Even as Joe Biden prepared to move into the White House, disappointments among Texas Democrats continued to mount. Two months after an election cycle that saw the party treading water at best, the state’s best-known liberal politicians had earned barely a mention in the rumor mill of candidates for Biden’s cabinet, and not one had landed a prominent place in his administration. The left controls very little outside of the big cities. And because they failed to secure a majority in the state House, Democrats will be at the mercy of their GOP colleagues when it comes to redistricting. One-party rule remains the rule in Texas.
The humiliation of the state’s minority party also means that Republicans are free to return to their favorite pastime: fighting among themselves. On one side: the traditionalists who champion light regulations, low taxes, and businesses, especially those that relocate here from California. (Welcome to Texas, Elon Musk.) On the other: the grassroots movement that began with the tea party and since has morphed into a Trump-inspired grievance machine that sees many establishment Republicans as frauds who have turned their backs on average Americans.
But the fight is about more than ideology. As in an aging kingdom that has produced more princes than princely positions, many GOP politicians are stymied more than ever by the dearth of career advancement opportunities. By the 2022 midterm elections, just two men—former governor Rick Perry and current governor Greg Abbott—will have held the state’s top job for a combined 22 years, and Abbott could hold it for four more. That’s a major roadblock for up-and-comers, and a recipe for restlessness.
Since Abbott may well run for president in 2024, he will almost certainly seek a résumé-burnishing third term as governor. If he doesn’t, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick likely will leap at the opportunity to replace him. Senator Ted Cruz clearly wants to vie for the presidential nomination as well. The ever-aspiring George P. Bush, currently biding his time as Texas land commissioner, is weighing a bid against scandal-plagued Attorney General Ken Paxton, a matchup that could serve as a referendum on the GOP’s direction.
And then there’s new party chairman Allen West, who seems intent on making war on a wide cross section of Republican officeholders—among them Beaumont state representative Dade Phelan, who, at press time, seemed to have the votes to become the next Speaker of the Texas House. The COVID-haunted legislative session that commenced on January 12 will be fraught for the Big Three—Abbott, Patrick, and Phelan. They will have to find a way to balance a battered budget, while figuring out what to do about the complex legislation passed in 2019 that overhauled the school finance system and offered property tax relief. Much ballyhooed by the Big Three, the legislation was contingent on tax revenues that have shriveled as a result of COVID-19 and the oil bust.
In 2022, nearly every statewide administrative office will be up for grabs, with the 2024 presidential election just around the corner. The next few years of Texas politics will be shaped by personal rivalries and a fierce ideological struggle. Here’s your cheat sheet—a few bold predictions included—to the key conflicts that will matter this year.
Greg Abbott vs. Ted Cruz
Well, this is awkward. Both Abbott and Cruz are evidently eyeing a presidential run in 2024. Abbott is flirting with the idea; Cruz is openly lusting.
When Abbott was Texas attorney general, he hired Cruz, then a low-level adviser in the Bush administration, to serve as solicitor general. Cruz, who wears his ambition like a high-school letter jacket, used the relatively obscure position to launch high-profile legal crusades and to make a name for himself in conservative politics. Now, the mentor and the mentee may be on a collision course.
Since losing to Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, Cruz has never stopped campaigning. Not even his close call against Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 Senate race has slowed the man down. Instead, Cruz has reinvented himself as a colonel in the MAGA army. At the tail end of Trump’s presidency, Cruz offered to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that Trump’s sound defeat at the hand of Biden was illegitimate. And in early January, he showed how far he was willing to go by leading the charge to disrupt the certification of the election. On January 6, insurrectionists stormed past police to occupy the Capitol, vandalizing congressional offices and posing for pictures on the Senate floor. Undeterred by the mob scene, Cruz voted with a handful of other Republican senators to overturn the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Texas’s junior senator may have proved the depths of his cravenness to his many critics, but that’s unlikely to keep him from running for president again.
Trump’s loss and Cruz’s cynical radicalism could help strengthen the case for politicians like Abbott. The governor helped turn back insurgent Democrats in the biggest red state in 2020, a year in which Republicans also made impressive gains among Hispanic voters. His policy selling points are solid, if somewhat predictable: he cut taxes, increased education spending, and encouraged big-name businesses—Hewlett Packard, Oracle, Tesla—to relocate to Texas.
“Literally days after the presidential election, I started to get calls from political friends from out of state asking about Abbott,” said Ray Sullivan, a veteran Texas Republican strategist. “Texas will emerge from COVID in a much stronger economic position than many states, and that will fan the flames of political speculation going into the 2024 cycle.”
The rest of the nation, however, does not know the governor as well as we do. Though Abbott has maintained a steady grip on the state GOP, he is largely untested on the national stage and is not exactly overflowing with charisma. Forever glancing nervously over his right shoulder, he mollifies religious conservatives with abortion restrictions, but also half-heartedly meanders toward the center from time to time by embracing policies with broad appeal. Abbott seems to get the most joy out of using his office to micromanage Democrat-led cities on local issues, such as bans on plastic bags. “He’s somebody who is always playing and angling for the middle. He’s calculating, and as a result of that, he doesn’t really acquire emotional support from anybody,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic consultant from Fort Worth.
Nowhere has Abbott’s triangulation been more evident than in his response to the coronavirus pandemic. He first opposed statewide restrictions, then issued orders to shelter at home, then revoked those orders when he felt heat from the right. Even so, the Trump wing of the party has been unhappy, accusing Abbott of limiting individual freedom. Texas GOP chairman West is even rumored to be considering a run against Abbott in next year’s Republican primary. (More on that later.)
Abbott’s first major test of the post-Trump era will be navigating the legislative session. The governor is not known for his finesse with lawmakers, and this year could prove particularly challenging. In a best-case scenario, a Biden bailout helps plug the gaps in the state’s budget, and Abbott can take credit for Texas weathering the pandemic with less economic pain than rival states such as California. Cruz, on the other hand, has the luxury of falling back into his default mode of yelling at Democrats in Washington. Abbott will pursue policy; Cruz will pursue headlines.
Prediction: Abbott will easily win reelection to a third term as governor, but the risk-averse politician will blink on running for president.
Ken Paxton vs. George P. Bush
Ken Paxton is the most damaged elected official in Texas, and he will be lucky to weather 2021. But don’t count him out just yet. The man is a proven survivor.
Since he was indicted in 2015 on securities fraud charges, Paxton has filed endless motions to postpone or avoid a trial, and he managed in 2018 to convince voters to give him another four years in office. He benefited from having an R next to his name on the ballot, but he also ingratiated himself with the base by repeatedly suing the Obama administration and staking out aggressive positions on abortion, LGBTQ issues, and voter fraud, a near-myth that Paxton has nonetheless zealously pursued.
Can he pull off a repeat performance and get voters to overlook his latest criminal troubles? This time, the FBI is investigating whether a wealthy campaign contributor hired Paxton’s mistress and received favorable treatment from the attorney general’s office in exchange. Eight Paxton aides ratted their boss out to the feds for what they called improper influence, bribery, and abuse of office. Securities fraud can be hard to understand. Adultery and cronyism, not so much.
Never underestimate a huckster, though. In the waning days of 2020, Paxton gained national attention by bringing a bizarre suit to overturn Biden’s presidential victory to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the lawsuit, which Trump called “the big one,” was so ludicrous that the court dismissed it without a hearing. Some observers concluded that Paxton must have been seeking a pardon from the president.
Many Republican insiders have grown tired of Paxton’s lawlessness, and a strong challenger could find encouragement from within the party. That’s where Republican land commissioner George P. Bush comes in. The 44-year-old son of Jeb Bush and nephew of President George W. Bush is already considering a bid to unseat Paxton in the 2022 Republican primary. “People are telling us, ‘We want to return the attorney general’s office to where it was under Greg Abbott or John Cornyn,’” said Bush senior political adviser Ash Wright.
But the Bush brand isn’t what it used to be in Texas. George P. Bush knows this as well as anyone. Though he owes his political career to the family dynasty, he nonetheless broke with his uncle and father in 2016 and 2020 to endorse President Trump’s candidacy, a move that still has done little to endear him to the MAGA base; Bush’s family name, and its association with a more establishment brand of conservatism, is too hard to shake. Plus, his management of the Alamo redevelopment project has angered many culture warriors, who see his plan as an assault on the heroes of the battle.
Prediction: Ken Paxton is the wounded zebra on the savanna. He won’t be back for another term. If he doesn’t resign first, he will either be defeated in the 2022 primary by Bush or someone else, lose to a Democrat in the general election, or go to prison.
Allen West vs. Everybody
A one-term congressman from Florida who moved to Texas in 2014, Allen West is currently the most disruptive force in Texas politics—a one-man wrecking crew who has turned the chairmanship of the Texas Republican party from a sleepy administrative role into a platform for attacking the establishment.
Since taking the helm as state party chairman last summer, the retired Army lieutenant colonel—relieved of duty and fined after he was charged with torturing an Iraqi police officer—has trained his fire on the top leaders in his party, including House Speaker-to-be Dade Phelan and, most remarkably, Governor Abbott. West led protests at the Governor’s Mansion against Abbott’s modest COVID-19 restrictions and joined a lawsuit challenging Abbott for extending the early voting period by six days. In a December special election for a state Senate seat, West seemed to favor Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who openly defied Abbott’s order to keep some businesses closed. His unusual attacks on the state’s top official have sparked speculation that he will challenge Abbott in next year’s primary. Are the rumors true? I asked West in December. He wouldn’t answer directly, but his barbed response was telling. “We don’t want to see a political elite class that wants to disregard or dismiss the people in the grassroots,” he said.
If West does take on Abbott, the party chairman will face a prodigious money-raiser. In his 2018 reelection campaign, the governor hauled in a record $43.3 million. But West is building on a national profile that he first cultivated as a congressman. Though he narrowly lost his 2012 reelection campaign in Florida, West raised $19 million—an impressive sum for a congressional candidate. West also may be the most Trumpian of Texas politicians: he is savvy at using social media to attract attention, and he isn’t ashamed to incorporate fringe elements into his brand, albeit with a smidgen of plausible deniability. (He insists, for example, that the motto he adopted for the Texas GOP, “We Are the Storm,” isn’t what it sounds like: a variation on “The Storm Is Here,” a rallying cry of the QAnon conspiracy movement.)
Even if West’s anti-Abbott rhetoric wanes, he may move down his enemies list to Phelan, whom West called a “traitor” for accepting support from Democratic legislators in his bid to become House Speaker. With his allegiances among conservative activists, West could be an X factor during the session—capable of swaying a sizable bloc of movement conservatives.
Prediction: West challenges Abbott in the 2022 Republican primary, but Abbott proves again that he has the money and influence to outmaneuver his right flank.
Dan Patrick vs. Dade Phelan
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was once the bad boy of Texas politics, a former radio talker who went from laughingstock of the state Senate to the one getting the last laugh. In the past year, he has appeared frequently on Fox News to defend Trump and to talk tough about the pandemic. (In March, he suggested that senior citizens would sacrifice their lives to the coronavirus in order to save the economy.) But for the most part, he has seemed to shrink back into himself.
With Trump’s loss in November, Patrick may have missed his best, or at least most obvious, opportunity to move up. Though he vehemently denied rumors that he was angling for a job in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Patrick seemed eager to show Trump that he was an authority on the border wall. Now, with Democrats once again in charge of the national executive branch, he’s likely to bide his time and focus on consolidating his power in the state Senate. If Abbott leaves the Governor’s Mansion, though, Patrick could find himself with a much easier path to a position that would earn him a portrait in the Capitol building.
Patrick has already signaled a likely return to the culture wars that garnered him national attention two years ago. He took a semi-hiatus after his antitransgender bathroom bill went down in defeat in 2017 and after Democrats made gains in the 2018 midterm elections. But even before this year’s session started, a key Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would ban abortions in Texas after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Advocates hope to get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court now that the body has a six-to-three conservative majority thanks to Trump’s appointees.
Though bipartisanship has received nothing more than lip service in Patrick’s Senate, it has been a hallmark of Phelan’s approach in the House. In the last legislative session, Phelan sided with the LGBTQ community on preserving city ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And the financial ravages of COVID-19 on the state budget and public-school spending will likely top his legislative agenda. If Phelan follows the path laid by former House Speaker Joe Straus—resistance to divisive legislation passed by the Senate—he could find himself crosswise with Patrick and many of his own members in the House.
But Patrick may not have to push Phelan very hard for permission to check off some items on the conservative wish list. In 2019, Phelan cosponsored the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill, which critics said would promote antigay discrimination. And in 2017, he helped carry a bill to ban the sale or donation of fetal tissue and to halt so-called partial-birth abortions.
Prediction: Patrick has a successful legislative session, then retires to spend more time with the grandkids, and on his new gig as a Fox News talking head. Phelan has some freshman stumbles, but finds a way to keep his fractious caucus in line.
The Big Picture
For now, political power rests firmly in Republican hands. Despite all the GOP infighting, Texas Democrats will find few openings. The Democratic bench is depleted, the party will have virtually no say in redistricting, the 2022 midterms are likely to favor Republicans, and Trump’s success in capturing the votes of a surprising number of Hispanics has upended many liberal assumptions about how to win statewide. For these reasons, the main political action in Texas will shift back to where it’s been for most of the past three decades: the center right vs. the far right, the conservative establishment vs. the activist base.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Red vs. Red.” Subscribe today.