On Tuesday evening, a subdued crowd of about fifty Texans, most of them silver-haired, white, and maskless, gathered inside an airy Stephenville watering hole called the Purple Goat to hear Shelley Luther speak.
It was most attendees’ first time meeting with Luther, but she was hardly a stranger. The Dallas hair salon owner and lead singer of a cover band named Crush swept into the public spotlight this spring, after serving a brief jail sentence for contempt of court after she defied Governor Greg Abbott’s declaration keeping nonessential businesses shuttered to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Now running for the Texas Senate in a special election against five other Republicans, and with a recent $1 million campaign contribution in her pocket, the small-business owner’s circumstances have dramatically changed. But ten minutes into her Stephenville speech, one week ahead of Tuesday’s election, it became clear that her fiery message—a defiant condemnation of the “tyrant governor” in Austin—has not.
Casually dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a black blazer, Luther looked more like an off-duty urban professional than a freedom fighter struggling against government oppression. She sounded as if she were still headlining a “reopen Texas” rally in late April, only without a cease-and-desist order from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins to rip up for the crowd’s delight.
“Our government is not there to protect you or to protect us!” the 47-year-old proclaimed, receiving a smattering of claps from the crowd. “They are there to protect your rights. The Constitution was written to protect us from them and they are trampling all over it!”
Luther may take occasional swipes at Jenkins, but on the campaign trail, Abbott remains her primary nemesis. The governor used to consistently receive high approval ratings from Texas voters. But his handling of the pandemic has unleashed a new contingent of critics, not only among those who feel his actions again COVID were insufficient and ineffective, but also among those on the grassroots right wing, including Luther, who believe his restrictions on individuals and businesses went too far. They disparage one of the nation’s most popular red-state governors in much the same way that the tea party trashed President Obama more than a decade ago. Shuttering any business for any amount of time is an unforgivable act of overreach, Luther argues. An individual’s health is that person’s responsibility and the government should have no role in regulating it, even if that individual is putting others’ health at risk, and especially if that regulation involves cutting Texans off from their livelihoods.
In most circumstances, Abbott shows no patience for those who defy lawful orders by officials or law enforcement. But he has treated Luther and other reopen-Texas activists with great deference, even though most polls show a clear majority of Texans support maintaining COVID-19 restrictions, even if they impose some costs on the economy. In April, the governor reacted to Luther’s demands that he toss out his pandemic restrictions by allowing Texas salons to open ahead of schedule. He also called the small business owner’s seven-day jail sentence excessive, and eventually upended enforcement of the executive order that put Luther behind bars, ensuring that jail time was no longer a penalty for violating the command. Texans experienced one of the shortest stay-at-home orders in the country, and today most of the state’s businesses are either fully opened or allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity. Whether Luther represents a legitimate threat to establishment Republicans or her candidacy is little more than a passing storm of pandemic-inspired fury will be tested on Tuesday when she faces off against five other candidates vying to replace retiring state Senator Pat Fallon (R-Prosper).
“The Luther candidacy is almost entirely based on her opposition to the lockdowns and, at this point, the lack of a fully reopened economy,” Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas, told me. “There’s not much else to her candidacy. This special election will test whether these arguments against the governor can move the needle. I suspect they won’t. I think most Republicans are satisfied with the job he’s done under extremely difficult circumstances.”
But others, including Harold Cook, a Democratic political analyst, aren’t so sure. In addition to a $1 million loan from Midland oilman Tim Dunn, Cook noted, Luther has also received sizable campaign contributions from billionaire oilman Farris Wilks and former state senator Don Huffines, who called Abbott’s coronavirus response “un-Texan” earlier this year. Like Joe the Plumber meets Sarah Palin, Luther represents less of a movement, Cook said, than a singular “pop star” whose only hit is standing up to the establishment. And yet, he said, it just might work.
“What she’s doing is tapping into politics in a very opportunistic way and she’s been very good at it from the very start,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she rode this sucker right into the Texas Senate.”
In the early days of the shutdown drama, critics accused Luther of pretending to be a struggling mother behind on her mortgage payments. They noted she had been on a Caribbean cruise in March and had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support via GoFundMe, as well as an $18,000 loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. As the election has heated up, Luther’s opponents have accused her of being a RINO and a political neophyte. Her main challenger, state representative Drew Springer (R-Muenster), whom the retiring Fallon has endorsed, bought ShelleyLuther.com and turned it into a virtual attack ad, accusing the candidate of supporting Black Lives Matter, flip-flopping on COVID-19 shutdowns, and being indebted to an “out-of-district megadonor”—a reference to Dunn, who has long been a major financier for far-right candidates obsessed with taking down “the establishment.” The other candidates in the race aside from Democrat Jacob Minter—Nocona businessman Craig Carter, Decatur engineer Andy Hopper, and Denton mayor Chris Watts—consider themselves staunch conservatives.
Luther admits that she has never voted in a Republican primary before. And during a recent appearance before the Grayson County Republican Women at a Mexican restaurant called Mariachis in Sherman, an hour north of Dallas, Luther was unable to answer a question about the state’s water supply. She turned it into a moment of humility. “I do not know the answers to everything that you guys are gonna ask me,” she said. “What I will do is make sure I hire the top person in the state to take care of this for us.”
But Springer said Luther’s discomfort showed she’s an opportunist. “You have to understand all the issues beyond just condemning executive orders that nobody even knew were in place before the pandemic broke out,” he said. Within hours of Springer’s comments, Luther picked up endorsements from conservative Collin County Judge Chris Hill and Young Conservatives of Texas.
Video from the same event captured a heated exchange between Luther and Fallon, who was there campaigning on behalf of Springer. The back-and-forth seemed to encapsulate the growing rift between establishment Republicans and Luther’s band of hard-charging outsiders. Acknowledging he didn’t agree with every element of Abbott’s reopening plan, Fallon emphasized the importance of supporting the governor in order to get bills signed into law before threatening to throw more of his energy into defeating Luther.
“We don’t want somebody who’s going to be at odds with our Republican governor,” Fallon added.
The next day, as video of the encounter circulated, Luther delivered a more forceful response on Facebook. “I am accountable to my fellow citizens in Senate District 30,” she wrote. “Not our governor. This is exactly what is wrong with Austin. Our politicians are more loyal to Abbott than us, even when they disagree with him.”