September 25, 2020

Red vs. Red in Texas, With Republicans Battling One Another After Mask Order

DALLAS — Texas Republicans have long sparred with one another, with feisty internal disputes in recent years over gun rights, bathroom bills and other culture-war issues. But since the spring, as the coronavirus began to take hold across the state, it has been an all-out battle of red versus red.

This month, Republican groups in eight counties censured the Republican governor after he issued a statewide mask order, saying that it infringed on their rights and followed the lead of Houston, San Antonio and other Democratic-led cities and counties that already required masks in businesses.

And on Monday, party activists ousted the chairman of the state party in favor of an outspoken firebrand conservative who called for President Barack Obama’s impeachment in 2014 and whose ascension to the top party post received a congratulatory tweet from President Trump.

In Texas, the virus has heightened long-simmering friction in the largest Republican-led state in the country, and for the first time Gov. Greg Abbott has come under serious attack from within his own party. The conflict in many ways is not unique to Texas. The rifts in the party run along some of the same establishment-versus-insurgent fault lines that years ago defined the rise of the Tea Party and of Mr. Trump.

“This has been building for a long, long time,” said State Senator Kel Seliger, a former mayor of Amarillo who is the second-most senior Republican in the Texas Senate and has served more than 16 years in office. “When a party dominates, it also becomes sort of arrogant and exclusive. It used to be back in the ’80s and ’90s, let’s all get together in this big Republican tent and be a majority. Increasingly, we’ve been ushering people out of the tent.”

Indeed, the clash is about more than conservative anger over the governor’s mask order, and has its roots in the ideological divide between the right and the far-right in Texas. Some of that same energy and tension in 2012 helped a lawyer named Ted Cruz who had never held elected office defeat a powerful Republican lieutenant governor to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

As Democrats continue to make gains statewide, archconservatives have tried pushing Texas further to the right, while more moderate Republicans try to steer it closer to the center.

ImagePeople waited at a walk-up coronavirus testing site for Dallas County residents at Sam Tasby Middle School in Dallas.
Credit…Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

More than 130 local Republican leaders in eight counties publicly rebelled against Mr. Abbott and voted to formally censure him, a stunning rebuke for a politician who easily won re-election in 2018 and who until now has been the most popular Republican in the state. The censure votes were symbolic expressions of disapproval, largely over his statewide mask order. An effort to stiffen the punishment for being censured and to pass a statewide Republican resolution condemning the governor remains in the works.

Mr. Abbott, who faces re-election in 2022, was the first Republican governor of Texas in modern time to be officially reprimanded by a group of Republican county leaders.

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Updated 2020-07-23T10:30:23.915Z

“We feel that Abbott is going overboard in shutting down the economy,” said Lee Lester, the chairman of the Harrison County Republican Party in East Texas, one of the eight counties that censured the governor.

Mr. Lester, a retired insurance salesman who lives near the Louisiana border in a county that has recorded more than 500 coronavirus cases and nearly 70 deaths, said Mr. Abbott needed to “start acting like we think he should act, and that is looking at the overall picture — following the facts, not fear tactics.”

The divide has been evident in and around Fort Worth, the largest conservative-led city in Texas. Republicans in urban, suburban and rural Texas disagree on how the government should respond to the virus, and on whether masks cross a line.

Mayor Betsy Price of Fort Worth, which has seen an explosion of cases in recent days, expressed empathy rather than criticism for the governor and was as pro-mask as the Democratic mayors of Houston and other major cities. “Y’all wear a mask,” Ms. Price, a Republican, said in a recent public service announcement, through a white mask decorated with the silhouette of a Texas longhorn, the logo of a city whose nickname is Cowtown.

“It’s been a very measured approach in Fort Worth, not much knee-jerk reaction,” she said in an interview. “People are very much afraid, and when they’re afraid, they tend to be very critical of things.”

But nearby in the same county, in the affluent suburb of Colleyville, Mayor Richard Newton took a more aggressive approach. In April, he opened restaurants before state rules allowed it, and last month, he bucked a county mask order. “We just choose not to participate,” Mr. Newton told reporters at the time.

And in two counties, one to the northeast and one to the southwest of Fort Worth and Colleyville, the tenor is even more rebellious. Republican leaders in suburban Denton County and rural Hood County were among those who passed resolutions against the governor.

The disarray was on full display last weekend at the Republican state convention, typically a time of unity, networking and chest-thumping speeches for the dominant party in Texas. In a back-and-forth that lasted weeks, top Republican elected officials supported meeting virtually — as the Democrats did earlier this summer — while the party leadership voted to meet as planned in person in Houston, a Democrat-led city.

After losing a legal battle, the party gathered for a virtual convention that was delayed by technical problems. After it resumed, those who were fed up with the party’s chairman, James Dickey, helped push him out.

The party elected a new chairman, Allen B. West, a former Florida congressman who was chosen in part by appealing to the anti-Abbott sentiments over the statewide mask order. In a video message to delegates at the San Jacinto Monument outside Houston, a revered site commemorating the Texas battle for independence in 1836, he called the moment a “new battleground.”

Credit…Jeff Newman/dpa, via Associated Press Images

“There’s a new battlefield,” he said in the video, “and it’s really not too much different from what they faced — the despotism, the tyranny, that we see in the great state of Texas, where we have executive orders and mandates, people telling us what we can and cannot do, who is essential and who is not essential. It is time for us to stand up, and it is time for us to fight.”

In his own video address to delegates, Mr. Abbott acknowledged the criticisms over his mask mandate, but defended his actions, his authority to issue executive orders in emergencies and his dedication to conservative principles.

“I know that many of you do not like the mask requirement,” Mr. Abbott said in his remarks. “I don’t either. It is the last thing I wanted to do. Actually, the next to last. The last thing that any of us want is to lock Texas back down again. We must do all that we can to prevent that.”

Mr. Abbott, who did not respond to a request for an interview, remains popular with a number of Republican lawmakers and business leaders, and his supporters say the criticisms are coming from a small but loud wing of the party and will not amount to a threat to his re-election.

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Even so, a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday showed that his support among Republicans, while still strong, had slipped as the spread of the virus intensified: A quarter of respondents said they disapproved of Mr. Abbott’s handling of the virus, up from about 10 percent in early June.

At the same time, the governor has faced pressure from many public health officials and Democratic leaders to do more to stop the rising tide of infections, hospitalizations and deaths across the state.

“I told the governor’s people this: The virus will force you to take action, eventually,” said Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who is the top elected official in Dallas County and who has clashed with Mr. Abbott over the state response. “The challenge is when the doctors ask you to take action, go ahead and do it then.” He urged the closure of indoor dining and a delay in opening schools for in-person instruction.

Credit…Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Texas has become one of the largest coronavirus hot spots in the country, and Mr. Abbott, who began opening the state for business on May 1, has struggled to find the best approach to control it. Some Republicans had urged him to go faster in reopening businesses, and have pushed him to keep them open despite the spread of the virus.

“There’s just a division between what politically your base is wanting you to do, and what is the right thing to do,” said Mari Woodlief, a Republican political consultant in Dallas who worked on the Fort Worth mayor’s first campaign. “He did the right thing, but it was not what his base wanted him to do.”

After cases related to bars began to spike, Mr. Abbott ordered them closed in late June. For weeks, he said the government should not mandate mask-wearing, and then he reversed course before the Fourth of July weekend and put in place an order for most Texans.

Among the 25 American counties with the most cases per capita over the past week, nine are in Texas. That includes not just the populous counties that include Houston and Dallas, but also smaller counties that include San Angelo and Corpus Christi. The average daily case total has exploded to more than 10,000 statewide. In early July, Texas was averaging about 6,500 new cases daily. At the start of June, the figure hovered around 1,400.

Leaders in major cities, mostly Democrats, have asked for the power to impose county or city-specific stay-at-home orders; Mr. Abbott has so far refused, arguing that such measures should be voluntary. That stance is common among conservatives in the state, wary of government intrusions on personal liberty.

Sam Bryant, an Army veteran and Republican from Waxahachie, a solidly conservative suburb 30 miles south of Dallas, accused Mr. Abbott of doing the very thing the governor built his political career fighting against — government overreach.

Mr. Bryant, 38, a member of the governing board of the Republican Party of Texas until he left in frustration a few days ago, said he had already decided not to run for another term because the board was full of “a lot of establishment do-nothings.”

“I just think what’s happened is the party has lost its ability to deliver its message,” said Mr. Bryant, who cheered Mr. West’s takeover as chairman. “Why don’t we just disband the whole thing and start from scratch?”

Mitch Smith contributed reporting from Chicago, and David Montgomery from Austin.