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Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.
In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.
On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.
The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.
What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.
In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.
Shelley Luther is one of six people running in a special election to replace state Sen. Pat Fallon, a Prosper Republican who gave up his statehouse perch for a shot at a congressional seat. Abbott doesn’t have a hand in the race, but his name is being invoked. Luther is the Dallas-area salon owner who was briefly jailed this year after defying Abbott’s orders closing businesses like hers that were officially deemed “nonessential.” So maybe it’s not a surprise that she campaigns as a candidate who’s independent of her party leader.
She started the game playing the renegade card and has stuck with it. But she’s not alone out there. Some of the state’s most conservative Republicans — part of Abbott’s base of support over his decades in state government — are taking the governor to task. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has disowned Abbott, saying he can no longer follow the GOP’s leading state official.
"What started as 15 days to flatten the curve has turned into six months of misery to the small business owners of House District 15,” Toth wrote in a letter to Abbott that he later posted on social media. He said Abbott had demonstrated an “appalling lack of consistency, leadership, and concern” for small businesses.
That’s the kind of chippy note from one politician to another that you’d expect to read in the last few weeks before a big election. But this election has no direct bearing on either of these politicians.
Toth is running as a Republican in a House district where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 37.2 percentage points and where Ted Cruz beat Beto O’Rourke by 29.8 percentage points. It’s safe to say he’s safe in the general election, unless he steps into an open manhole crossing the street. Abbott, elected to a second term in 2018, isn’t on the ballot this year.
The election is near. Unless the courts change it, early voting starts in less than three weeks. Democrats and Republicans are shouting at each other, as the season demands. In a normal presidential election year, a Texas governor who isn’t on the ballot would be leading the partisan charge, helping lesser and greater figures rally their voters in the state.
Abbott isn’t ignoring the political fights of the season. But there is an extra one this year — in his own political family.