Greg Abbott’s Weird Primary Gamble
The governor tried love and botched it, so now he’s trying the politics of fear.
Governor Greg Abbott was born in Wichita Falls, the grandson of a country preacher, but his own political origin story begins in River Oaks, one of Houston’s richest neighborhoods. It was there, in 1984, that a falling oak tree started what figures in Abbotology as The Struggle. He emerged “broken but unbowed,” with a “spine of steel,” ready to begin his fight.
Abbott inherited the governor’s mansion in 2014, without a fight, from a man who had worn the office like a second skin for 15 years. The main impression Abbott has given since then is one of unease. He hoards cash — $43 million, at last count — and avoids political risks whenever possible. His public statements and campaign missives are paranoid, fearful of unseen enemies — George Soros, election fraud, Jade Helm. The Struggle continues, but as Abbott has grown in power, his enemies have gotten considerably smaller.
On the first day of early voting in this year’s Republican primary, The Struggle has taken Abbott back to well-heeled Houston, where he is hunting unusual prey: state Representative Sarah Davis, of House District 134, which contains River Oaks, West University Place and Bellaire. Abbott has come to stump for Susanna Dokupil, a board member of the Seasteading Institute who is challenging Davis from the far right.
The rally has valet parking, which feels authentic for this part of town. Little else does. The crowd seems to consist largely of professional political people, journalists and conservative activists from around Houston. Strangely, it falls to a member of the latter category to introduce Dokupil to the crowd — Robin Lennon, head of the Kingwood Tea Party, one of the state’s most vociferous activist groups.
Kingwood is some 35 miles away from Bellaire, and the kind of politics Lennon’s organization preaches have almost no purchase here, where voters are white-collar types who find activists icky. But Lennon takes the stage with traditional vigor. Reading from her phone, she runs through Dokupil’s biography — she is the principal of a consulting firm called Paladin Strategies, though Lennon pronounces it “Puh-laddin” — and issues a challenge. “Are we going to take our country back?” she asks. “Are we going to take District 134 back?”
It is appropriate to ask: From whom? Lennon does not live here — this place is not hers to win or to lose. Neither does Abbott, of course. And neither does almost anyone who has publicly backed Dokupil — some 80 to 90 percent of Dokupil’s entire campaign purse comes from Abbott, who has provided more than $160,000, and a close-knit network of ideological pressure groups in Austin’s orbit.
The answer, it seems, is that Lennon and Abbott are here to save the people of this district from themselves, the constituents who have expressed a curious disinterest in unseating Davis in 2016, even as the district went for Hillary Clinton by 15 points after going to Mitt Romney by the same margin in 2014. And while it’s tempting to cast this race as another expensive proxy war between moderate and conservative Republicans, which it is, the race is notable primarily because of how fake it is, how empty of substance.
Dokupil’s campaign has been airdropped into this district, and Dokupil herself is only incidental to it. It is indistinct from any other race waged by a conservative challenger, and is sustained primarily through lies — especially dishonorable ones. It is all the governor’s doing. And the damndest thing is that it’s not clear what he hopes to get out of it.
Davis has long been the target of conservative groups — she is the most moderate Republican in the House, and the party’s only pro-choice lawmaker. She was the first of three lawmakers so targeted by the governor, along with Lyle Larson of San Antonio and Wayne Faircloth of Galveston. Little seemed to bind the three. Observers soon noted that all had sparred with the governor over ethics legislation — particularly, efforts to make it more difficult for Abbott to appoint campaign donors to state commissions and boards, which he likes doing very much. That may be why the three were selected, but that doesn’t really explain the political calculus.
The dominant theory is that Abbott is simply trying to frighten the herd. “I don’t think this is really about me,” Davis told me recently. “I think Abbott wants to exert complete control over the House.” If Abbott beats his incumbents, he’ll look strong, and he can use that to compel the lower chamber. But if he fails to unseat any of the three, “he’s going to walk into session with a pretty unhappy House.” He’ll look weak. “He looks weak already, by the fact that he can’t handle criticism. He seems very immature, in a way,” Davis said.
During his first session in 2015, the governor needed votes to save his signature pre-K proposal, so he came to the House with a soft-touch approach. “Abbott came to the caucus and spoke to the members and said, ‘If you’re there with me today, I’ll be there for you when you need me,’” Davis said. House Republicans “understood that to mean, he’ll be with you during the next campaign.” But then he sat out the 2016 cycle. And when the next legislative session came around, members felt much less deferential to the governor. In short, Abbott tried love and botched it, so now he’s trying fear.
Davis compares Abbott to Rick Perry, who had served in the House and worked hard to build and maintain personal relationships. “[Abbott’s] concept of governing is ordering people around,” Davis said. Last year, “he came into this regular session and kind of chided us,” she said, “and then was absent for the rest of the session.”
When the Legislature didn’t pass bills Abbott had expressed an interest in, he added them to a long list of priorities for the special session, as if the list were homework. “He certainly didn’t do anything between the regular and the special session to build coalitions,” Davis said. Instead, he famously threatened that lawmakers who didn’t do as he wished would be put on a “list.” So Abbott’s bills failed again, and then he went on a punitive expedition.
The governor’s case against Davis centers on one particularly explosive charge, which he deployed again at the rally. “Sarah Davis voted to take 70 percent of the governor’s disaster relief fund out of the budget. That could have rendered us basically incapable of adequately responding to Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott told the crowd. “She admitted that she did it. That’s what I call poor judgement, disastrous judgement.”
Abbott was referring to a series of votes that took place on August 3, 2017, during last summer’s special session, fleshed out at some length in the Houston Chronicle. In short: Davis had authored a bill that restored funding to a disabled kids’ Medicaid program that the Legislature destroyed in 2015. Her co-author, Matt Krause, offered an amendment to switch the source of the money from the Rainy Day Fund to a disaster relief fund. Davis argued against that amendment, noting that her district was prone to disasters, but she lost — the House passed the Krause amendment and then the bill, which ultimately was never picked up by the Senate.
“At the end of the day,” Davis said, “the governor’s legislative liaison was waiting on a bench outside my office to say that the governor was grateful I had tried to defend his disaster relief fund.” Hurricane Harvey hit less than a month later, and Abbott descended. He began telling people in Houston that Davis, by voting for the overall bill, had been the one to attack the governor’s disaster relief fund. Strangely, Abbott had long ago endorsed Krause, the person who was responsible for the thing he was blaming Davis for.
This is not dishonesty in the normal way of the Legislature, the dishonesty of omission and spin. It is a particularly dishonorable kind of lying. Abbott is trying to make the pain of the victims of Hurricane Harvey redound to Davis, in a manner that does not hold up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. Whether or not Abbott wins these races, people will remember that.
The governor has put a lot on the line for Susanna Dokupil. So, who is Susanna Dokupil? “Hi,” she says, looking into the camera. She is leaning uncomfortably on the countertop in someone’s kitchen, hands clasped, in an early ad for her candidacy. “Last session, the Legislature failed to pass meaningful property tax reform. And sadly, our current representative was part of the problem.” Current Representative has the feel of a placeholder, as if the script read: And sadly, [insert incumbent’s name here] was a part of the problem.
Much of Dokupil’s campaign, and Abbott’s, has the feel of interchangeability. As early voting started, Dokupil’s campaign website remained bare-bones — a premade template filled out with a picture of her family, a video from Abbott and a volunteer form that immediately redirects you to a donation page. That’s about it, except for an “issues” page of spectacular banality: “As a mother of four, I want to raise my child in a community safe from crimes and natural disasters,” Dokupil offers. (One wonders about her commitment to the other three.)
The easiest way to get to know Dokupil is through her work at the Seasteading Institute, a utopian libertarian project funded by Peter Thiel, one of the worst people in Silicon Valley. Seasteaders seek to build modular aquatic communes in international waters beyond the reach of “land-based government.” Dokupil sits on the institute’s board, and she served as a “master of ceremonies” at an institute get-together in Tahiti in 2017. It’s easy to play seasteading for laughs, but it is wholly appropriate that it figures so highly in this year’s Republican primary.
Seasteading is a new incarnation of the old libertarian fantasy of a full retreat from the hell of other people. On the “fluid frontier,” Dokupil’s friend Joe Quirk says in one institute video, all associations between people will be voluntary. Then, he says, we can “stop fighting.” On land, everybody fights. And we do fight a lot, on land, but we fight because from the moment we’re born our well-being is never inseparable from that of others.
That’s what libertarians call slavery, and what the rest of us call politics. We engage in it because it is the first condition of being a moral creature in the world. To believe otherwise is a sort of mental adolescence, one that extends beyond Dokupil — hers is a party of seasteaders, and Abbott is the seasteader’s governor. They preach withdrawal from institutions — retreating from the city to the suburbs, weakening the social safety net and strengthening the churches, withdrawing from public schools and enrolling in private ones.
Dokupil takes the stage in Bellaire. She seems jittery — she has a habit of laughing into the microphone whenever people start to applaud. She’ll cut property taxes and put an end to school finance recapture, to help the people of these immensely privileged neighborhoods separate even more from others. She nails one line: “There are going to be a lot of special interests out of Austin that are going to have my opponent’s back,” she says to the crowd. “But the governor and I are going to have your back.” Given the composition of the crowd, it’s hard to know who’s she’s speaking to.
Abbott takes the stage, and casts the race in grandiose terms. “This is a fight for the very future of both the Republican Party and the state of Texas.” It can’t be simply about Abbott’s ego, could it? If it is a fight, it’s a fight between something and nothing, between politics and anti-politics, ideological shadowboxing. Whatever else it is is hard to say. Next session, perhaps, the governor will learn a little more about political interdependence — no man is an island.