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Analysis: Abbott's mishandling of COVID-19 may become his biggest liability — if Dems seize on it


The captions practically write themselves: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shared this photo over the weekend as COVID-19 cases continued to climb. - TWITTER / @GREGABBOTT_TX
  • Twitter / @GregAbbott_TX
  • The captions practically write themselves: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shared this photo over the weekend as COVID-19 cases continued to climb.
A few weeks ago, it looked like Gov. Greg Abbott's biggest political weakness as he runs for 2022 reelection was his unwillingness to hold anyone of consequence accountable for February's devastating power failures.

But as new COVID-19 cases wash over the state, threatening to overwhelm hospitals, Abbott has painted himself into an unenviable corner with his approach to the virus — a strategic blunder that could well make his grid blunders look minor in comparison.

Abbott's current reelection strategy is all about fending off challenges from the right during the Republican primary, political observers note. He and his handlers have made the assumption that Texas is still solidly red and that he's got the general election in the bag.

The governor's primary challengers — Texas GOP Chair Allen West and former state Sen. Don Huffines — have repeatedly blasted him for overreach during the earlier portion of the pandemic. In response, Abbott has doubled down on his hands-off approach to COVID and threatened municipalities that want to impose mask mandates or require employees to get vaccinated.

But with hospitalizations now reaching a crisis point, Abbott's game of chicken with the coronavirus isn't playing out so well.

Reasonable Texans are angry and terrified that Abbott tied local governments' hands as their unvaccinated children head back to school. What's more, he faces a growing mutiny by the state's largest cities, San Antonio included, who are taking him to court so they can protect their residents.

As the emergency worsens, Abbott is stuck between a rock and a hard place, Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said.

"The political difficulty for Abbott is that he's waited so long to reverse course on dealing with this wave of infections that a rebellion has grown throughout the state," Jillson said. "To back down at this point would be a political liability in the Republican primary, even if it comes across as a common sense move to voters in the general election."

So far, there's no sign Abbott is willing to take the common sense route. His response to the municipal pushback has been to threaten lawsuits against schools or local officials who voluntarily break his ban on mask mandates. But as the rebellion builds, that strategy is likely to fray.

"The more local officials who take the position that they'd rather go against Abbott to protect their own constituents, the less he can to do intimidate them," Jillson said.

During the latest chapter of the pandemic, Abbott has shown his willingness to expose Texans and their children to harm so he can pander to a wing of the Republican base hopped up on conspiracy theories, junk science and an outright denial of reality.

Many voters beyond that fringe will read the governor's groveling to that lunatic fringe as a betrayal larger in scope than his failure to fix the state's electrical grid.

To point, social media lit up over the weekend as Texans reshared a photo that Abbott tweeted of himself playing a fiddle at an Austin County political event. Little surprise that many of their captions referenced Emperor Nero, whom legend has it, enjoyed a similar musical diversion while Rome burned.

The question now becomes whether Texas Democrats can take advantage of Abbott's liability when it comes to dealing with the surge.

Speculation has swirled that former El Paso congressman Beto O'Rourke might enter the race to challenge Abbott, but he's played his cards close to his vest. It also remains unclear whether other Dems with the required political heft would be willing to give up elected office and risk a run.

Lacking a candidate with the name recognition and money-raising capabilities to challenge Abbott's massive $55 million reelection war chest, Texas could face a replay of 2018. During that election, Abbott trounced underfunded and largely unknown Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez by more than 13 points.

"I think Abbott is coming into the race in an exposed position, but whether he's politically vulnerable is another question," Jillson said. "We won't know that for several months."

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