month, he ordered the state to revoke licenses issued to shelters that house unaccompanied migrant kids, drawing a threat of legal action from the Biden administration.
Abbott has sharply blamed Biden every step of the way, taking him to task for doing things like pausing border wall construction and ordering a review of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their hearings in U.S. immigration courts.
The number of people stopped by federal law enforcement at or near the border for trying to enter the country illegally has climbed sharply in the first year of Biden’s term. The number reached 180,000 in May, which was the highest in more than two decades.
Democrats say Abbott is being hypocritical after not being nearly as outspoken about border problems under Trump.
“He did not seem too concerned about the border when Donald Trump was putting kids in cages and separating families and just doing the horrible things he did,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Given the great Christian man that he claims to be, he never cared one iota about the suffering that these children were going through, and that’s just terrible.”
In between all the border-related announcements, Abbott has become a more regular presence than ever on Fox News and other conservative outlets. After the border security summit, Abbott did an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham from the same stage at the Del Rio Civic Center.
In the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, conducted in mid-April, border security and immigration reigned supreme as the top concerns for Texans. Thirty-seven percent of voters picked them as the leading problems facing the state today. Among Republicans, the number was 65%, and no other issue came close. (Coronavirus got 3%.)
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Greg Abbott is a border security hawk,” said John Wittman, a former longtime spokesperson for the governor. “He ran on this in 2014 … and has continued to follow through on this.”
Wittman argued Abbott was not playing politics but “being responsive to the current situation” under Biden.
Of course, Abbott’s critics in both parties see it differently. Abbott primary challenger Don Huffines has been campaigning on Texas building its own border wall, and in a cheeky statement after Abbott’s border security summit, Huffines thanked the governor for “joining my campaign.”
“The wall should have been built years ago and the only reason Governor Abbott is now discussing it is because he's facing a primary challenge that threatens his political power,” Huffines said in a statement for this story.
Allen West, the outgoing Texas GOP chairman who is considering challenging Abbott, also had a response to the governor Thursday evening. “Looking forward to Governor Abbott finishing the #borderwall for #Texas,” West tweeted, sharing a video of him last month touring a border-wall section near El Paso.
Some of Abbott’s critics inside his party noted that if he was serious about Texas finishing Trump’s border wall, he could have supported legislation by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, to do so during the regular session earlier this year. The legislation, House Bill 2862, was referred to a committee in March but never got a hearing. In a Facebook post Thursday evening, Slaton urged Abbott to add the proposal to any special session agenda.
How competitive Abbott’s 2022 primary will be remains to be seen, especially after Trump’s endorsement. But it is hard to dispute that Abbott this year has been acting like an elected official acutely concerned with his right flank — not just due to his border security fixation, but also his embrace of hard-right legislative priorities like the permitless carry of handguns in which he had previously shown little interest.
Bryan Snyder is the chairman of the Republican Party in Maverick County, which is along the border and two counties over from where Abbott appeared for his border security summit. Snyder said the overall reaction from local Republicans to Abbott’s border handling this year has been “very positive.” He does not think Abbott’s 2022 primary will be competitive, especially after Thursday evening.
“Honestly no, I really don’t,” Snyder said, “and I think this really seals the deal for him too.”
Some suspect Abbott is looking beyond even 2022 with his intense focus on the border — and to a potential presidential campaign two years later. On Friday morning, the League of United Latin American Citizens issued a statement in which its president, Domingo Garcia, accused Abbott of “using refugee children as political piñatas to cynically launch his run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.”
Hinojosa said Abbott was politicizing “things that he feels will help him be in a better position to run for president.”
In an interview last week, Abbott continued to keep a 2024 campaign on the table. He said he was still prioritizing issues from the regular legislative session and would only be focused on 2022 when he starts campaigning again — but did not rule out a presidential campaign after that when given the opportunity to do so.