One man with courage makes a majority, the old American adage goes. But here in 2022, Don Huffines is learning, one man with courage does not even make a protest. It’s 1:30 p.m. on a balmy January day on the Rice University campus, the type of afternoon when undergrads toss Frisbees and joggers circumnavigate the campus shirtless. Huffines, a former state senator who’s challenging Greg Abbott for the GOP nomination for governor, has just arrived to lead a rally opposing the university’s vaccine mandate for employees. But instead of a throng of dissidents, he has attracted only a group of his own staffers and volunteers, a few of their relatives, three protesters, and a most wretched crew: a small pool of journalists. No one here works for the college, or has lost a job over vaccine mandates. The non-journalists mill around in front of the nearby train station, across from the university’s main entrance, catching up with familiar faces they haven’t seen since campaign events a few days prior.

By 1:45, Huffines has started to stir. “Is anyone besides our team going to show up?” he asks his travel staff. Before an answer comes, he offers a quick explanation of the small crowd: “If you’re counting on college kids, it’s not going to happen.” Rice students, however, have been protesting vigorously for months on another issue—removing a statue of the school’s founder William Marsh Rice, a slaveholder, from the academic quadrangle—and a few weeks later, they’ll finally persuade the board of trustees to relocate it. Today’s protest will draw the attention only of a few campus police officers, who try to keep Huffines’s team from stepping on ground that’s been marked off-limits for pedestrians. 

When it’s clear that no reinforcements are coming, Huffines leads the group across the street toward a metal sign with the university’s name; it’s about twenty yards from the iconic ivy-covered entrance to campus, which also bears the university’s name and might have made a better backdrop. The three protesters, none of them affiliated with Rice, listen intently as Huffines says a few words about opposing mandates and refusing to get vaccinated himself. One dons a MAGA hat and a red, white, and blue “unmasked unvaxxed unafraid” shirt. Another, a retiree from Conroe, holds a “Fauci Lied People died take off the masks” sign with “RIP” in a small box on the lower right. The third, Ksania Lerner of Katy, wears a T-shirt with a QR code linking to a Republican voter registration organization and schleps a sign adorned by hand-drawn Texas and Gadsden flags. Her family is from Russia, and while she told me she hasn’t faced vaccine mandates herself, nor known anyone who has lost a job because of them, she can recognize “the warning signs, the light bulb” of authoritarianism.

When Huffines concludes his remarks, there’s no protest to lead, so he settles for a photo op to plaster on social media. The group gathers before the small Rice sign and affects broad smiles, like big-game hunters posing in front of a two-point buck. Then everyone quietly disperses. 

When we chat weeks later and I ask about the poor turnout, Huffines falls back on the old management trick of blaming the social media guy: “We didn’t promote that well enough.” But it’s not the most convincing answer: not long ago, Huffines had no problem drawing supporters. In May 2020, and again that October, Huffines attracted hundreds to protests outside the Governor’s Mansion. And two months after he announced in mid-2021 that he was challenging Abbott, he had been endorsed by five hundred right-wing grassroots leaders and raised a quick $9 million. Abbott, suffering from the lowest polling numbers of his career, had seemed afraid, and began scurrying to his right on issues Huffines was rallying folks around, from COVID-19 policy to the border to school curricula.

Six months later at Rice, Huffines was drawing crowds that could fit into his burnt-orange campaign van, the most recent polling from the Dallas Morning News had him at 4 percent—against Abbott’s 59—and it was hard to tell what the governor had ever feared. What had happened to Huffines’s once-promising campaign? 

Back in the spring of 2020, when Abbott imposed restrictions on most business activity to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, he appointed James Huffines, a gubernatorial aide to multiple GOP administrations and one-time University of Texas regent, to lead a strike force to reopen Texas. The state had closed down most businesses in late March, and Huffines was tasked with figuring out what could reopen and when, as many Texans were growing restless with pandemic restrictions. Huffines later told me that for the first month of shutdowns Texans were largely willing to sacrifice for the commons, but the era of good feelings did not last long. “All of that started to change in mid to late May,” he said. “The dialogue and public discourse certainly became more polarized between the parties at that time.”

What James Huffines did not explicitly state was that one of the most vocal polarizers was his brother. A wealthy Dallas real estate developer, Don Huffines did not experience the effects of business shutdowns as harshly as did the 1.4 million Texans who lost work. But as a teen, he had developed a strong libertarian streak, reading the political philosophy of Murray Rothbard; today he believes the “fundamental role of government is to protect you from the government.” When he saw the governor shut down businesses by executive order, he considered it “the biggest, most unimaginable assault on liberty that would ever happen”—enough to publicly oppose his brother. “Look, I love my brother. He’s a great big brother. We’re just on different sides on this,” Don Huffines told me in late January. “At that point we’re a totalitarian state. And so the thought process was that somebody has to speak up and there wasn’t a lot of people speaking up.”

In mid-April 2020, Huffines placed an op-ed in multiple state newspapers declaring it time to fully reopen Texas. The following month, when his brother began orchestrating the reopening of the state earlier than any other in the country, Huffines began hosting rallies outside the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion. At a May 23 event that drew hundreds, Huffines, in a liberally unbuttoned dress shirt and sunglasses, paced the Capitol steps, jeering at Abbott for unilaterally managing the outbreak and not calling a special legislative session. (Texas’s was the last state legislature to convene following the onset of the pandemic, first assembling in January 2021, ten months after the state’s patient zero.) He claimed the virus was not as dangerous as it was hyped to be. Mid-speech, he began to test out the appeal of his broader political platform. Calling people “slaves to the government,” he slid from shutdowns into his other priorities: ending property taxes and stopping “socialist” curriculum in schools. The crowd cheered that too. 

Huffines was no stranger to politics. As a teen he had attended state and national Republican conventions. As an adult, he frequently went before city councils to fight for his real estate business and his political beliefs; notably, in 1993, he went up against the Lewisville police union in a losing bid to end an ordinance that banned the firing of guns within city limits. In 2013, Huffines launched a primary challenge against the most liberal Republican in the Texas Senate. Focusing his campaign on the incumbent’s decision to cosponsor a bill that never came to vote—to rename a portion of Dallas highway after Barack Obama—as well as other tea party planks, Huffines won without needing a runoff. 

In the Senate, his total-culture-war style of politics made Huffines too ideological—and ahead of his time—to be effective. During his first session, he authored a bill that would have prohibited cities from passing LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances, along with legislation allowing permitless carry of firearms. When neither went anywhere, he attempted to tag the latter onto another open-carry bill as an amendment, before withdrawing the provision when it threatened to derail the original legislation. The session ended without passage of a single bill he authored, but his performance as a provocateur-king earned sterling ratings from right-wing groups, which praised him for “delivering results.” 

In 2017, in his second and third legislative sessions, Huffines would finally score victories, authoring three minor bills that passed the Senate (two of which also passed in the House and Abbott signed). He also successfully worked to defund the Dallas County Schools bus service, which was embroiled in scandal over mismanagement of funds. But the following year, Huffines lost his seat to a Democratic challenger in his rapidly diversifying suburban district. 

The pandemic offered Huffines a chance to revive his political career. There was reason to believe Abbott could be vulnerable to a primary challenge, despite his massive war chest. In February of 2020, before the first reported COVID-19 case in Texas, Abbott’s approval rating was 14 points above water; by October that number had halved, and by April 2021 he was more disapproved of than approved. Mainly, he had hemorrhaged favorability among Democrats and independents, but Abbott was also losing support from his right flank. More than most, Huffines understood the political potential of that group, the 1.4 million in Texas who had lost jobs to COVID-era shutdowns, and the thousands in blue cities who felt their religious liberties had been tread upon, without relief from Abbott, by local ordinances limiting church services. It seemed that Huffines had met a moment that could be convincingly spun as government overreach without that sounding entirely exaggerated. 

Don Huffines speaks at an event in Dripping Springs.
Don Huffines speaks at an event in Dripping Springs in late January. Ben Rowen

Huffines formally announced his gubernatorial bid in May of 2021. Within two weeks, he had the backing of most prominent grassroots groups in the state, and by the end of June had, in addition to a $5 million loan from himself, raised more than $4 million, largely from his family members, North Texas real estate developers, and the family of Tim Dunn, the financier of Empower Texans, a strident right-wing advocacy group.

Donald Trump’s “complete and total” endorsement of Abbott on June 1 killed a lot of Huffines’s momentum. He had been soliciting the endorsement—Huffines’s people are Trump people—and Abbott was, of course, shrewd enough to use the former president as a political shield. But in July, Huffines’s prospects were momentarily buoyed when former state GOP chair Allen West, who had also joined rallies against Abbott, entered the race—opening the long-shot possibility that Abbott could be held under 50 percent by two right-wing challengers and be forced into a runoff with one of them. (West currently stands at 6 percent in the DMN poll, ahead of Huffines, though he told me after the poll was released that anyone who believes Abbott is popular is “operating in a bubble.”)

Throughout 2021, Abbott worked to insulate himself from critics on the right by joining them. In March, after months of grassroots rabble-rousers screaming outside the Governor’s Mansion, he fully reopened the state and banned mask mandates. When that wasn’t enough to placate the wing, and Huffines entered the race, Abbott sicced himself on vaccine mandates. In June, he signed a law banning vaccine passports, then doubled down on it with an executive order banning businesses from requiring any vaccine “administered under an emergency use authorization.” 

In early July, Huffines and West both addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, with the former framing himself as a dissident protesting against a governor who was at times authoritarian and at times a puppet of “lying fraudulent Fauci.” Weeks later, after the Pfizer vaccine was authorized for nonemergency use, Abbott revised his executive order to ban any vaccine requirement for businesses receiving state funds. A spokesman for the governor promised the ban wouldn’t apply to private business, which gave Huffines a way to continue his dissent. But in mid-October, Abbott reneged on his spokesman’s promise and issued yet another order banning any entity, including private ones, from requiring vaccination for customers or employees. 

Huffines celebrated pushing Abbott right on COVID policy. But his success on the issue was leading to failure as a candidate. One look at the crowd at a Republican grassroots event these days tells you that COVID is over as a political issue, if not as a pandemic. At a tea party meetup in Fredericksburg inside a church, the only woman wearing a mask in a crowd of about one hundred bashfully pointed to it and assured me, “Don’t worry, I don’t have COVID.” In Laredo, Isela Lindquist, who manages a Mattress Firm and founded the Zapata County GOP in 2020, told me she liked Huffines. But while she was sympathetic to anger at Abbott—shutdowns had devastated local businesses—she didn’t think the governor would implement any more restrictions worth worrying about. “At this moment now,” she said, “I believe Abbott and Huffines would both take similar actions.”

As Abbott tacked right, Huffines struggled to find big-ticket positions that would distinguish him from the governor. In early January, at the new Webb County Republican community center in Laredo, an audience of two dozen made small talk over homemade tacos as they awaited the start of a Huffines event. The weekend before, the candidate had aired a TV ad in which he bizarrely promised that the Dallas Cowboys would win the Super Bowl if he were governor. As the candidate meandered around the room making small talk, an investment adviser, Jeff Jones, who regularly attends Webb County GOP meetings, mentioned the ad to me. Jones had lived in Dallas before moving to Laredo decades ago, but said he hadn’t watched the Cowboys since Tom Landry left as coach in the late eighties. “So why would I care?”

After making the rounds, Huffines took center stage and launched into his pitch. He began with anecdotes from the early days of COVID or, as he called it, “the Wuhan.” After wrapping his spiel on shutdowns, he declared himself the most pro-life candidate ever to run in Texas—he would abolish abortion with no exceptions. (He did not mention the “fetal heartbeat” bill Abbott signed last year, or the trigger law that would ban all abortions in Texas if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.) Huffines then told a story about his days navigating the Austin “swamp,” regaling the crowd with an anecdote about Republican colleagues cursing at him in 2015 for trying to bring his permitless carry bill to the floor because they didn’t want to be held accountable for voting against it. The story might have played well in 2020, but it fell flat in Laredo given that Republicans in the Legislature had passed—and Abbott had signed—a permitless carry bill last year. 

Reaching into his pocket and brandishing the Texas GOP platform, Huffines launched into a topic-by-topic drive-by on how Abbott, who has total power in the state in his telling, was desecrating the three-hundred-plank text. The governor had capitulated to trans activists by not persuading the Lege to ban gender-affirming care for minors, or “genital mutilation,” as Huffines called it. (Huffines didn’t mention that the governor signed a bill requiring K–12 athletes play for sports teams that match the sex on their birth certificate.) Abbott had let Marxism infect the classroom, Huffines declared, but the “one good thing about the Wuhan is it let parents see what’s really going on in schools.” (Alhough the governor had signed bills banning the teaching of critical race theory and “promoting patriotic education.”) Abbott hadn’t secured elections in the state, either. (No matter that he’d called multiple legislative sessions to pass an “election integrity” bill.) 

Finally, Huffines found two fresher issues: eliminating the property tax, and bringing back school prayer in Texas, Supreme Court be damned. “What are they going to do?” he asked. “Put the prayer police in every school?” 

The most positive reception came during his remarks on the situation at the border. Huffines described immigration into the country as a coordinated “invasion.” He called Abbott’s border wall a “used-car-lot fence,” and the governor’s deployment of the National Guard this summer feckless. He promised to invoke Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from engaging in war unless “actually invaded,” in order to stop all immigration into the country without coordinating with the federal government. While Huffines said he loves Mexico, and even homeschooled his children there for a year, the country, in his telling, is a bad neighbor, and he vowed to close all international highways into Texas until the Mexican government cracked down on cartels. 

The audience seemed to agree with Huffines’s characterization of Abbott as leaving a lot of red meat on the table. But it was easy to see how a less-engaged voter might consider Abbott’s 2022 platform similar to Huffines’s—as though one plagiarized the other, but removed the all-caps. Huffines even seemed to tacitly acknowledge that point in his closing remarks, a melodramatic appeal that could have been pulled from a YA novel. After promising that he “won’t bend the knee,” he asked his audience to “help awaken the sheep to help them cut the chains of government.” The implicit recognition that millions of Texans might not consider their liberties to be in peril, as he does, wasn’t the effective close Huffines might have imagined. 

A Huffines sign outside the Dripping Springs venue.
A Huffines sign outside the Dripping Springs venue where he spoke in late January. Ben Rowen

A few weeks later, I interviewed Huffines after an event at a wedding venue in Dripping Springs, thirty minutes from the “swamp” in Austin. He had been briefly back in the headlines when reports broke that a campaign staffer, Jake Lloyd Colglazier, had ties to white nationalist groups. Huffines had defiantly kept him on staff, saying his campaign “would not participate in cancel culture.” 

The venue was an odd setting for a politician to warn of impending apocalypse if he weren’t elected. Fairy lights hung from the trees near the entrance, the wood paneling inside was rustic-chic, and it was easy to see that most people headed there to celebrate unions, not worry about the collapse of one. 

The turnout was underwhelming. The host of the event, introducing Huffines, worried aloud that the candidate was being “shadow banned” on social media: whenever he made posts about other events at the venue he got hundreds of likes, he said, but his posts about the campaign appearance only got two—one from him and one from his wife. As I spoke with Huffines, his staff was collecting excess brochures left on tables that hadn’t been filled. I’d noticed that one of the brochures didn’t even mention COVID policy. Huffines told me it was tough to fit everything in, but conceded that “the issue might not be as burning as it was.”

I wanted to know if he considered that a victory—if having pushed Abbott so far right on COVID and other policies could be seen as a success, even if Republican voters seemed mostly satisfied with the governor now. “Yeah, sure, it’s a win, but it’s not enough of a win,” he said. 

Was there anything he could do at this point, I asked, to ensure that his ideological victory didn’t preclude a win in the primary? Huffines thought for a moment, then, when he started speaking, sounded resigned. “I think our campaign is definitely driving the narrative for his campaign in the state of Texas,” he told me. “We knew that Abbott could pivot to whatever our campaign’s doing, and he has, and we knew there’s not a lot we can do about that.”