Texas Gov. Greg Abbott faces seven Republican opponents in the March 1 Republican primary as he seeks a third term leading the Lone Star State. But he has spent most of his campaign attacking the likely Democratic nominee, Beto O’Rourke.
Left-leaning policy proposals pushed by O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, during his unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign have become campaign fodder for Abbott in the more conservative state.
Abbott’s campaign views the primary as a “dress rehearsal for the general election,” Dave Carney, general consultant for Abbott’s reelection team, told CNN, adding that the focus was on turning out as many voters as possible “so that we just have a larger base to draw on for the general.”
“We’re just running at full throttle to try to jack turnout on March 1. It’s very simple. There’s no trickery or ‘strategery’ or bank shots. It’s just straight up turn out the vote,” Carney said.
Abbott began the campaign cycle facing intraparty criticism that he wasn’t conservative enough and was too slow to fully reopen the state after the pandemic first hit. He has since leaned into hot-button Republican issues over the past year to counter those attacks.
Now, he boasts a record that includes enacting new election and voting restrictions and a ban on abortions after six weeks. He issued an executive order forbidding all entities, including private employers, from enforcing vaccine mandates. He signed into law legislation to allow Texans to carry handguns without obtaining a permit or training, and a bill banning transgender youth from participating on school sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.
And, earlier this month, Abbott asked the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate cases of gender-affirming surgical treatments and hormone therapy given to transgender youth, saying such treatment constituted “child abuse.”
The strategy to cover his right flank appears to have worked. Abbott secured the endorsement of former President Donald Trump last year. And buoyed by high name recognition and a massive campaign war chest, he is well positioned to dominate Tuesday’s GOP primary and secure the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff. A University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll from earlier this month showed him garnering the support of 60% of registered voters who intend to vote in the Republican primary. Abbott also led O’Rourke 47% to 37% in a hypothetical November matchup, according to the survey.
Abbott – who got his start in Texas politics as a state district judge before serving on the Texas Supreme Court and as state attorney general – launched his campaign last November with a focus on border security and police support.
“I want you to know I’m running for reelection to protect and secure our border. I’m running for reelection to support our police officers in the great state of Texas. And I’m running to make sure Texas remains a job creation machine,” he said in a video posted to his Twitter at the time.
His campaign stressed that the emphasis on these issues is not a new one for Abbott.
“We’ve been talking about those things for five, four years now,” Carney said.
O’Rourke, who faces only token opposition in the Democratic primary, drew national attention in 2018 when he held Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz to a narrow 3-point win. The following year he launched his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination but ended up suspending his campaign after eight months.
Abbott’s campaign has accused O’Rourke of flip-flopping and backtracking on comments he made about the southern border, guns and the Green New Deal while running for president in 2020.
“You know, he’s just been all over the map. The Beto 3.0 is nothing like the Beto 1.0,” Carney said.
Abbott started attacking O’Rourke as radical and out of touch for Texas even before O’Rourke had made his gubernatorial candidacy official. An Abbott campaign ad from late October deceptively edited O’Rourke’s words about policing to try to make him sound more extreme, CNN reported at the time.
O’Rourke, for his part, has said he wants to focus on crime in a different way than his potential opponent, calling for providing police with “the resources they need to prevent and solve violent crime” but also investing “in mental health services, crisis counselors, and social workers to reduce the burden on police officers and more effectively address homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance abuse.”
On border security, O’Rourke says he wants to make Texas a leader by reforming the process to create a “legal, orderly system of immigration” that will “uphold” the “country’s asylum laws.” He’s also criticized Abbott for the failure of the Texas power grid last year that left millions without power across the state.
Abbott, whose campaign reported almost $50 million in its coffers as of February 20, faces seven challengers in the GOP primary. They include real estate executive and former state Sen. Don Huffines, former Florida congressman and onetime chairman of the Texas GOP Allen West and conservative commentator Chad Prather.
Huffines has slammed Abbott as a Republican in name only, or RINO, and is running on a platform to “finish the wall, secure our elections and ban vaccine mandates.”
West released a 40-point list of reasons to “fire Abbott.” The retired Army lieutenant colonel cited concerns over the situation at the southern border, property taxes and the protocols around mask mandates during the pandemic.
Prather, who told CNN he was recently banned on Facebook for a comment he made about January 6, has a massive social media following and hosts a show on the right-wing Blaze TV. He said he launched his campaign in part because he opposed Abbott’s decision to implement mandates and shut down businesses without legislative counsel or oversight earlier in the pandemic.
Prather said running against Abbott has been an “uphill climb,” citing the incumbent’s name ID and record. But he said Texans are “tired of seeing big government, they’re tired of seeing the overreach, they’re tired of seeing the bloated spending, as well as the spiraling upward of taxes on their property.”
“It’s time to put true conservativism back in place in Texas. And when I say that, what I mean is small government,” he said.
The other Republicans challenging Abbott are Rick Perry, who shares a name with the state’s former governor, retired mortgage broker and philanthropist Kandy Kaye Horn, entrepreneur and businessman Danny Harrison and criminal defense attorney Paul Belew.
Belew told CNN that he’s “a little bit more of a moderate,” adding that he supports the legalization of THC and marijuana products as well as the introduction of gaming in Texas as a method to combat high property taxes and issues around immigration.
“I think it’s a way to kind of bring the far right and the far left together a little bit. I’ve kind of distanced myself from the radical rats where I live. They seem to be a little extreme,” Belew said.
Belew said his decision to throw his hat in the ring for the GOP nomination was “not necessarily a decision to run against Governor Abbott.”
“I think he’s done a decent job, I just think it’s time for a change and that’s not always a bad thing,” the candidate said.
CNN reached out to the other Republican primary candidates’ campaigns but did not hear back or receive answers to questions posed.
While Trump has backed primary challengers to GOP incumbents in other races, notably in Georgia’s gubernatorial contest, that’s not the case in Texas, where the former President is standing by Abbott.
In his endorsement last June, Trump said Abbott was a “staunch defender of the Second Amendment,” “very tough on crime” and “all in on Election Integrity,” adding that “no Governor has done more to secure the border and keep our communities safe than Governor Abbott.”
Last fall, however, Trump ramped up pressure on Abbott to allow an election audit bill, separate from the state’s new election law that Abbott signed, to move forward in a state Trump won in 2020. The Trump-backed bill, which would have made it easier for candidates and others to request audits of election results, later died after Abbott failed to put it on the legislative agenda during a special session. But Abbott later requested redistributing $4 million in funding for the Texas secretary of state’s office to build an “Election Audit Division” to oversee county election audits, as required by the new election law, The Texas Tribune reported.
In his campaign for a third term, Abbott also has the support of groups such as the National Rifle Association, the Texas Farm Bureau Friends of Agriculture Fund and the Texas Association of Business’ PAC.
The Republican Governor’s Association, which endorses incumbents in primary races and has backed Abbott this year, expressed confidence in his chances for reelection. It has not spent resources on the Texas governor’s race so far.
“Democrats always find new ways to waste money and Beto is the perfect candidate for them. He’ll do as well against Greg Abbott as Wendy Davis and Lupe Valdez,” RGA spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said in a statement, referring to the Democratic nominees Abbott defeated by double digits in 2014 and 2018, respectively. “And while Democrats light their money on fire in Texas, the RGA is able to remain focused on our efforts to flip blue states in the region, like New Mexico and Kansas, to red.”