By Ross Ramsey
Immigration. The U.S.-Mexico border. Wall-building. Abortion rights. Voting rights. Election laws. The Second Amendment and gun rights. Critical race theory. Transgender athletes.
Do those sound like state issues, or national issues? When you hear that list — which is representative, but not complete — do you think of it coming from someone seeking a job in Austin, or a job in Washington?
It could be both, or neither. But it comes from Gov. Greg Abbott, who appeared two years ago as a centrist Republican trying to get property tax and school finance legislation through a Legislature that was marked by recent Democratic gains. This year’s much more conservative theme follows a 2020 election where Texas Republicans held their ground.
More importantly, it leads into a political year when Abbott will be seeking reelection with a Democratic president in office — usually a good sign for GOP candidates — and after this Republican Legislature draws a set of political maps that strengthen their hold on the majority in the Texas Capitol.
Add in persistent political whispering that Abbott might be considering a run for president in 2024, and that list of Texas issues being chased by the governor has national overtones.
Abbott has to survive reelection, a job that became considerably simpler with the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, who remains very popular with Texas Republicans and whose blessing is a signal to conservatives who might otherwise think of Abbott as the establishment candidate.
That’s a problem for potential challengers hoping to attack the incumbent as insufficiently conservative. Abbott has to defend his right flank, but between Trump’s support, his own popularity with voters and a campaign account balance that hit $37.9 million at the beginning of this year, he has less reason to fear the candidates from that part of the GOP. Allen West, former chair of the Republican Party of Texas; former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas; and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — who’ve either jumped into or hinted at joining the race for governor — don’t have many voters to woo if the Trump supporters stick with Abbott.
For the sake of conversation, let’s say the governor doesn’t face much of a primary challenge next year. And no solid prospects have taken shape, though actor Matthew McConaughey and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke are lurking.
There might be competition ahead, but it’s not from the right wing of his own party.
Unless you’re thinking about that national race in 2024.
That more moderate Abbott of 2019 seemed open to some mild gun regulation after mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa that summer.
A year ago, after Houstonian George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, Abbott consoled the dead man’s survivors: “I’m here to tell you today that I am committed to working with the family of George Floyd to ensure we never have anything like this ever occur in the state of Texas."
All of that was before the 2020 election. And the 2021 legislative session was influenced more by that election outcome than it was by those earlier events. The session was marked by efforts to defend police funding and, with a notable exception regarding guns, to take the police side of the argument on legislative issues. The George Floyd Act didn’t pass, though a few of its provisions made it into other legislation.
The Legislature’s big Second Amendment legislative achievement wasn’t new limits on stranger-to-stranger sales of guns, or tighter background checks of buyers. It was permitless carry, a feat of deregulation that allows most adults to carry handguns without permits or training. That bill — despite opposition by most law enforcement groups — was signed by the governor this month and will take effect Sept. 1.
The governor’s fresh echo of Trump’s call to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico is both a state and national play. Immigration and border security have been Republican voters’ “most important problem” over several years of University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polls. In the most recent poll, in April, 65% of Republican voters chose either immigration or border security as their top concern.
The governor has promised to revive restrictions on voting that failed in the final hours of the legislative session and is calling lawmakers into special session for that. Watch what else he adds to the agenda. Abbott has mentioned a bail bill that would make it harder for people to get out of jail while they’re awaiting trial, and also additional legislation to block teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Other state leaders are asking him to let them try to bar transgender athletes in public schools from competing in sports that match their gender identity.
The governor who was cautious in the legislative session before the 2020 election was unleashed by its results. He’s prepping for 2022 and beyond by dropping the “bread and butter” issues of two years ago and serving up what conservatives have been clamoring for.