“I hope everybody has realised by now these masks make a difference. We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease,” he said.
“And the last thing, the last thing, the last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters.”
Republicans, apparently suddenly forgetful of the four years of insults heaped on people of all stripes by Donald Trump, all of which they had tolerated, tried to call foul. Presumably they were hoping “neanderthal”, could be seized on in the same way Trump had gladly made use of Hillary Clinton’s clumsy description of some of his supporters as “deplorables”.
As it was, Biden neatly sidestepped the issue, his White House spokesperson telling reporters the president had merely been referring to a way of thinking, not any physical or emotional similarity.
Abbott also did not the issue delay him too long. Appearing on Fox News, he highlighted 100 undocumented migrants who had tested positive for the coronavirus, but released into Texas by the border authorities.
“First, it obviously is not the type of thing that the president should be saying,” Abbott said of Biden’s remarks. “But, second, he kind of said it on the worst day he could have, because the same day he said that in Texas, the Biden administration was releasing illegal immigrants into our communities who had Covid.
Yet there is a lot at stake, for both men. Put most simply, what happens in Texas matters.
It is the second largest state by population, and carries with it the second highest number of electoral college votes. As such, if Biden wishes to see the nation back to some sort of post-pandemic normalcy by July 4, he does not want to see more outbreaks in large Texas cities, some of which were previously hotspots.
Abbott, 63, has already announced he is running for a third term as governor of Texas, one of the states that does not set term limits for such positions. And there is also chatter the former lawyer may have his eye on grander targets; asked last November by KSKY-AM radio host Mark Davis, whether he was considering a White House bid in 2024, he said he was currently focussed on holding onto the governor’s mansion.
Yet he added: “You know, one thing that you know about me, I take one step at a time. The first step is to win re-election and after that, Mark, we’ll see what happens.”
Renée Cross, associate director of the Hobby Centre for Public Policy at the University of Houston, says Abbott would have weighing several factors when he made the decision earlier this month to end the mask mandate imposed last year and “open Texas 100 per cent”, even while only 11 per cent of Texans had been vaccinated.
From a philosophical point of view, letting people make their own decisions about such matters fitted with a conservative, and Texan tradition. The number of infections was also dropping.
Cross tells The Independent Abbott would also have an eye on the primary election for the governor’s seat, which takes place a year from now.
“There may be criticism from Democrats about him dropping the mask mandate, but it is important to remember that when he introduced it last year, there was a lot of push-back from some Republicans who felt we did not need it,” she says. “He has never faced a serious primary challenger before, so he may be trying to see off such a challenge and reaffirm his Republican principles.”
Abbott, who married and has one child, has used a wheelchair since the age of 26, when he was struck by a falling tree when running. He is only the third governor on the country to use one, but would be only the second president.
A one-time judge on Texas’s Supreme Court, he won election as its attorney general in 2002, a position he held until 2015, having won the 2014 race to be governor. He was reelected in 2018, defeating Democrat Lupe Valdez 56-42.
The last Democrat to serve as governor of Texas was Ann Richards, who hold the position from 1991-1995. The last Democrat to win a statewide office was in 1994.
Yet, the state is changing as a result of shifting demographics, and the suburbs of cities such as Houston are turning more purple and less red. In 2020, Trump beat Biden 52-47, but in 2016 he had smashed Clinton 52-43.
Nevertheless Texas remains a powerful springboard for any Republican seeking the party’s nomination, and then making it all the way, as underscored by George W Bush. Indeed, if the state’s population continues to grow, and with it the number of electoral districts increase, its relevance and importance to the national debate will only grow.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, says Abbott is by nature and he would not have dropped the mask mandate if he felt the situation in Texas was not safe to do so. (The government’s top health officials have urged Americans to continue to wear masks, and practice social distancing even as the vaccine roll out continues.)
In terms of candidates for 2024, Mackowiak says Abbott, who recently completed a term as chair of the Association of Republican Governors, certainly has his name out there.
“He’s not in the top three or four names that get mentioned - such as Mike Pence or Nikki Haley,” says Mackowiak, president of Potomac Strategy Group. “But he is in the second tier.”
If he were to run, he might find himself in the company of Texas senator Ted Cruz, who fought off a fierce 2018 challenge for his seat from Democrat Beto O’Rourke, and has started to stake out a series of hardline, populist positions, that suggest he is trying to tap into the support of Trump’s most loyal supporters.
(A recent poll by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, suggested Trump’s supporters would most like to see Pence, Cruz or Florida governor Ron DeSantis, if the former president does not run again himself.)
Indeed, Cruz was one of those Republicans who voted not to ratify the electoral college votes of Biden during a joint session of Congress, even after hundreds of supporters of Trump stormed the US Capitol.
The Texas Tribune pointed out that when Cruz was asked last summer if he wanted to run again for the White House, he said: “I don’t know for sure. I hope to run again.”
In terms of his bid for governor, Abbott might also find the situation slightly clouded if the actor Matthew McConaughey makes a run, something he suggested earlier this month he was seriously thinking about.
“It’s a very honourable consideration. So am I considering that? Sure. It’s a great thing to and an honourable thing to be able to consider,” he told NBC News. “What I’ve got to choose for myself is, I want to get into a leadership role in the next chapter of my life,” he said. “Now, what role am I going to be most useful in? I don’t know that that’s in a political position or if that’s me as a free agent.”
If the 51-year-old actor did run it is unclear which party’s nomination he would seek, or whether he may consider a bid as an independent. (In 1992, Texas businessman Ross Perot ran for the presidency as an independent, secured 19 per cent of votes nationally, and was blamed by George HW Bush for his defeat by Bill Clinton.)
In the immediate future, Abbott’s most pressing challenge will be to be ensure his decision to drop the mask mandate, does not backfire. Under the new rules, schools and other governmental facilities can continue to mandate masks, and businesses can also oversee their own demands.
But state attorney general Ken Paxton has threatened legal action against cities such as Austin, which have sought to continue to insist people wear masks. Steve Adler, the Democrat mayor of Austin, which last year was among the nation’s hotspots, has accused the governor of “breaking his promise” to Texans.
“At the beginning of this pandemic, governor Abbott said he’d be guided by the science and the data, and yesterday he broke that promise,” said Adler. “Masking works, and it continues to be necessary.”
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