Gov. Greg Abbott stayed out of the September special election for a Texas state Senate seat in rural North Texas, content to let his coronavirus response become a flashpoint between two members of his own party.
But now that the race is down to a Saturday runoff, Abbott has gone all in.
The race pits state Rep. Drew Springer of Muenster against fellow Republican Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who went to jail after defying Abbott’s pandemic orders earlier this year. Ahead of the 2021 legislative session — and the 2022 primary season — Abbott is determined to make an example out of Luther, who has become an avatar of his intraparty detractors.
Abbott endorsed Springer earlier this month, making official a preference that many had suspected after Luther spent months lacerating Abbott’s pandemic management. The governor’s campaign has since made over a quarter-million dollars worth of in-kind contributions to Springer. And in the runoff’s final week, his campaign is airing a TV spot attacking Luther, the first time it has spent serious ad dollars against a member of his own party since he sought to defeat a trio of state House Republicans in the 2018 primary.
“What are they so afraid of?” Luther asked during a debate Wednesday, leaning in to the proxy war that was apparent before the September election but has become far more explicit since then.
As Abbott has poured his campaign resources into the runoff, Luther has received even more funding from Tim Dunn, the hard-right megadonor and board chair of the advocacy group Empower Texans who has overwhelmingly bankrolled her campaign. After loaning Luther $1 million during the first round, he has donated $700,000 to her in the runoff, including $200,000 on Monday.
Springer said during the debate that Luther has taken “$1.7 million from a billionaire in West Texas who is trying to buy this seat.”
“He knows he will control Shelley Luther,” Springer said, “and that is why he is willing to spend that kind of money.”
While at least a couple of new issues have cropped up in the runoff, the race remains animated by Abbott’s coronavirus handling and conservative angst over it. There was a fresh reminder of the state’s restrictions earlier this month when a large part of North Texas had to roll back business reopenings because its hospital region saw coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of its capacity for seven straight days.
When Abbott endorsed Springer, Luther issued a response that reminded supporters that it was the governor’s “unconstitutional orders that put me in jail for opening my business.” (Abbott later updated an order to remove the threat of jail time.) And at the end of the response, Luther attached an illustration depicting the runoff as a choice between Abbott and Springer, both wearing masks, and her and President Donald Trump, both unmasked.
Let’s be clear that neither of these candidates are any good from our perspective. Springer at least has some amount of “normal legislator” about him – the Texas ParentPAC sent out an email on Thursday announcing their support for Springer, so he’s got that going for him – while Luther is both a complete vanity candidate – as in, entirely motivated by her own self interest – and the preferred candidate of the Empower Texans evil empire. The only positive she brings is the poke in Abbott’s eye she would bring. I may get five seconds of grim enjoyment out of that if she wins today, but that’s about it.