In the first such challenge of Abbott’s long political career, three high-profile candidates — former Texas GOP chair Allen West, former state Sen. Don Huffines, and BlazeTV host Chad Prather — scratched and clawed at the governor for a year, stumping across Texas in what has been labeled the “Anyone-But-Abbott” primary.
It wasn’t a long wait for the results on election night, as the race was called barely an hour after polls closed in most of Texas. Once the writing was on the wall, Huffines released a statement saying he “would not contest the election results [but] declared victory on forcing the governor to the right.”
Looking at the voting returns alone might suggest the primary challenge was a nothing burger — Huffines and West both finished with around 12 percent of the vote. But the road to it featured more than its fair share of obstacles. Every controversy that could be made a campaign issue was delivered as a body shot to the incumbent.
Chief among those was the episode(s) with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). In August of last year, Huffines spotlighted a section of the DFPS website that read “The educational and support resources on this page are dedicated to helping empower and celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, alley, and non-heterosexual (LGBTQIA+) youth, their peers, and family.”
After Huffines pointed this out, alleging the agency was “promoting perverted and damaging ideology,” the section disappeared from the website — something that internal department emails showed stemmed directly from Huffines’ criticism.
A similar line of events occurred in November when training materials from the same agency were found that read in part, “Any institutional activity that creates racial inequalities and results in the subordination or oppression of people of color is institutional racism.”
“Critical Race Theory is a disgusting Marxist ideology dedicated to pitting Texans against each other and dividing our state,” Huffines stated.
The training was then eliminated from the department’s curriculum slate.
Abbott addressed neither of these incidents directly, letting the agency speak for itself. And while the governor doesn’t run the agencies that operate beneath them, they do, ultimately, report to him.
The three challengers harangued Abbott and other state leaders over child gender modification for months before receiving what they see as a half-measure. After months of waiting, the Office of the Attorney General finally issued its legal opinion that stated puberty blockers and gender transition surgeries may already be prosecuted under current law as child abuse.
But Abbott’s team appears committed to stay the course on that issue. Dave Carney, Abbott’s top strategist, said in a Wednesday press call, “That [issue] is a 75 percent to 85 percent winner. That is a winning issue. Texans have common sense.”
In Huffines’ election night statement, he rattled off various issues he believes his campaign spurred movement on from the incumbent: constitutional carry, the Heartbeat Act, border security, Critical Race Theory in schools, vaccine mandates, and the executive actions on gender modification procedures.
On the lattermost two issues, Huffines and other anti-Abbott Republicans have said repeatedly the governor hasn’t done enough — namely, saying he hasn’t pushed the envelope with the legislature to force them to pass related laws.
Speaking to The Texan on Monday night, Huffines underscored those issues as victories for his campaign.
“Without my campaign, I don’t think we would’ve gotten the Heartbeat Bill done; constitutional carry done; the election integrity bill done,” he said also pointing to the DFPS items. “I think those are just the obvious victories.”
Huffines then said he doesn’t think special sessions, other than for redistricting, occur without his candidacy. Among the issues on the special sessions roll calls, eight of them can be described as conservative red meat issues: election reform, border security, social media censorship, a requirement that youth athletes compete within their biological sex, restriction on abortion-inducing drugs, a stronger Critical Race Theory ban, property tax relief, and vaccine mandate prohibitions.
Republicans will disagree amongst themselves how effectively each one of these was ultimately addressed, but none of these appeared on a special session agenda in 2019 — as none were called.
“If he wasn’t in a [primary] campaign, he would’ve just returned right back to where he rests, and it’s to the left of the center,” Huffines emphasized.
“Since the pandemic, [Abbott] knew I was coming after him and Carney’s really smart so the governor pivoted as hard right as he could.”
Asked about the primary’s effect on Abbott’s decisions, Carney said Wednesday, “Greg Abbott’s never shifted on an issue for elections, ever.”
West was less specific but told The Texan before results rolled in on election night, “[My campaign has] brought a great awareness of the issues out there and shows that anyone can stand up for Texas, and it doesn’t take $60 million to do it.”
One of the issues West harped on most was the vaccine mandate within Texas’ military, pointing the blame at Texas’ top official. After a couple of months of West banging the drum on that issue, Abbott began to push back against the federal government which issued the directive — suing the Biden administration in January.
Back in August, Abbott had issued an executive order prohibiting government vaccine mandates, which was then fashioned to ban it for all entities, but the Texas National Guard was still subject to and beginning to enforce the federal mandate.
Just before the filing period closed, another curveball was thrown at the incumbent governor when Rick Perry decided to jump in the race — the twist being that it wasn’t Abbott’s predecessor.
The actual Perry who filed is a GOP activist from Parker County, and he pulled in 62,205 votes nearly tripling Kandy Kay Horn who spent $1.3 million on billboards across the state. Perry spent less than $300, good for a $0.004 cost-per-vote.
“The Founders created our country to be run by citizen legislators, and they didn’t believe it should cost millions of dollars to run for office,” he told The Texan in an interview on Thursday.
His candidacy, Perry said, was an effort to cut into Abbott’s returns in the hopes of pushing the governor to a runoff.
“Part of the reason I ran was to prove the citizen legislator point and because of my name ID.”
But Perry isn’t as buoyant about the policy victories Huffines tallied, saying he believes the governor’s focus on some of those conservative issues will not outlast the primary.
It didn’t take 12 rounds, but Abbott didn’t leave the ring without a scratch. He spent at least $30 million during the primary, not typically a sum to be dropped on a pointless challenge. Now he heads into the heavyweight matchup with Democrat Beto O’Rourke.