The nationalization of Texas politics has created a challenge for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s had to fend off criticism of his border security approach and endure former President Donald Trump’s insistence on election audits.
Moderates and Democrats charge that Abbott has gone too far right with his conservative agenda. They decry his plan to finish Trump’s border wall, deplore the state’s new law that limits mail-in voting and denounce Texas’ law that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
That’s just a sample of the bounty of conservative legislation approved by the Legislature this year over four legislative sessions. Abbott also has banned vaccine mandates and passports.
But that isn’t enough for some national conservative voices that influence conservative voters.
Gov. Greg Abbott during a press conference in Dallas, March 17, 2021, addressing the arrival of a few hundred immigrant teen boys from the border to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed Tuesday that the convention center will serve as an emergency intake site to hold teens who have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border starting Wednesday to decrease overcrowding at Customs and Border Protection facilities. (Lola Gomez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lola Gomez)
Ordinarily, what folks outside the state think about the Texas governor isn’t of great concern. It’s the view inside Texas that counts the most.
But Abbott is dueling with Florida Republican Ron DeSantis for the conservative title of America’s governor. The person who fills that role could be a contender for a national ticket in 2024, depending on whether Trump makes another run for the White House.
More urgently, Republican activists are swayed by the coverage they see on conservative media networks. If the national media has negative perceptions of an elected leader or political candidate, it could result in a backlash at the polls.
“Between COVID and the border situation, local issues have become nationalized,” said former Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Neerman. “Border security is a very important issue to voters around the country, and they naturally focus on Texas because that’s where the issues with migrants have been.”
Former state Sen. Donald Huffines of Dallas and former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West of Garland are the leading challengers against Abbott in the 2022 Republican primary for governor. They have been pointed in their criticism of Abbott’s record, including on border security issues.
Neerman doesn’t put much stock in that criticism, countering that Abbott should be heavily favored to win his March primary contest. But he does add that national figures dabbling into Texas politics often have a distorted view.
“Whether it’s election security or border security, this governor has done an awful lot,” Neerman said. “And this legislative session showed that, but it’s not going to satisfy people who don’t live in the state.”
For the past several weeks Abbott’s record on border security hasn’t been satisfactory to popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Last month, Carlson, whose show is the highest-rated news program on cable television, began lambasting Abbott for not deploying enough personnel to interrupt a rising tide of unauthorized immigrants that Republicans blame on President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
Although Abbott has secured nearly $3 billion from the Legislature this year to significantly ramp up the state’s border security effort, including a plan to put 2,500 Texas Military Department personnel there, some staunch conservatives are calling it too little, too late.
Even more galling to Abbott and his supporters, Carlson invited Huffines and West to appear a week apart on his prime-time show to discuss the governor’s alleged failure to supply enough soldiers. That prompted a flurry of Abbott social media posts supportive of the soldiers. “Join me in thanking the Texas National Guard for their daily work to secure our border,” Abbott tweeted on Sept. 22.
Join me in thanking the Texas National Guard for their daily work to secure our border.
Some work with the Texas Dept. of Public Safety to secure towns like Del Rio.
Others work to prepare for building a border wall & barriers.
Others guard remote areas.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) September 23, 2021
Secure in the need to respond, Abbott last Thursday appeared on Carlson’s show. Interested parties waited for fireworks.
Abbott had been prepped for a tense exchange, but it didn’t occur. Carlson asked the governor a couple of questions about border security. They bashed Biden’s efforts.
“We now have 6,500 National Guard and DPS troopers on the border to help secure the border. And as we’re talking right now, they are identifying locations on the border where they are laying down razor wire to secure all the possible crossings that these caravans may be coming to,” Abbott told Carlson.
Abbott said the National Guard and Department of Public Safety were placing large metal shipping containers at places that “could be crossings” for migrant caravans sighted in Mexico. He said state officials have advised him that portions of his proposed state-built border wall will be erected by Dec. 31.
Carlson didn’t challenge Abbott, and the short segment closed without fireworks.
Texas governor Greg Abbott speaks while President Donald Trump watches on as the President and officials discuss hurricane response at Signature Flight Support near Love Field in Dallas Wednesday October 25, 2017. President Trump participated in a hurricane recovery briefing, a Republican National Committee roundtable and give remarks at a reception. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News)(Andy Jacobsohn / Staff Photographer)
The Abbott/Carlson episode comes after Trump prodded Abbott to support a forensic audit of the 2020 Texas elections. Yes, the same elections that resulted in Trump’s comfortable victory over Joe Biden in the Lone Star State’s presidential contest.
Though it was difficult and perhaps unwise for Abbott to publicly engage with Trump, he’ll probably make more appearances on national conservative shows, especially if designed to defend his name.
“This is part of the nationalization of state politics in Texas,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s very hard to ignore that kind of criticism because your base is plugged into those media outlets.”
Henson said Republicans across the U.S., including those in Texas, are eager to appear on conservative networks. Frequent voters watch the shows on networks like Fox News.
“A lot of state officials, including in Texas, benefit from appearing on those shows because it’s a great way to get their message out, and building some degree of a national profile is a bonus,” Henson said. “But there’s a downside to that. You can’t guarantee the most well-known figures on those outlets are going to always be your friend, are going to always approve of what you do and are always going to be on your side.”
In the contentious era of Trump, Republican voters are increasing connected to national themes. That’s why Abbott and GOP lawmakers pushed a legislative agenda filled with issues familiar to folks across the country, including the new elections law, banning the teaching of critical race theory, curbing so-called social media censorship and regulating transgender athletes.
At a forum earlier this spring, several Republican candidates to replace the late Ron Wright in Congress touted their ability to get on national television. Jake Ellzey eventually won the race over Susan Wright, the Trump-backed candidate.
And it’s not just Republicans who crave the national spotlight. Texas Democrats are swayed by progressive programming on networks such as MSNBC and CNN.
“You kind of make a deal with the devil and then you’re kind of stuck with it,” Henson said. “There’s that dynamic in which there’s a slant to the discussion and the coverage, and it can benefit you, but then you have to deal with it when it hurts you.”