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At a Donald Trump rally in Conroe last week, Gov. Greg Abbott took the stage ahead of the former president to speak to crowds of conservatives waving American flags.
The governor was booed. Not by the whole crowd, but loudly enough by a group of Trump supporters, members of his own party, that it was distinctly audible to those watching livestreams of the event.
These are some of the Texans who Abbott has lost over complaints that he is not doing enough to deliver on conservative values. Those discontented Republicans are backing Abbott’s opponents this primary season, hoping for a fresh face to take on Democratic frontrunner Beto O’Rourke.
Abbott’s leading primary opponents are Allen West, previously a Florida congressman and a recent Texas GOP state chair, and Don Huffines, a former state senator, who are both running further to the right of Abbott. They tout policy proposals including the total shutdown of the border and the elimination of property taxes, while mercilessly attacking the governor for his handling of the pandemic. Those two, along with others from the roster of seven Abbott challengers on the March ballot, often campaign together as a united, and somewhat interchangeable, alternative to the two-term governor.
“I've not been a fan of Abbott for a year and a half because he's not getting things done that he promised he would,” said Richard Kilmer, a Lake Travis resident who plans to vote for one of the primary challengers. “He's proven he's not an effective leader of this state and he needs to step aside and let other leaders step up.”
The intraparty knock against Abbott comes in spite of his endorsement from Trump and on the heels of what he’s celebrated as one of the most conservative legislative sessions in modern Texas history. This past year, Abbott shared the glory of passing one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, relaxing gun laws so most Texans can carry a handgun without a license and changing election rules to prevent local officials from expanding voter access.
In 2021, Abbott also championed legislation restricting how race-related issues can be discussed in classrooms and announced the allocation of billions of dollars to begin construction of a state-funded border wall with Mexico, which he said would deliver on the promise that Trump started.
“Abbott has been a fantastic governor by any measure,” said Corbin Casteel, a political consultant who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign in Texas. “There's no reason within the party to replace him.”
Those Abbott critics aren’t representative of the majority of Texas Republicans, according to the polls which still show the governor winning his primary outright. Collectively, less than 20% of primary voters support Huffines or West, according to the latest poll. Meanwhile, Abbott’s fundraising is stronger than ever.
The root of the anti-Abbott sentiment on the right stems from the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 when the governor used his executive authority to implement a statewide mask mandate and a shutdown on certain businesses. Since Abbott lifted those measures, he’s pivoted hard and promised that there would be no more local safety precaution mandates allowed for masks, vaccines or businesses. However, he continues to face criticism within his party, especially in comparison to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in 2021 passed anti-mandate legislation for COVID-19 vaccines and masks.
Abbott’s handling of COVID-19, including efforts to block vaccine and mask mandates, was “worthless,” said Julie McCarty, director of the True Texas Project, one of several grassroots organizations hosting candidate forums on behalf of Abbott’s challengers.
“The governor can get anything done that he wants done. He’s the governor. He either has no leadership skills or the issues were just not important enough for him to fight for them,” McCarty said. “This is our chance to put our best candidate forward.”
When it comes to apparent wins on abortion and other GOP priorities, his detractors say he didn’t go far enough.
McCarty said Republicans like herself are firmly in favor of “anyone but Abbott.” By McCarty’s count, Abbott was successful in carrying out only two of nine GOP priorities, religious freedom and constitutional carry, across four legislative sessions in 2021. But she said he failed to ban “taxpayer-funded lobbying” — which allows local governments to pay for legislative lobbyists at the capitol — protect Confederate monuments, implement more school choice policies, pass stronger election reforms, completely abolish abortion and end gender-affirming treatment for children.
When it comes to abortion, she said supporters like herself will stand for nothing but an absolute ban — even though, in addition to the abortion law that bans the procedure after about six weeks into a pregnancy, the Legislature passed a preemptive bill that would outlaw all abortion in Texas if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. Notably, the recent abortion law makes no exception for rape and incest. West supports an exemption for rape and incest up until a heart beat is detected, but Huffines is against abortion in all cases.
McCarty also said the Republican-backed overhaul of elections laws in Texas, which took three legislative sessions to pass, didn’t go far enough and should have carried harsher penalties. That law bans local initiatives like 24-hour early voting and drive-thru voting, in addition to other efforts to expand access.
Mary Ashley Vance, a Texas A&M student, attended a forum that featured Abbott’s primary opponents in College Station last month. She said she plans to vote for Huffines, who she said appeals to people who fueled the vocal grassroots movement that propelled Trump to the White House in 2016.
“An issue for a lot of people is [Abbott’s] seeing Republicans and Democrats as being … basically on the same team,” Vance said.
Abbott’s Republican critics are also ardent Trump supporters. But Trump’s endorsement of Abbott has done little to sway them.
Although Vance voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020 and believes he championed conservative values during his presidency, she said she takes his endorsement of Abbott with a grain of salt.
“I’ve never really seen him as someone who was personally invested in what he was promoting,” she said of Trump. “He’s just doing what he sees as being in his best interest.”
Trump gave Abbott his endorsement at the beginning of summer, before many of challengers, including West, launched their campaigns. He again reiterated that endorsement at the Conroe rally on Jan. 29.
Lately, Huffines, West and conservative media personality Chad Prather have been making campaign appearances together to attack Abbott as a unit.
At the forum in College Station, the primary challengers took the stage before a crowd that appeared to be entirely white and mostly older than 50. Because their platforms were virtually identical, the event was less of a debate than an opportunity to roast the governor’s policies on border security, his response to COVID-19 and his work record on property taxes. Abbott has prioritized property tax relief and border security on calls for special sessions, but calls by some Republicans for a fourth special session that would have outlawed vaccine mandates and increased penalties on illegal voting never came to fruition.
More astutely, the primary challengers have tried to paint Abbott as the big government candidate.
“That means government has expanded and grown so big that it's created an untenable future for Texans,” he said.
The united front seems to be a strategy to force a runoff election, which would happen if no single candidate wins 50% of votes on March 1. All credible polls show the challengers would be lucky to win 40% of votes.
Mark P. Jones, a professor in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said Abbott needs to hold on to 60% of votes in the primary to avoid damaging his reputation with the Texas’ Republican party.
Though risk of Abbott losing his iron grip on the party seems far-fetched, the challengers’ efforts to travel the state and meet face-to-face with Texans has been effective at swaying undecided voters one at a time, especially in suburban and rural areas.
Joyce Christian, treasurer of the Lake Travis Republican Club, said West had earned her vote after she heard him speak at a club luncheon he attended on Jan. 18. She said she was convinced by the plan he presented to overhaul the governor’s border security strategy, which has been criticized in the past few weeks due to media coverage of alleged poor treatment of National Guardsmen deployed to dissuade illegal immigration.
Other Republicans say Abbott’s challengers and their supporters are hardly worth paying attention to.
Abbott has yet to acknowledge the conservative challengers at his own campaign events, which began in early January, or respond to direct questions about them when The Texas Tribune reached out for comment. According to the moderators of the College Station forum, all Republican candidates running for governor in the March 1 primary, including Abbott, were invited to attend.
Jason Villalba, a former Republican member of the Texas House who leads the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, said he thinks Abbott ignoring the candidates is the smart move. Similarly, even though many of Abbott’s actions in 2021 — including prohibiting private businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated and declaring gender-affirming health care for minors to be child abuse — were in lockstep with the demands of his challengers, he said the trend doesn’t necessarily mean Abbott is afraid of his opponents.
“He went on offense before he started the game,” Villalba said. “I think because he shored up his base during that time, that's one of the reasons why Huffines and West are doing so poorly, aside from the fact that they're terrible candidates.”
Mike Vargo, a 50-year-old Woodlands resident, said he understands frustrations with the sitting governor and is personally upset that Abbott didn’t do more to block vaccine mandates. Nonetheless, he plans to vote for Abbott again in the upcoming primary because he doesn’t believe any of the challengers are viable candidates.
“We’re picking the best of the worst,” Vargo said. “Career politicians are the ones who can afford to run — it’s a money game — and unfortunately they all have an agenda.”
Casteel, the former Trump political consultant, said none of the candidates have the legitimacy to lead the charge and that he’d be surprised if a single one of the candidates achieves a double-digit percentage of the vote.
Casteel said policy positions like secession, eliminating property taxes outright and perpetuating the falsehood of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election — all discussed at-length during the College Station candidate forum — are simply too fringe to secure a large enough base of Republican voters in this cycle. More importantly, he said, they don’t have the campaign dollars or the time to boost their name recognition to garner widespread support.
“People are sick of crazy people,” Casteel said. “Let’s be honest, these are crazy people.”
Morgan O'Hanlon is an Austin-based freelance writer. If you have feedback or a tip related to this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure: Rice University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters 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.
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