Hey, God? Please don’t make me cover the Matthew McConaughey gubernatorial campaign. I make my living on the side of this lazy river, like my ancestors before me, fishing out the little inanities and absurdities of politics in Texas and proffering them to a wider audience. The prospect of a governor who has written extensively about his wet dreams is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, beyond my poor power to add or subtract.
Besides, we have enough going on: Even without the Dazed and Confused actor, this is set to be the most raucous and dysfunctional Texas election in many years. The state has had three consecutive campaign cycles in which the main question was whether Democrats would finally break through and win important seats. Then, in 2020, the party failed to gain control of the state House before this year’s round of redistricting (a.k.a. gerrymandering), setting up 2022 to be a rough election for the party. Without significant opposition, Republicans are free to resume the traditional feeding frenzy in their primary races. And boy, are they!
The biggest bout sits at the top of the ticket. Governor Greg Abbott, the most popular Republican in statewide office, has more money than Croesus, and loves nothing more than phoning wealthy Texans whose business interests he has advanced to ask for more. His poll numbers and war chest were enough to scare off serious potential opponents in both parties in 2018, but no longer. His poll numbers have started to sag, and the last few years have been rough for Abbott, as he has struggled to balance the demands of his right-wing base and those of more moderate voters. The governor will have at least three primary opponents next year. Plus McConaughey, maybe, under whatever old or new party banner he might choose to run. Plus possibly even a Democrat, if the party can pretend to have its act together for longer than a few minutes at a time. (More on that in a bit.)
None of the governor’s three Republican challengers are rising stars, but then neither is Abbott. Perhaps the least substantial rival is Chad Prather, a commentator on Glenn Beck’s TV network, the Blaze, who won some measure of fame for a viral video titled “Unapologetically Southern,” in which he defends his Southern accent from condescending Yankees. (Prather was born in Bergen County, N.J.)
Don Huffines offers a more significant challenge. A wealthy real estate developer who served one term in the Texas Senate before losing his seat to a Democrat in 2018, he’s a libertarian of the sort that has always been slightly out of step with most movement conservatives. But Huffines’s campaign nonetheless boasts an impressive list of hundreds of endorsements from GOP activists, which demonstrates the level of dissatisfaction many party loyalists feel toward the governor. (You’ll have to trust me that this is an impressive list—the fact that I recognize so many names is proof that I terribly misspent my twenties.)
The Abbott camp is most concerned by former Florida congressman Allen West, who recently announced his resignation as chair of the Texas Republican party. During less than a year in that post, West turned much of the party into an anti-Abbott guerrilla group, attending protests in front of the Governor’s Mansion over mask mandates and what he deemed pandemic-related “government overreach.” West abruptly announced last weekend at a Dallas-area church that he was running for governor. It turns out that his tenure as party chair was a sort of in-kind donation to his future self, who would be taking on Abbott directly.
None of the challengers are strong candidates, on paper: a minor social media star, a one-term state senator, and a Florida Man who lost his congressional seat there after a single term. But put all three of them in the race, and who knows? If the group can collectively keep Abbott below 50 percent and force a runoff, whoever makes it to the second round could conceivably assume the mantle of conservative alternative. It’s the path Ted Cruz took in the 2012 Republican primary to become a senator, and that Dan Patrick followed in 2014 to become lieutenant governor.
There’s one name not on the ballot who has emerged as the most important figure in the election cycle. When Huffines declared his candidacy in early May, he called himself the true Trumpist candidate. Abbott began sucking up to the Donald even more than he had in the past, and earned his endorsement, which he’ll be waving around like a get-out-of-jail card over the next year. The governor will be running harder to the right than ever: hence all his showy but insubstantial talk about completing the border wall. Which is why even if his conservative challengers lose, their agenda will win.
The rest of the Republican primary ballot will see a game of musical chairs, thanks to an exceedingly rare event: an open seat. Land commissioner George P. Bush has finished commissioning all the land he set out to commission in 2014, when he first took office. He’s setting on down the dusty trail to his next gig, or so he hopes, by challenging Ken Paxton for attorney general.
The race will be exceedingly bitter and personal. Paxton and Bush have both heartily campaigned for Donald Trump’s endorsement and have been sniping at each other for months. Paxton stands accused of multiple felonies. He has successfully postponed a felony securities-fraud trial for some seven years. Last year, his senior staff at the AG’s office—his handpicked allies—resigned en masse and alleged that he had taken bribes from an Austin real estate magnate who is under investigation by the FBI. (He denies any wrongdoing and says it’s all a witch hunt.)
Bush’s campaign team has a lot to work with. But among Republican primary voters in Texas these days, it is almost as bad to be a Bush as to be accused of fraud and corruption. By the end of his second term as president, George W. Bush was hated by movement conservatives in Texas almost as much as he was by Democrats, and the love didn’t return for Jeb Bush during his flaccid presidential run or, indeed, for Jeb’s son, George P. It doesn’t help that George P.’s primary legacy at the General Land Office is getting sucked into a messy and politically poisonous debate over how to revamp the Alamo complex in San Antonio, and that he has most recently won headlines, and a summons to testify before Congress, for denying Houston disaster relief money for flood mitigation that it most certainly deserves. (Bush blamed the federal government, which in turn pointed its finger back at him.)
Paxton and Bush won’t be the only credible candidates in the primary: Texas Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman recently joined in. Arguably the best-credentialed candidate, Guzman strikes a tone of moderation and seems like a perfectly nice person. Those are all reasons why she’s likely to place third. There’s also some evidence that candidates with Hispanic surnames underperform on Texas Republican primary ballots. But that trend seems less evident now than in earlier elections. Guzman’s presence could help tip the race into a runoff.
Here, too, the former president looms. Bush and Paxton, locked in the polls so far, are anxiously awaiting Trump’s coming decision to endorse one of them, or both, or neither. Bush, whose dad was humiliated by Trump on the national stage, launched his campaign with koozies that read, quoting Trump, “This is the only Bush that likes me! This is the Bush that got it right. I like him!” The move, however, appears not to have caught Trump’s attention: at a recent press conference at the border, the former president asked Paxton how many challengers he was facing in his reelection bid.
Win or lose, Bush’s seat as land commissioner will need to be filled. Stepping in for a chance to replace him are Republican state senator Dawn Buckingham, former GOP congressional candidate Jon Spiers, and former member of the party’s executive committee Weston Martinez.
That race probably won’t be too exciting, but the race for agriculture commissioner will. The hapless Sid Miller has a challenger. State representative James White, a staunch conservative from East Texas and the only Black Republican in the Legislature, has announced a bid for the office. Miller, prone to error and scandal, achieved infamy for using taxpayer money to travel to Oklahoma to receive a “Jesus shot” from a quack doctor who promised it would take away all pain. His longtime consigliere Todd Smith was recently arrested on charges that he offered to arrange hemp-growing licenses in exchange for corrupt cash. (Smith’s lawyers say he didn’t violate any laws and that he’ll soon clear his name.) But Miller still has powerful backers and support from party activists. During Miller’s race for the ag commissioner seat in 2014, one of his staffers spread rumors that his runoff opponent had sex with paid escorts, so expect a barnyard brawl.
Following the primaries, there will, by law and tradition, be a general election. We’ll save the McConaughey talk until he decides whether to run—though he’s been hinting at it, we don’t know what party he’d run with. But the actor aside, there is also a small opposition party in Texas that will face Republicans in November. They’re called “the Democrats,” or “the Democratic party,” or, if you ask some folks in Euless and Kingwood, “the Demonrats.”
The two most prominent members of the Texas Democratic party, former congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso and Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, decided to run for president simultaneously in 2019 and got utterly demolished. Both withdrew from the race before the first state voted. While campaigning, O’Rourke endorsed widespread gun confiscation and Castro called for the decriminalization of border crossings, reducing their chances of winning statewide office in Texas to somewhere between slim and none.
Partly as a result, Texas Democrats have no viable candidate to run against Greg Abbott. No one has yet declared to challenge him, even though he’s weakened politically after orchestrating a widely criticized pandemic response, presiding over a catastrophic failure of the state electric grid that killed some seven hundred Texans and left millions without power for days, and endorsing a raft of restrictions on voting and abortion that are opposed by most voters in statewide polls. Launching a bid for statewide office takes time, and the failure of any Democrat to do so becomes more glaring by the day.
There may be serious Democrats elsewhere on the ballot—among them former Galveston mayor Joe Jaworski, running for attorney general—but a party that can’t launch a serious bid for governor is a party in name only. At least Texas Democratic chair Gilberto Hinojosa has had warm words for one potential candidate: Matthew McConaughey.