With a simple statement, the man from Mar-a-Lago can still make or break political fortunes. Exhibit A: the GOP primaries in Texas. This summer, former President Donald Trump issued his “Complete and Total Endorsement” of two of Texas’ most powerful Republicans—Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton—who both face the toughest primary battles of their careers in 2022.
The endorsement was a major coup for Abbott, who hasn’t had the close relationship with Trump that other top Texas Republicans have enjoyed. His already tepid relationship with the party’s right wing soured after his use of emergency powers during the pandemic was perceived as tyrannical. The tumult prompted a pair of hard-line challengers—former state Senator Don Huffines and Florida-man-turned-Texas-GOP-chair Allen West—to attempt to dethrone King Abbott.
That’s probably why, after the November elections, Abbott launched into a flattering rendition of Trumpism in an apparent attempt to woo the former president and simmer the resentment and acrimony within his party’s far-right ranks. While the Legislature was in session this spring, the governor traipsed around the state, blasting President Joe Biden on immigration and border security every chance he got. He pledged to continue Trump’s legacy by proposing a plan for the state to build its own border wall and using state troopers and the state militia as his personal border patrol brigade.
He also signed into law several key conservative priorities, including permitless carry and a near-total ban on abortion. He then called a special session this summer demanding that the Legislature pass legislation on “election integrity,” a ban on critical race theory in schools, and a bill targeting trans kids’ participation in school sports. Abbott used his veto powers to effectively blackmail the Legislature: Meet my demands by September or I’ll cut funding for the entire legislative branch.
Abbott secured Trump’s endorsement in June in a much-hyped photo op in front of a chunk of border wall in South Texas. Already buoyed by a $50 million campaign war chest, Abbott is on even stronger footing with Trump’s support. That may have also convinced Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller—one of Trump’s favorite Texans and a vocal Abbott critic—to abandon his plans to run against the governor.
That leaves Abbott with two main opponents, both trying to channel the angst of the conservative grassroots. Huffines is a tea-party darling who lost his Dallas senate seat to a Democrat in 2018. West is a former Florida congressman who moved to Texas and eventually wrested control of the party apparatus when he was elected Texas GOP chair in 2020. West used that platform to bash Abbott and other state Republican leaders while playing footsie with the Trump-inspired QAnon conspiracy movement.
While Trump’s decision stung many of his conservative allies in Texas who see the governor as a faux-conservative and irredeemable Austin swamp-dweller, Abbott’s opponents have brushed it off. “I don’t serve President Trump,” West said in June. “I serve God, country, and Texas. So that does not affect me whatsoever.” Neither insurgent would likely be able to take Abbott down alone, but conservative activists hope that in tandem, Huffines and West can secure enough votes to force Abbott into a runoff. But Abbott’s right-wing offensive—endorsed by Trump himself—may leave his opponents with little more than rocks and slingshots.
Then there’s Paxton, who, on paper, is the most vulnerable statewide GOP incumbent in Texas. Soon after taking office in 2015, he was indicted on state securities fraud charges and has been out on bond ever since. His ethical challenges prompted opposition and a surprisingly close 2018 reelection. Things are even worse now, with the FBI investigating allegations of bribery and corruption involving Paxton’s relationship with a notorious Austin real estate developer and donor. In Trumpian fashion, Paxton has fought his legal scandals tooth and nail, saying his political enemies are just trying to destroy him and writing off his former deputies as “rogue” and disgruntled.
Smelling blood in the water, two serious challengers are now attempting to topple Paxton. The most prominent is Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who was once seen as the future of the Republican Party—and his family’s political legacy. Then came Trump, who savaged the presidential campaign of his father, Jeb Bush, the initial frontrunner in 2016. A broken “Low Energy Jeb” dropped out with a whimper. But while the rest of the Bush family shunned Trump, George P. quickly jumped on board.
Bush hoped that might be enough to convince Trump to endorse him over the scandal-plagued Paxton, one of 45’s most loyal acolytes. He and Trump talked on the phone, and Bush even went to kiss the ring at Trump’s New Jersey golf club. The gambit reeked of desperation from the start. As part of his campaign launch, Bush handed out koozies with an image of Trump embracing Bush, emblazoned with a quote: “This is the only Bush that likes me! This is the Bush that got it right. I like him.”
It seemed almost delusional to think that Trump would endorse a Bush over a ride-or-die ally like Paxton, who spoke at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 and was the only state AG willing to put his name on a lawsuit seeking to overturn several states’ election results. More likely, Trump enjoyed making Jeb’s son grovel and beg for support. In late July, Trump delivered his endorsement to Paxton, making no mention of Bush.
Even as the MAGA-certified candidate, Paxton still has a fight on his hands. Bush has edged out Paxton in fundraising so far this year, in part by poaching a number of Paxton’s former campaign donors. And he is also contending with another well-funded challenger in former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who is backed by the powerful business PAC Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Bush and Guzman are both running as strong conservatives while trying to attract Republicans who are fed up with Paxton’s inability to keep his nose clean. That is likely to be enough to at least force the pride of Collin County into a runoff.