• The Star Staff

Red vs. Red in Texas, with Republicans battling one another after mask order

People wait at a walk-up coronavirus testing site at Sam Tasby Middle School in Dallas, July 2, 2020.

By Manny Fernández and J. Danny Goodman

Texas Republicans have long sparred with one another, with feisty internal disputes in recent years over gun rights, bathroom bills and other culture-war issues. But since the spring, as the coronavirus began to take hold across the state, it has been an all-out battle of red vs. red.

This month, Republican groups in eight counties censured the Republican governor after he issued a statewide mask order, saying that it infringed on their rights and followed the lead of Houston, San Antonio and other Democratic-led cities and counties that already required masks in businesses.

And Monday, party activists ousted the chairman of the state party in favor of an outspoken firebrand conservative who called for President Barack Obama’s impeachment in 2014 and whose ascension to the top party post received a congratulatory tweet from President Donald Trump.

In Texas, the virus has heightened long-simmering friction in the largest Republican-led state in the country, and for the first time Gov. Greg Abbott has come under serious attack from within his own party. The conflict in many ways is not unique to Texas. The rifts in the party run along some of the same establishment-vs.-insurgent fault lines that years ago defined the rise of the Tea Party and of Trump.

“This has been building for a long, long time,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, a former mayor of Amarillo who is the second-most senior Republican in the Texas Senate and has served more than 16 years in office. “When a party dominates, it also becomes sort of arrogant and exclusive. It used to be back in the ’80s and ’90s, let’s all get together in this big Republican tent and be a majority. Increasingly, we’ve been ushering people out of the tent.”

Indeed, the clash is about more than conservative anger over the governor’s mask order, and has its roots in the ideological divide between the right and the far-right in Texas. Some of that same energy and tension in 2012 helped a lawyer named Ted Cruz who had never held elected office defeat a powerful Republican lieutenant governor to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

As Democrats continue to make gains statewide, archconservatives have tried pushing Texas further to the right, while more moderate Republicans try to steer it closer to the center.

More than 130 local Republican leaders in eight counties publicly rebelled against Abbott and voted to formally censure him, a stunning rebuke for a politician who easily won reelection in 2018 and who until now has been the most popular Republican in the state. The censure votes were symbolic expressions of disapproval, largely over his statewide mask order. An effort to stiffen the punishment for being censured and to pass a statewide Republican resolution condemning the governor remains in the works.

Abbott, who faces reelection in 2022, was the first Republican governor of Texas in modern time to be officially reprimanded by a group of Republican county leaders.

“We feel that Abbott is going overboard in shutting down the economy,” said Lee Lester, chairman of the Harrison County Republican Party in East Texas, one of the eight counties that censured the governor.

Lester, a retired insurance salesman who lives near the Louisiana border in a county that has recorded more than 500 coronavirus cases and nearly 70 deaths, said Abbott needed to “start acting like we think he should act, and that is looking at the overall picture — following the facts, not fear tactics.”

The disarray was on full display last weekend at the Republican state convention, typically a time of unity, networking and chest-thumping speeches for the dominant party in Texas. In a back-and-forth that lasted weeks, top Republican elected officials supported meeting virtually — as the Democrats did earlier this summer — while the party leadership voted to meet as planned in person in Houston, a Democrat-led city.

After losing a legal battle, the party gathered for a virtual convention that was delayed by technical problems. After it resumed, those who were fed up with the party’s chairman, James Dickey, helped push him out.

The party elected a new chairman, Allen B. West, a former Florida congressman who was chosen in part by appealing to the anti-Abbott sentiments over the statewide mask order. In a video message to delegates at the San Jacinto Monument outside Houston, a revered site commemorating the Texas battle for independence in 1836, he called the moment a “new battleground.”

“There’s a new battlefield,” he said in the video, “and it’s really not too much different from what they faced — the despotism, the tyranny, that we see in the great state of Texas, where we have executive orders and mandates, people telling us what we can and cannot do, who is essential and who is not essential. It is time for us to stand up, and it is time for us to fight.”

In his own video address to delegates, Abbott acknowledged the criticisms over his mask mandate, but defended his actions, his authority to issue executive orders in emergencies and his dedication to conservative principles.

“I know that many of you do not like the mask requirement,” Abbott said in his remarks. “I don’t either. It is the last thing I wanted to do. Actually, the next to last. The last thing that any of us want is to lock Texas back down again. We must do all that we can to prevent that.”

Abbott, who did not respond to a request for an interview, remains popular with a number of Republican lawmakers and business leaders, and his supporters say the criticisms are coming from a small but loud wing of the party and will not amount to a threat to his reelection.

Even so, a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed that his support among Republicans, while still strong, had slipped as the spread of the virus intensified: A quarter of respondents said they disapproved of Abbott’ handling of the virus, up from about 10% in early June.

At the same time, the governor has faced pressure from many public health officials and Democratic leaders to do more to stop the rising tide of infections, hospitalizations and deaths across the state.

“I told the governor’s people this: The virus will force you to take action, eventually,” said Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who is the top elected official in Dallas County and who has clashed with Abbott over the state response. “The challenge is when the doctors ask you to take action, go ahead and do it then.” He urged the closure of indoor dining and a delay in opening schools for in-person instruction.

Texas has become one of the largest coronavirus hot spots in the country, and Abbott, who began opening the state for business May 1, has struggled to find the best approach to control it. Some Republicans had urged him to go faster in reopening businesses and have pushed him to keep them open despite the spread of the virus.

“There’s just a division between what politically your base is wanting you to do, and what is the right thing to do,” said Mari Woodlief, a Republican political consultant in Dallas who worked on the Fort Worth mayor’s first campaign. “He did the right thing, but it was not what his base wanted him to do.”

After cases related to bars began to spike, Abbott ordered them closed in late June. For weeks, he said the government should not mandate mask-wearing, and then he reversed course before the Fourth of July weekend and put in place an order for most Texans.

Among the 25 American counties with the most cases per capita over the past week, nine are in Texas. That includes not just the populous counties that include Houston and Dallas, but also smaller counties that include San Angelo and Corpus Christi. The average daily case total has exploded to more than 10,000 statewide. In early July, Texas was averaging about 6,500 new cases daily. At the start of June, the figure hovered around 1,400.

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