Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is facing a torrent of criticism over his surprise decision to roll back his state’s mask mandate and business restrictions — moves that strategists and activists in both parties said are aimed at appeasing an impatient Republican base ahead of his 2022 reelection bid and with an eye on the 2024 presidential race.
The two-term Texas governor announced Tuesday in Lubbock, in an event at a Mexican restaurant surrounded by supporters where he took no questions, that he was dropping his orders aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The decision could hasten the spread of the virus at a moment in which only a small sliver of the state’s population has been vaccinated, public health experts said.
In shrinking the state’s role in battling the pandemic, Abbott has — for the second time in weeks — backed away from a crisis at a key moment. His decision comes on the heels of massive power outages brought on by years of mismanagement of the state’s power grid, which Abbott used to take a shot at progressives’ proposed Green New Deal on Fox News.
Dropping Texas’ coronavirus restrictions could appease a conservative base that is rewarding Republican governors who have flouted experts’ guidance and opened their states early. Abbott is following the lead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who finished second and third behind former President Donald Trump in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s 2024 presidential straw poll last week.
While his sudden decision might please some Republicans, Abbott faced sharp criticism from President Joe Biden, who on Wednesday said he and the Mississippi governor, Tate Reeves, who has announced similar moves, are guilty of “Neanderthal thinking.”
“We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we’re able to get vaccines in people’s arms,” Biden said. “The last thing — the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters.”
Abbott’s spokeswoman Renae Eze said in a statement that Abbott “was clear in telling Texans that COVID hasn’t ended, and that all Texans should follow medical advice and safe practices to continue containing COVID.”
“It is clear from the recoveries, the vaccinations, the reduced hospitalizations, and the safe practices that Texans are using, that state mandates are no longer needed. We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans,” Eze said. “The governor’s focus has been, and always will be, protecting the lives and livelihoods of Texans.”
Abbott was also met with sharp criticism from Democrats, media outlets and prominent figures in Texas. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a potential Abbott opponent in the 2022 governor’s race, called Abbott’s decision “a death warrant” and said the governor “is killing the people of Texas.” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called it “pretty mystifying” and “ignorant.” The first sentence in a Fort Worth Business Press editorial said: “It’s official: Greg Abbott is a moron.”
And his Tuesday moves came too late to mollify some of Abbott’s most vocal conservative critics, who accused the governor of attempting to deflect blame after the recent deep freeze left millions of Texans without power and water.
“He’s got to get through the primaries first, and that’s going to be a tougher challenge for him than Beto, I’ll tell you that. He has made a lot of conservatives very mad,” said Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was jailed last year after refusing to follow Abbott’s order to close her business.
“All he tries to do is hide from the blame,” Luther said. “He’s trying to take away the focus on the power grid issue, which I think he should have taken a lot more blame for that.”
In the latter portion of his second term, Abbott has faced pressure from factions of the GOP that were largely silent in the earlier stages of his governorship.
Abbott has said he plans to seek a third term in 2022, and could face a primary — with Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West refusing to rule out a possible run.
West, Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller and other prominent conservatives protested last fall outside the governor’s mansion, criticizing Abbott’s use of emergency powers to require masks and close restaurants and bars. West did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Some conservative Abbott critics said his Tuesday moves did not go far enough, because the governor left county executives the power to implement their own restrictions.
“You are far too late,” former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland tweeted. “Many lives and businesses have already been destroyed while you played King. Texans deserve better, you’ve got to go.”
Democrats also said Abbott’s moves were clearly aimed at mollifying his Republican base.
“There’s no question he’s worried about a primary challenge,” said Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.
And, with 2024 on the horizon, Hinojosa said: “He wants to get himself in position to be competitive in the Republican primary, and the only way you can do that is if you take extreme measures along the lines of what Allen West and the far right of the Republican Party has been demanding he do in Texas.”
While Abbott has been under siege, potential 2022 rivals, including O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have been visible. O’Rourke mobilized his network of supporters to reach out to Texans facing power and water outages after a historic freeze shut down much of the state’s power grid last month, and criss-crossed the state himself. Castro has also been a vocal critic of Abbott, and the former San Antonio mayor has reached out to mayors to ask how he could help, Hinojosa said.
“You’re going to have a much stronger field of people in this primary than we’ve had in the past,” Hinojosa said, pointing to O’Rourke, Castro and several mayors and county executives as potential candidates.
Though Abbott continues to face heat from the right, he would remain a heavy favorite in next year’s governor’s race — a reality that was underscored when other Texas Republicans rallied to his defense Wednesday.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, responding to Biden’s criticism of Abbott, said Biden should not be “preaching to my state about how to handle this COVID-19 virus.”
“People in Texas don’t really like governments telling them what to do. And I think they’ve tolerated it for as long as they feel like they had to,” he said.