The path to power, in the American political imagination, is often said to run through a “smoke-filled back room,” where a cabal of a few make decisions for the many. The Holiday Inn and Conference Center in Tyler does not permit smoking inside, but it is a back room. And there is a would-be kingmaker here, JoAnn Fleming, a hard-charging ideologue with an iconic bouffant hairdo who has led conservative activist circles in Texas for over a decade. It is rooms like this, with small audiences in folding chairs under piercing fluorescent lights, through which power runs in Texas—or used to.
Fleming is the leader of a group with an ungainly title, Grassroots America: We the People, or GAWTP. The organization evolved from a tea party group founded in 2009. Most similar groups petered out when Donald Trump reshaped conservative politics for good, if not before then. A few, like GAWTP, survived, and today, in mid-February, Fleming is interrogating three right-wing challengers to Governor Greg Abbott, whom she clearly loathes. “Please choose one of several glaring examples of complete nonsense found in Governor Abbott’s latest iteration of his so-called ‘Taxpayer bill of rights,’” one question goes. “Cite an example and why it won’t work.”
Another question: how would candidates stop federal land grabs after the Legislature had acted to weaken municipal annexation powers? First up is Chad Prather, a viral video star whose campaign website describes him as a “modern day Will Rogers.” Too slick for his own good, with a belt buckle nearly the size of the cowboy hat he has declined to take off indoors, he answers in generalities. He wants the crowd to be rich, and the Biden administration wants them to be poor. “I want everyone in this room to be J.R. Ewing,” he said, as in the patriarch of the TV show Dallas—a confusing reference, because while Ewing is wealthy, he’s also a psychopath and the show’s villain. Next up, former state senator Don Huffines, eager to impress the crowd, talks about the bill he coauthored to curb annexation.
The third candidate knows what to say. “In 1689, English political philosopher John Locke introduced a theory called natural rights,” former Florida congressman Allen West begins. Those rights are given by God, among them “life, liberty and property.” When governments deprive citizens of property, then, they go against God.
This tendency to wrap the smallest policy differences into a grand narrative of the battle between freedom and unfreedom in history is a common rhetorical trick of West’s. In response to another question, he says that “the property tax system we have now is based on the economic philosophies of Karl Marx.” At one point, he even compares Fleming to Elizabeth Powel, a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin’s.
The historical analogies are one of many things that root West in the tea party movement of the early 2010s, when he experienced his first rush of fame as a one-term congressman representing Boca Raton. He was a popular target of outrage among liberals and a frequent guest, or subject, on cable news—similar to the way Marjorie Taylor Greene soaks up coverage now. Then he lost his seat after one term and his star faded—until, like many others before him, he moved to Texas.
West’s address changed, but he didn’t. In 2020, he ran for chair of the Republican Party of Texas and won. He then used his chairmanship to battle other Republicans, chief among them Abbott, for his attempts to mitigate COVID. Now he’s sitting in Tyler, running the debate among candidates seeking to unseat the governor. Prather compliments him on his jokes; Huffines calls him “one of the best orators in the nation,” a man who could, if he wanted, “probably have his own TV show.”
West’s shtick works. When GAWTP endorses West two weeks after the debate, it describes him as a “a bold painter [able] to write freedom on the hearts of Texans.”
By touring these activist clubs and speaking at churches, West is running the kind of campaign successful insurgent candidates ran in Texas during the Obama years, among them Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick. But they won; West is down fifty points in the polls.
In broad strokes, Texas politics since the turn of the century goes something like this: Shortly after the Republican ascension of the late ’90s and W.’s apotheosis to the White House, there was a lot of turnover in the state’s high offices. But in 2002, the clock froze. After that year’s election, the state’s U.S. senators were Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, the governor was Rick Perry, the lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, the attorney general Greg Abbott, and the land commissioner Jerry Patterson. All six would still be in office in 2012, even though much had changed in the Republican party in between. When there was a high-profile primary fight, like the gubernatorial one between Hutchison and Perry in 2010, it wasn’t particularly ideological.
Then, in 2012, Hutchison declined to run for Senate again, and the race to replace her came down to Dewhurst and a little-known lawyer named Ted Cruz. Cruz worked every church and meeting room in the state like his life depended on it, did his fair share of sucking up to JoAnn Fleming, and crushed Dewhurst in a runoff.
It was an earthquake, and a sign of things to come. In 2014 Perry declined to run again. Abbott had been anointed to replace him, but in the seats under him, there were many openings, as other statewide candidates vied to move up or change jobs. The tea party groups and grassroots activists were decisive. In the GOP primary, they helped select Dan Patrick as lieutenant governor over three more mild-mannered challengers, Ken Paxton as attorney general over his much more genteel runoff opponent, and Sid Miller as agriculture commissioner over his four less-likely-to-call-Hillary-the-C-word-on-social-media rivals. And then the clock froze again. Eight years later, all the statewides who won the primary in 2014 are still in power. Did the tea party win?
In its members’ accounting, no. Though it might surprise Texas liberals who have experienced the past decade as a steady rightward drift, a furious sense of betrayal and abandonment permeates conservative activists in Texas—no less keenly felt than the fear evangelicals have that Sodom is growing ever closer. Yes, the Legislature last year may have effectively banned abortion, legalized carrying a gun without a permit, and made it harder to vote, but among right-wing activists those things are taken for granted. At the moment, they are furious about the “genital mutilation” of children, as they refer to procedures administered to some trans minors, about election fraud, and most prominently about a border that has still not been “closed.” And they can’t understand why Abbott—and Patrick, and so many lawmakers they helped elect—refuse to do as the right wing wants in a state with complete one-party control. The current slate of elected officials, some feel, is no better than the one they replaced.
“We’ve had the governor, lieutenant governor, the Senate and the House for twenty years,” says Craig Licciardi, a GOP precinct chair in Tyler’s Smith County, and a member of GAWTP. “There’s no reason that people like me should have to take off work to drive to Austin and beg and plead and beg and plead and scrape and beg and lobby and cajole our representatives or Republicans to pass Republican priorities.” This is not just a complaint directed at squishy Abbott or moderate Speakers of the House. Dan Patrick, Licciardi says, “was a rock star.” But he has now “turned his back on the grassroots conservative movement.”
For years, centrists and liberals have pined for a moderate alternative to figures like Patrick or Abbott. Plenty would opt for a lesser Bush relative in their stead. But in today’s races, Patrick and Abbott are the moderate alternative. The GOP has moved swiftly to the right, and key influencers in the party wish to move it further still. The most common complaint about Abbott from his left is that he panders to his right. He does, but that pandering also prevents more compliant right-wing ideologues from gaining power—as right-wing activists correctly intuit.
Despite the palpable sense of anger among right-wing activists, there are few serious challengers to Republican incumbents this year on ideological grounds. Attorney General Ken Paxton and agriculture commissioner Sid Miller are being challenged on grounds of morals and competency, respectively. Patrick faces token opposition.
West can credibly claim to be different from the man he’s challenging, however. In every leadership position he’s held, he’s been combative and unorthodox. As an officer in Iraq during the occupation, he staged a mock execution of a man he had been told was plotting against his troops, and retired before he could have been court-martialed. A decade later, as a Florida congressman, he so annoyed his own party that it redrew his district to unseat him. And as the chair of the Texas GOP, he bludgeoned and attacked Republicans who had failed to uphold the party’s platform and principles.
Polls indicate that running as an anti-Abbott is not a winning proposition, however. A February 14 poll by the Texas Politics Project found Abbott winning 60 percent to West’s 15 percent. Huffines, who has erected billboards all over the state and has been more publicly visible than West, scored 14 points. A Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler poll released February 20 was even more dismal for Abbott’s challengers. The governor once again took 60 percent, while Allen West was at 7 points. Rick Perry—no, not that Rick Perry, another guy named Rick Perry—scored 6 points, with Huffines and Prather at a lousy 3 percent.
Why have Abbott’s poll numbers remained consistently strong? After a rally in Austin, West told a colleague of mine, “If you think he’s popular, you’re operating in a bubble. He was booed at the Trump rally last week. He was booed to the point where all he wanted to do is repeat ‘Donald J. Trump’ to keep people from booing.”
Booed he was. But Abbott still has Trump’s endorsement. (At that rally in Conroe, while Abbott kept saying Trump’s name over and over, West’s volunteers passed out flyers with information about their internal polls, which showed West likely to win a spot in the runoff.)
Nonetheless, West is steadfast in his assertion that Abbott is a paper tiger whose phony qualities are obvious to all true conservatives. “Look at Governor Greg Abbott,” he says in Tyler, and all you see is “a campaign war chest.” Compare that with West’s own record: “Some of you may know the decision I made to protect my men in a combat zone,” he says. “I was facing eight years in prison in Fort Leavenworth.” But he’d do it again. “I’ll go through hell with a gasoline can” to protect my troops, West says, and once he becomes governor “you will become my troops.”
Even among politicians, West stands out for his tremendous self-regard. In 2020, I attended a speech he gave to the Dallas Jewish Conservatives at a movie theater. The slideshow behind him displayed enormous pictures of West: by himself, superimposed on American flags, or posing with his book Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin’s Journey to Faith, Family, and Freedom, which was on sale outside the theater. When the laptop displaying the slideshow ran out of batteries, he said unconvincingly that he “didn’t like looking at myself anyway.”
In Tyler, he stays long after his event, stacking chairs. When I approach to talk, he offers me sixty seconds, explaining that he doesn’t “like talking about myself that much.” What makes him a better candidate for the grassroots than Huffines or Prather? “I don’t talk about them,” he said, “I just try to be a humble servant.” (West has promised to back either if they, and not he, make a runoff against Abbott.)
Ego can be an asset—you need it to run against an incumbent with $65 million in the bank. But West’s faith in himself might be obscuring the fact that the crowds West is speaking to this year have less power than they used to. There are a few reasons why. One, Texas’s right wing is oriented more toward Trump these days than to the movement. Everyone is vying to earn the former president’s endorsement and to wrap themselves in the MAGA flag, and the support of JoAnn Fleming is secondary. Two, Abbott, by tacking to his right last year, has skillfully deprived his right-wing challengers of room to outflank him. And three, incumbency is powerful.
“It’s name recognition,” says Brooks McKenzie, a child psychologist who wore an “ANYBODY but Abbott” shirt to West’s rally in Tyler, when asked about Abbott’s appeal. “Your phone is an iPhone? All right. Your last one was probably an Apple. Your phone before that was probably an Apple.”
Is West’s tea party cohort, then, the political equivalent of a Nokia flip phone? That would be too much—these are still people to watch. But this year, at least, they’re not getting much reception.