Greg Abbott finally took a side in Texas, and it's paying off for him

As the dust settles from Texas’s GOP primary earthquake, two political winners stand out: Governor Greg Abbott (R) and Attorney General Ken Paxton (R).

Paxton’s success is unsurprising. Long associated with the GOP’s grassroots, the attorney general has built himself up with a long and mostly successful record of lawsuits against the federal government and left-wing municipalities. When the establishment-oriented Texas House of Representatives impeached Paxton last spring, he fought back and won.

Abbott’s success, however, is much more interesting and instructive.

The Texas Republican Party tends to divide into two dueling ideological camps. On the one hand, a monied establishment has deep pockets but few supporters. On the other hand, the party’s grassroots has broad support, but operates at a financial disadvantage. In recent primary cycles, this dynamic has yielded ideologically muddied results.

A former state Supreme Court justice, Abbott’s judicial temperament has led him to straddle this divide. This has meant establishment-friendly policies, such as a 2015 pre-K initiative or the 2019 creation of a “mental health” consortium, alongside attempts to appease the grassroots with rhetoric, such as bashing former President Barack Obama and a 2017 “sanctuary cities ban” that was more hat than cattle. This has always kept Abbott politically safe, but it has also pleased nobody.

The COVID-19 pandemic began to dislodge this strategy. While the establishment was content to follow Anthony Fauci’s dictates, pandemic restrictions in cities such as Austin and Dallas begat fierce grassroots pushback. In addition, the pandemic created unprecedented discontent with the public education system.

By the time the Texas legislature returned for its 2021 regular session, the establishment was on the defensive. In addition, a quixotic primary challenge against Abbott by former state senator Don Huffines (R) forced the governor to call multiple special legislative sessions — something Abbott had previously been loath to do — in order to pass legislation that would guard his right flank on such topics as biologically male student athletes in girls’ sports, election integrity, abortion and critical race theory.

After easily defeating his primary and general election opponents, Abbott was expected to return to the modus operandi of his first two terms. But he had other plans. 

He entered his third term determined to pass a school choice bill, which is not as easy as it sounds. Texas is a conservative state, but its public education system is a front for crude political patronage. Especially in rural parts of the state, school districts are often the largest employers in their communities. The local superintendent is an old-fashioned boss at the head of a political machine, for which the education of children is only a secondary concern.

This time, Abbott uncharacteristically chose to challenge this patronage system. When the Texas House refused even to vote on school choice, Abbott called the legislature back for multiple special sessions. Finally, in the fourth special session, the Texas House did vote, with 21 Republicans joining all Democrats to kill the bill.

Instead of throwing up his hands in defeat, as he has done in the past after encountering opposition to school choice in the state House, Abbott spent the next several months actively campaigning against the 16 anti-school choice Republicans who stood for re-election (five others retired rather than face the voters). Six of those 16 lost outright this month. Four others are headed to runoffs, which they are all expected to lose.

Combined with Paxton’s concurrent efforts, Abbott helped bring about unprecedented incumbent losses in this year’s Republican primary. This includes, potentially, a loss by Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, who faces his own runoff.

In his famous speech at the 1976 GOP convention, Ronald Reagan called for “a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastels.” Greg Abbott’s first two terms were drawn in pastels, but his more recent successes with bold colors should be instructive for Republicans everywhere.

Adam Cahn is an Austin-based activist and a former political blogger.

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