Heading into his reelection bid, Republican Governor Greg Abbott appeared more vulnerable—from the left, right, and middle—than at any time in his long political career.
Twenty-one months ago, Abbott presided over the worst and deadliest power grid failure ever seen in Texas—proudly touted as the energy capital of the world. Fourteen months ago, he signed into law the most draconian abortion ban in the country. Just over five months ago came the most lethal school shooting in Texas history, followed by a prolonged state cover-up of law enforcement failures. Major state agencies and government systems—Child Protective Services, juvenile justice, prisons—are plagued by dysfunction and understaffing. Public schools have been marred by Republicans’ culture crusades, fueling a statewide teacher shortage. Such, one might think, are not the makings of an easy reelection.
Alas, welcome to Texas.
Election Day proved that the governor’s hold on power in Texas is as strong as ever as he won by over 10 points and carried all but 19 of 254 counties in the state.
During his campaign, Abbott incessantly focused on Joe Biden’s presidency, gas prices and inflation, Texas’ humming economy, and most of all, on border security and fentanyl—using his sprawling border initiative Operation Lone Star as a multi-billion-dollar campaign prop. He mostly ignored touchy subjects like his no-exceptions abortion ban or the fourth-graders torn apart by high-powered rifle bullets in their elementary classroom while police hung around in the hallway. By way of reward, Abbott received a decisive political mandate Tuesday—ensuring that the eight-year-long age of Abbott will continue on for another four years.
Having swatted away the strongest Texas Democratic candidate in a generation, Beto O’Rourke, with ease, Abbott is now free to do whatever the hell he pleases. O’Rourke’s hopes of building upon his explosive 2018 Senate campaign fell flat in an unfavorable political environment. While the Democrat still raised tons of money and campaigned at a ferocious pace, turnout reverted to lackluster pre-Trump levels. If the polls throughout the campaign were accurate, the El Paso Democrat never even got within striking distance.
The further entrenchment of one-party GOP dominance in Texas—increasingly unfettered by fear of electoral consequence, competition, and accountability—does not bode well for the coming years. Conservative lawmakers will enter the upcoming legislative session with few political inhibitions—Abbott and co. will feel free to reign as they wish, to double down in pursuit of the unbridled whims of their extremist party base.
By contrast, Republicans responded to the Democratic surge in 2018 with a 2019 legislative session largely dedicated to matters of serious policy—school finance and property taxes. When Democrats faceplanted in their attempts to make further gains and flip the Texas House in 2020, Republicans responded the next year with perhaps the most wrathful, vindictive, radical legislative session ever seen in the state Capitol—passing punitive abortion bans and voter restrictions, lifting gun regulations, targeting transgender children, creating dictates for the teaching of history and race in public school classrooms.
And Abbott’s power and influence within state government will likely grow only larger, more unchecked, more imbalanced, over these next four years—assuming, of course, he doesn’t opt for a presidential bid like his two predecessors. Since he was first elected, Abbott has greatly expanded the scope of his executive powers within state government—especially over the past few years—while the Republican-controlled Legislature, state Supreme Court, and state bureaucracy have looked on with abiding deference. GOP attempts to humble Abbott in the March primary proved futile.
So what will he do with his power in what may be his final term in office? As his political consigliere Dave Carney told the Dallas Morning News on election night, Abbott is eager to continue the rightward march in Texas. “He’s really looking forward to having a solid majority in the Legislature who support him and support his ideas.”
Abbott has long been something of a political cipher—his true beliefs and motivations a mystery—akin to a weathervane blowing in the wind of Republican politics. For most of his tenure, it’s been unclear what “his ideas” even are. Questions of what Abbott actually believes, what drives him, what he wants to accomplish, have been a favorite parlor game for political observers. So far, the best answer has simply been that he likes power for power’s sake.
But his actions over the past eight years have repeatedly shown how low he’s willing to go in service of that power. His third term will show how much lower he can take us in this expedition.