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Politics

Elections In 2020 Put Texas Gov. Greg Abbott In Strong Position

Gov. Greg Abbott holding the Governor's Report to Reopen Texas book during a news conference in April where he announced he would relax some restrictions imposed on some businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eric Gay
/
Associated Press
Gov. Greg Abbott during a news conference in April.

Experts expect a Legislative session akin to 2019, with less emphasis on culture war issues.

As the pandemic gripped Texas over the summer, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was criticized for his response by both Democrats and ultra-conservative members of his own party. His overall job approval rating dipped from April to October.

And yet Abbott is heading into the 2021 Legislative session in a strong position, thanks to the results of regular and special elections in 2020.

Most recently, Republican Representative Drew Springer defeated businesswoman Shelley Luther in the special election runoff for State Senate District 30. The race drew significant campaign donations from opposing wings of Texas conservatives. In the end, Springer beat Luther 56% to 44%, with less than 9% of registered voters casting ballots.

Luther ran as an unabashed Abbott opponent. She originally gained attention in April by going to jail after violating Abbott’s closure of nonessential businesses and disobeying a court order to keep her Dallas salon closed.

Springer, who had the governor’s endorsement, said he neutralized the issue during the race.

“Her side tried to make it [a proxy on] the COVID response,” he told Lubbock radio station KFYO a few days later. “Frankly, we [said] look, we agree that the governor didn’t do it correctly. We’ve already filed bills to take his executive powers away.”

Springer’s proposing a constitutional amendment requiring a special session of the Legislature if a disaster declaration exceeds 21 days. Lawmakers would also be able to petition for a special session.

Springer was already one of the most conservative members of the Texas Legislature, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. That’s part of why, despite special election turnout being low, Jones thinks the race has significance.

“I think it was a pretty good barometer for where the Republican base stood vis à vis Governor Abbott,” he said.

That Republican base has given even the conservative Abbott headaches as he navigates a state becoming more centrist. For example, the Republican Party of Texas Chairman Allen West sued the governor over his expansion of early voting during the pandemic.

Jason Villalba, president of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and a former Republican state representative, hopes the Legislative session will stay away from divisive culture war issues now that voters rejected the populist Luther.

“I think that bodes well for those people in Texas who want common sense, center-right leadership from the Republicans, much like we had during the last legislative cycle,” he said.

Villalba doesn’t think the scope of Governor Abbott’s executive powers will be a huge issue in the session, because it wasn’t highlighted in November’s general election contests.

The big question is the state budget.

“There are going to be cuts in the Texas budget,” Villalba said. “The question I have is, where are those going to come from? And are we going to backtrack on some of the advances that were made in the last session on public education?”

Last session, in 2019, lawmakers passed a two-year increase in per-pupil education funding, and at the same time decreased school district property tax rates. But this year, some revenue sources like oil taxes are down. The state comptroller is set to give specific numbers on Jan. 11.

Jones agreed balancing the budget will be the big story. It has to be done before lawmakers adjourn.

“Do they try to do it almost exclusively through budget cuts and accounting smoke and mirrors? Or do they try to actually raise revenue via some device or another?” he said.

Jones thinks it’s very likely Republican lawmakers will support Governor Abbott’s policy goals. Abbott is already a conservative figure and his campaign spent big last fall to help allies retain control of the state House.

“Any sensible Republican realizes that the only reason why they have a large majority in the Texas House is because of the efforts of Greg Abbott,” Jones said.

Abbott’s influence will likely continue with another round of campaigns in 2022, including his own re-election.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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