In part, raising the Texas flag is a return to form for Abbott, who made a political career out of suing the Obama administration. As state attorney general, his posture toward Washington was so hostile that he said of his job in 2013, “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
But in restoring Texas to its place as Washington’s chief antagonist, Abbott is also doing something more revealing: Facing criticism from Republican activists for the mask mandate and business restrictions he imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, he is covering his right flank, while re-elevating immigration and border security — a major concern to Republican base voters — as a national issue. Just as important, he is carving out a distinct lane in the GOP’s presidential sweepstakes at a time when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is beginning to rise in stature among the party grassroots.
Bill Pozzi, the GOP chair in heavily Republican Victoria County, said Abbott’s aggressiveness on border policy represents a “mea culpa” to conservatives for his handling of the pandemic. Still, he said Abbott is “doing the exact right thing.”
“I don’t get why we’re so reluctant to challenge the federal government,” Pozzi said. “The federal government is vulnerable, and when they’re making so many terrible decisions, come on. Who made them God? They’re not God.”
It was only four months ago that Abbott was suffering a beating in Texas for his handling of the deadly winter storm and electrical grid failure in the state. Millions of Texans were left freezing in their homes, while Abbott came under criticism for echoing misleading claims that renewable energy was to blame. Meanwhile, Abbott’s issuance of a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic enraged conservatives.
In a major lift for his rehabilitation with the base, former President Donald Trump, who has already endorsed Abbott’s reelection campaign, will appear with him along the U.S.-Mexico border next week — a coronation of sorts in the GOP’s anti-Biden crusade.
“With Trump’s endorsement and his trip down to the border, and frankly what [Abbott] has said on the border the last couple of weeks, I think it’s a stroke of, maybe not genius, but … I just think it’s really smart, and I think it’s going to help him politically,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist based in Austin.
He said, “He really has a very good political barometer.”
Abbott, in announcing his plan to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, insisted that he was not making a political calculation, saying “anyone who thinks this is politics doesn’t have a clue what’s going on at the border.”
“This ain’t Dr. Seuss or some other manufactured outrage,” said Republican strategist Dave Carney, who advises Abbott. “This is a serious public policy problem that’s going to affect the whole country.”
Still, Abbott would not be the first Texas governor to use his perch to advance a national profile. His two immediate predecessors, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, both ran for president.
Regardless of the motive, the political advantage that Abbott is gaining from the border controversy — and his positioning against Biden — could hardly be more obvious. In his bid for a third term in 2022, Abbott is facing a challenge from the right flank, with Don Huffines, a former state senator, already in the race.
Allen West, the firebrand former Florida congressman and outgoing chair of the Texas Republican Party, is also considering a bid. Even Abbott’s critics say his focus on immigration — and the thumb he’s putting in Biden’s eye on Texas’ behalf — is likely to help blunt conservatives’ frustrations with his handling of the pandemic.
“That’s what Texans like,” said Republican state Rep. Bryan Slaton, who introduced a bill earlier this year to finish building a border wall. “They love telling D.C. what to do.”
Slaton, who questioned why Abbott is only now championing the idea, said Abbott should be pushing the border wall through the legislature in a special session, not making a “unilateral decision.” Still, Slaton, who said he won’t support Abbott in the Republican primary, said he is “pretty sure” Abbott’s effort will provide him with an advantage in the race.