Gov. Greg Abbott prepares to deliver his State of the State speech at Visionary Fiber Technologies outside of Lockhart on Feb. 1, 2021

Credit: Bob Daemmrich/CapitolPressPhoto/Pool

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Late last month, Gov. Greg Abbott called in to a friendly radio host apparently intent on making news.

“I’m told by your press office this is the first public statement on your position on ‘constitutional carry,'” WBAP’s Rick Roberts told Abbott before asking him about the proposal, which the state House had passed days earlier in a long-sought breakthrough for gun-rights activists.

Abbott did not hesitate, telling Roberts that he supported “constitutional carry” — an idea to allow permitless carry of handguns — and promising to sign the legislation if it reached his desk.

A week earlier, Abbott had dodged the a similar question. But his swift embrace of the proposal — which the Senate approved Wednesday — marked an emerging trend of Abbott moving to his right in the closing weeks of the session, or at least offering clearer signals on some hot-button issues than Republicans have come to expect from the typically cautious governor.

In addition to permitless carry, he has said he would sign a “heartbeat” bill that could ban abortions at six weeks, as well as legislation that would prohibit transgender girls from joining Texas sports teams that match their gender identity. The House advanced the abortion legislation Wednesday, while the transgender sports bill is stalled in a lower-chamber committee.

Abbott’s support for the hard-right agenda is a contrast to the last session, when he and other state GOP leaders made clear they wanted to focus on a middle-of-the-road agenda in the run-up to a challenging 2020 election. And his approach differs somewhat from past sessions, when Abbott kept legislators in suspense on whether certain hot-button proposals would have his support — most notably the “bathroom bill” in 2017.

But Texas Republicans beat expectations in November, turning back an all-out Democratic offensive and positioning themselves for another decade of dominance in the Legislature because they fully control the redistricting process. Without an intimidating 2022 election on the horizon, Republicans at the Capitol are on track to have a more conservative session than the last one.

For Abbott specifically, the political context is unmistakable. He is staring down a 2022 primary in which he could face his first credible challenger for governor, and he has left open the possibility he could run for president in 2024, when sterling conservative credentials at home would be a prerequisite.

To be clear, Abbott signaled support for some decisively conservative causes in his State of the State speech in February, calling for a “law that ensures that the life of every child will be spared from the ravages of abortion.” But he has only gotten more specific since then.

Combined with Abbott’s March decision to lift virtually all statewide restrictions related to the coronavirus, his latest policy declarations may be disarming his intraparty opponents one issue at a time.

David Thomason, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University who previously worked for decades in Texas government and politics, said he did not think Abbott’s 2022 primary would be “competitive because he’s moving in directions that cut those other candidates off.” But Thomason said Abbott is no doubt working to recalibrate amid a shifting political environment from the national level on down.

“I think he’s a little nervous about it, whether the party will continue to support him if he doesn’t make those very strong conservative hard-right positions in public,” Thomason said. “I think that’s a big part of what’s going on with him.”

One of Abbott’s possible 2022 challengers is Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, who gave the governor credit Wednesday for making clear his positions on issues like permitless carry.

“I think [it was a] great thing when you saw the governor come out and say if these bills can get through the Legislature, he’ll sign them,” West said.

Of course, Abbott’s moves could still fail to appease his intraparty antagonists, who say he is only a lagging indicator and doing too little too late.

“The Legislature has been more responsive to the grassroots after their purple session last year,” said Luke Macias, a Republican consultant who works with some of Abbott’s most fervent critics inside the GOP. “The Texas GOP has pushed harder than ever to pass these priorities and all Abbott has done is admit that he won’t veto GOP priorities if they make it to his desk. It’s not leadership, it’s doing the absolute minimum in an attempt to survive.”

Meanwhile, the turn to the right is cause for distress among members of the opposition party, whose options are limited for stopping the bills Abbott has backed. Democrats in the Legislature this week decried the permitless carry bill as dangerous and the “fetal heartbeat” legislation as an extreme infringement on women’s rights. They have denounced voting measures backed by Abbott as voter suppression.

“The governor’s backing of radical, far-right proposals from extreme members within the Texas GOP moves our state further from the leadership we need and further from the values of Texans every single day,” Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Abbott has not been the leader Texans need and never will be.”

Abbott continues to enjoy the support of a strong majority of Republican voters, according to University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling. But his approval rating among GOP voters has nonetheless slipped in the past year, ticking down from 88% in April 2020 to 77% last month.

That period coincides with the coronavirus pandemic, which generated the most conservative pushback that Abbott has had to deal with since he took office in 2015. He quieted some of the internecine sniping in March when he lifted virtually all statewide restrictions related to the virus, including the mask mandate.

But some fellow Republicans continue to put daylight between themselves and Abbott’s pandemic management. In a New York Times story published Tuesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton said he wished Abbott had reopened the state “a little bit earlier,” and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller griped about still “having to wear my damn mask.”

West has also been a critic of Abbott’s pandemic response, and he has handed primary voters a blueprint to judge the governor by as he has aggressively lobbied for the party’s eight legislative priorities. The priorities include some issues that Abbott has firmly aligned with — like “election integrity,” which he named an emergency item, and “constitutional carry” — but also some that he has been quieter on, like ending gender-confirmation surgeries for minors.

To Thomason, the West-led transformation of the state party into an enforcer of such ideology has been a “big factor” in Abbott’s overtures to his right.

“It’s almost like the party is trying to dictate to the official … the direction the official should go,” instead of vice versa, Thomason said, “and that’s been something that’s been significant.”

Disclosure: St. Edward’s University and New York Times 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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