Don Huffines arrived at an Austin restaurant for his first meeting of the Senate Republican Caucus and he was nervously clutching one of his favorite documents—the Texas Republican party platform. This was in January of 2015, the state legislative session was underway, and Huffines, one of the newest senators, was still riding high after his defeat of a more moderate Republican incumbent whom he depicted as a crony capitalist and RINO (Republican in Name Only).
When it was Huffines’s turn to speak at the caucus meeting, he told his nineteen colleagues that the platform represented the will of the party and that they needed to focus on turning the grassroots’ hopes and dreams into reality. There were two plans in particular, among the hundreds in the document, that he wanted to see passed: ending the franchise tax on businesses and making it legal to carry a handgun without a license. At the very least, he said, Republican senators were obliged to get those issues to the floor, where lawmakers could be held accountable for their votes.
His words, Huffines recalls, were met with silence. “Gradually one, two, three, four, or more senators got up from the table in the middle of the meal and left the room. Needless to say, the rest of the night was awkward.” And so too were the next four years. In the Senate, Huffines remained the truest of true believers, adamant and apart from both the Democrats and most Republicans. His single term ended four years later when he lost to Democrat Nathan Johnson by eight percentage points in a district that Governor Greg Abbott won by four. Few Democrats or Republicans in the Senate lamented Huffines’s departure.
In the last few years, he has frequently recounted his memory of his first caucus dinner to conservative grassroots activists, who, as he tells them, are held in the same disdain as he. “Patriots, I am going to tell you something you might not know, but that you need to know,” Huffines said in January at a tea party gathering in Plano. “Most, but not all, of your elected Republican officeholders, they don’t like you. As a matter of fact, it’s fair to say that a lot of them, they belittle you, they make fun of you, they use you, they are duplicitous, and they are liars. And you know why? Because you might hold them accountable.”
Such heated rhetoric has made Huffines persona non grata in most GOP circles.
But Huffines, who hails from a prominent and wealthy Dallas-area business family, welcomes the hatred. Indeed, it’s the kind of negative energy that he hopes will propel him into the Governor’s Mansion.
On May 10, Huffines announced that he would run against Governor Greg Abbott in 2022. His basic message: Abbott is no conservative. It’s been 27 years since a Democrat was last elected to statewide office, but Huffines takes no satisfaction from that. He does not believe that any of the four Republican governors of Texas since Reconstruction—neither Bill Clements nor George W. Bush, neither Rick Perry nor certainly Abbott—has been sufficiently conservative. Nor does he believe that the Legislature, completely under Republican control since 2003, has had a single conservative session. That includes the one that just ended, with Abbott signing into law a virtual ban on abortion and with legislation allowing permitless carry of firearms awaiting the governor’s signature.
“It’s not good enough,” Huffines told Texas Monthly. “We’ve controlled everything in Austin for twenty years, everything. And year after year, we go back and beg for our priorities to become law. And maybe we get one or two issues done, three maybe, and they’re always watered down.”
Huffines’s candidacy is a very long shot, but not one Abbott, ever paranoid about threats from his right flank, can ignore. When Huffines launched his campaign, he made no secret of his strategy: he would run to Abbott’s right as “the only real Trump candidate in this race” and seek the endorsement of the former president. “I don’t think Trump’s gonna support Abbott, I really don’t,” he told me in mid-May. “I don’t know why he would. Abbott’s never supported Trump’s agenda. He’s never leading the charge for Trump. He’s never tried.”
Yet on Tuesday, deploying his trademark Random Capitalization, Trump bestowed upon Abbott his “Complete and Total Endorsement for re-election. He will never let you down!” A half hour later, Huffines replied. “Texas Primary voters and Trump supporters will decide for themselves who will lead our state forward and who has failed Texans repeatedly on issues that matter most.” Huffines declared, “I am the clear Trump candidate in the governor’s race.”
That self-proclaimed status as the truest Trumper in the race may come under challenge. On Friday, Texas GOP chairman Allen West announced that he is stepping down as state party chairman and preparing to run for another office, though he was coy about which race he favored. Bumptious agriculture commissioner Sid Miller is also poised to jump into the GOP race for governor.
The unusually fluid situation presents all sorts of quandaries: Can Huffines (or West or Miller) overcome Trump’s chosen candidate in Texas? With the former president’s seal of approval, is Abbott freed from the need to perpetually mollify critics on the right, or is he borrowing a different kind of trouble by becoming beholden to Trump?
Huffines is one of four brothers, the children of J.L. and Launa Huffines, best known for their family’s car dealerships. While still in his teens Don Huffines was inspired by the writing of Murray Rothbard, an economist and political philosopher who was one of the fathers of paleolibertarianism, which blends economic libertarianism with social and cultural conservatism. In arguing for a strategy of right-wing populism, Rothbard was stirred by the example of the late red-baiting Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, admiring “his willingness and ability to reach out, to short-circuit the power elite: liberals, centrists, the media, the intellectuals, the Pentagon, Rockefeller Republicans, and reach out and whip up the masses directly.” Rothbard exulted that even as the “Ruling Elite, from Official Right to Left” defeated white supremacist David Duke when he ran for governor of Louisiana in 1992, “he sure scared the bejesus out of them.”
Huffines went to A&M for a year, before transferring to UT. After graduating with a degree in finance, Huffines went into residential real estate with his twin brother, Phillip. His older brother James, a banker, got involved in establishment Republican politics, serving as a top aide to Governor Clements in the eighties, an adviser to Governor Bush, and chair of Rick Perry’s transition when he became governor. Huffines was drawn in a different direction, into the political orbit of Ron Paul, the former Republican member of Congress from Lake Jackson and three-time presidential candidate who was deeply influenced by paleolibertarianism. “History will show this man has done more to change the political discourse of the world than most any man in modern history,” Huffines said in his introductory remarks when Paul, making his last run for president, spoke at the Republican state convention in Fort Worth in 2012.
Four years later, Huffines chaired the short-lived 2016 presidential campaign in Texas of Paul’s son, Rand, a U.S. senator from Kentucky. But it wasn’t until President Trump that Huffines found the man that Rothbard had been looking for. With “all the odds stacked against him, the entire media against him,” Huffines said, Trump, “distinguished himself from all the other Republican candidates who have run for president in the past because there was actually a difference between him and the Democrat.”
Abbott, by contrast, errs on the side of caution, Huffines said. In his response to the pandemic, Abbott showed too much deference to experts and too little respect for individual autonomy, Huffines said, calling the governor’s performance the “final straw.” On March 15, 2020, he tweeted a warning: a quarantine was coming and Texans’ personal and economic liberty were “under attack.” Two weeks later, Abbott issued a statewide stay-at-home order, while initially refusing to use those words.
On April 15 Huffines published an op-ed throwing down the gauntlet: Abbott’s “unTexan” leadership had “effectively shut down the 10th-largest economy in the world by not standing up to local leaders who are usurping his authority.” Two days later, Abbott named his brother James to lead his Strike Force to Open Texas.
But as Abbott zigged and zagged in the months that followed, he emboldened his enemies. In May and June, he hastened the reopening of the economy after Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther emerged overnight as a Rothbardian heroine for defying the governor’s shutdown orders and serving a couple of days in jail for contempt. Then as COVID-19 numbers spiked, the governor, ahead of the Fourth of July, buttoned the economy back up and did what he said he wouldn’t do—impose a statewide mask order.
Abbott opened the virtual state GOP convention in July with a prerecorded message defending his leadership and rebuking the naysayers. Lucky for him, the Zoom convention made it impossible for anyone to boo, or at least to be heard doing so. But four days later, former Florida congressman West was elected chairman of the party on a message that focused on attacking Abbott’s “tyranny.” The party platform written at the convention notably condemned lockdowns and mask mandates. In October, Huffines joined West and Sid Miller in a protest outside the Governor’s Mansion. The barbarians were at the gate.
The past year has undoubtedly been a difficult one for Abbott, as he navigated the pandemic and presided over the spectacular failure of the state’s power grid, which is overseen by his appointees, during the February freeze. According to the most recent Texas Politics Project polling, conducted in April, Abbott had the support of 77 percent of Republicans. That’s down from 88 percent the previous spring, but perhaps better than might be expected.
And Abbott’s legions of supporters, James Huffines notably among them, are all but saying “I told you so” to his critics, from both left and right. “Everyone loves a good comeback story, and Texas is writing one for the ages,” James Huffines wrote in an op-ed in early May. “Thanks to the perseverance of Texans and the steady hand of Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas is now poised for a major economic comeback.”
After his brother’s announcement that he would run for governor, James Huffines issued a statement to Texas Monthly. “Like many families, particularly in recent times, ours has differences of opinions about politics,” he wrote. While concluding that it would be wise not to talk about the family’s political differences, he said “I have a 25-year relationship with Greg Abbott, have supported him in every one of his campaigns, and long before this situation arose committed to do so again. I think the Governor has done an excellent job for Texas and I am confident he will continue to do so.”
Spoken like a man who takes the long view. Don Huffines, by contrast, sees the current moment in apocalyptic terms. “When we lose Texas, we lose the free world. That means we lost civilization as we know it,” he told his audience in Plano in June. “Time is not on our side.”
In 2018, Nathan Johnson was a first-time political candidate with an eclectic background. He has a physics degree, practices law, and composes music, scoring the Japanese anime series Dragon Ball Z. At some campaign appearances, Johnson would draw the political spectrum on a whiteboard. He’d place himself left of center, and former senator John Carona, whom Huffines defeated in the 2014 Republican primary, to the right of center. Then he’d walk past the edge of the whiteboard and say, “Huffines is out here.”
Don’t expect Huffines to inch closer to the whiteboard. At the tea party event in January, he shared the stage with former state representative Jonathan Stickland, a founding member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus and an adviser to Huffines. Stickland talked about the necessity of expanding the Overton Window—a term describing the acceptable spectrum of political discussion—to the right. The Monday after Huffines announced, Abbott ended federal pandemic-related unemployment assistance two months before it was due to expire. That Tuesday, he banned governmental entities, including public schools, from requiring masks. The next day, he signed the law banning abortion the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected—before most women know they’re pregnant. “Amazing how quick he moves when he has a primary challenger,” tweeted former state representative Matt Rinaldi, a Huffines ally.
Has Trump’s endorsement slammed shut the Overton Window? Or must Abbott now more closely track Trump, lest he appear ungrateful or undeserving of his blessing?
Huffines is wounded, but even without Trump’s support he has the resources to present Abbott with the most serious primary challenge of his career. He recently released the names of five hundred Republican grassroots leaders backing his candidacy, including anti-abortion, pro–gun rights, and anti-vaccine activists, who can and will make a lot of noise. Trump’s endorsement won’t silence them.
Nor does it seem likely to keep West (and maybe also Miller) from joining the fray. Their entrance would splinter the anti-Abbott vote, possibly forcing Abbott into a runoff, an eventuality that would leave the governor even more reliant on Trump’s grace.
Regardless, Abbott may have to pay a price for the Trump endorsement. The governor has in recent years tread a careful path with Trump, appearing always loyal but in a far lower key than Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick or Senator Ted Cruz. Now with Trump’s generous and timely endorsement, Abbott has no choice but to become Trump’s main squeeze in Texas. Abbott’s polite and useful distance from Trump was crushed in Tuesday’s embrace. On Monday, as if on cue, the governor issued a disaster declaration for 34 counties along or near the border, citing an increase in unauthorized immigrants. If Democrats mount a serious general election challenge, that could be a liability for Abbott.
In the near term, it also complicates the politics of Senate Bill 7, the Texas GOP’s prized “voter integrity bill” imposing new restrictions on voting, especially for Texans of color and those living in cities. When at the end of the session, Democrats fled the House, breaking quorum and killing the bill, Huffines blamed the defeat on Abbott’s “failure of leadership.” Abbott has already said he will add the legislation to the agenda in a special session. SB 7 and sister legislation being pressed and passed by Republicans in state after state are, in part, a consequence of Trump’s loss and his success in persuading most Republicans voters, against all the evidence, that the 2016 election was stolen. But the GOP lawmakers behind SB 7 have carefully avoided invoking Trump’s campaign as a reason for the bill; its author, Senator Bryan Hughes, cites fraud he alleges (again, without evidence) took place in the 2018 midterms, while other state lawmakers have stated explicitly that the 2020 elections in Texas were legitimate.
It may now be harder to keep Trump from casting a shadow on the proceedings. When the voting legislation returns to center stage, it will be at a special session called by Abbott, who Trump promised Texans in his endorsement is “all in on Election Integrity.” Hours before the Abbott endorsement, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted that “Trump has been telling a number of people he’s in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated by August.”
Meanwhile, Huffines continues to serve up Trump-grade tartare. Trump promised to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Huffines promises to finish the wall and have Texans pay for it. “I’m not asking permission from the federal government to secure Texas’s border,” Huffines said. So far so good. No issue cuts closer to the bone for Texas Republicans than border security. But the Abbott ad writes itself. “Trump: ‘No Governor has done more to secure the Border and keep our communities safe than Greg Abbott.’”
Until Abbott touted Trump’s endorsement Tuesday, the closest thing to an Abbott campaign response to the primary challenge was belittlement. The day after Huffines, who cuts a slight figure, announced, Abbott strategist Dave Carney tweeted, “Can anyone remind me what the height restrictions are for 6 Flags rides?”
Asked about the Carney tweet. Huffines was ready with a retort: “I’m tall enough,” Huffines said. “Tall enough to be governor.”