​Texas showdown: Biden, Abbott battle over abortion, COVID, border — and politics

·8 min read

Weeks of escalating tension between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and President Joe Biden will culminate next week in a high stakes Supreme Court showdown between state and federal attorneys over Texas’ new abortion law.

The case highlights the deep ideological divide between Republican-controlled Texas and Democratic-controlled Washington as the contentious relationship between the two top officials intensifies.

The president and governor have repeatedly clashed on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, voting rights, border security and a host of other issues. Abbott called his relationship with Biden tense, contending that the president and his administration have been unresponsive to his outreach about Texas’ policy concerns.

“When you look at the way he has treated Texas and when you look at the way that he has abandoned the state of Texas, especially the federal responsibility to secure our border, it’s been an utter disaster,” Abbott told The Star-Telegram in an interview. “It’s horrible to the state of Texas. It’s horrible to the United States of America.”

The push-and-pull between the state and federal government has created confusion over what laws are in place, leaving Texans in the crosshairs. It has also fueled speculation about Abbott’s political motivations as he prepares for re-election in 2022 and emerges as a potential GOP contender for the White House in 2024.

“The one, I guess, blessing and curse of being the governor of the state of Texas, is whatever you do has national significance and cannot be ignored by the president of the United States,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.

Abbott, Biden conflict on policy

Texas’ new policies have grabbed national headlines and captured the attention of federal officials, but they’ve also significantly affected the lives of residents of the Lone Star State.

“I think that Texans are caught in the middle and paying a price for Abbott’s poor leadership,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

The new law banning most abortions has already had a major impact since it took effect last month with reports of women traveling out of state to have access to the procedure. The law’s novel enforcement measure allows virtually anyone to file a lawsuit against an abortion provider, which has spurred national criticism.

The U.S. Supreme Court let the new law take effect, but it will hear a challenge brought by Biden’s Justice Department next week in an expedited case with national implications as other GOP states weigh similar restrictions.

Abbott welcomed the court fight.

“We knew when the law was passed that it was headed to the United States Supreme Court, and the final decision wouldn’t be known until the Supreme Court spoke on it,” Abbott said. “So candidly, we’re glad that the Supreme Court is accelerating the process so that we will know the answer as soon as possible.”

The hearing is just the latest in a number of fights between the state and federal government.

Abbott has repeatedly criticized the Biden administration for its border policy, with Texas vowing to build its own border wall and increasing law enforcement presence on the border. It’s an area where there needs to be collaboration between the state and federal government, Abbott said as he called on the federal government to “step up and do its job to secure the border.”

As the conflict continues, there’s been mounting pressure from conservatives for Biden to visit the border, which would be politically precarious for the president as the administration grappled with a surge of migration this year.

“If he comes to Texas he’s going to answer questions about the border, which is his biggest embarrassment right now,” said GOP consultant Craig Murphy, who has worked for Abbott.

This month, Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting employer vaccine mandates, an explicit challenge to Biden’s order from the previous month that set strict vaccine requirements for federal contractors and laid out a rule requiring full vaccination or regular testing for companies with more than 100 employees.

Legal experts expect Abbott to lose in a potential court battle over the dueling orders because federal law supersedes state law. The White House noted this analysis earlier this month and said Abbott’s motivations were purely political.

“I think it’s pretty clear when you make a choice that’s against all public health information and data out there that it’s not based on what is in the interest of the people you are governing. It’s perhaps in the interest of your own politics,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at the time.

The conflicting state and federal rules have created confusion for Texas businesses as they work to comply with the law, including federal contractors like American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, who have said they’ll continue to observe the federal guidelines.

“Abbott knows full well that many Biden administration policies are to the left of the preferences of the average Texas vote,” Jones said. “And therefore, the extent to which he can draw a contrast between his position on an issue and that of liberals from Washington, D.C., that also helps him with November election voters.”

Looking to 2022, 2024

Jones pointed to the 2022 GOP primary for governor as the reason Abbott was moving to the right as he prepares to stave off challenges from former State Sen. Don Huffines and ex-Texas GOP Chair Allen West, who are seeking to portray Abbott as insufficiently conservative.

Abbott will need to dominate in 2022 if he wants to seek a promotion to national office two years later. “In order to be able to continue to be considered as a possible 2024 GOP presidential candidate, he has to do very well in the March 2022 Republican primary,” Jones said.

Abbott has emerged as a potential contender for the White House in 2024 if former President Donald Trump doesn’t seek a rematch with Biden, but he bluntly dismissed that his recent policy moves were motivated by future presidential ambitions.

“Absolutely not,” Abbott said. “And the clear explanation is these are all emergency items we’re dealing with right now.”

Despite his denials, strategists on both sides of the aisle see Abbott laying the groundwork for a future presidential run.

“There’s never been a governor of the state of Texas who looks in the mirror and doesn’t see a future president,” said Terry Sullivan, a Washington-based GOP consultant who worked for former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, among other prominent Republicans.

Both of Abbott’s immediate predecessors made presidential runs. George W. Bush rode his one term as Texas governor to two terms as president, while Rick Perry mounted two unsuccessful presidential campaigns before landing a position in Trump’s cabinet.

Texas’ donor base provides the state’s governors with a strong financial launching pad for a Republican primary, said Sullivan, who ran Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. And Democratic control in Washington provides Abbott and other GOP governors with “space to show alternatives to Biden” at the state level.

Xochitl Hinojosa, a Democratic strategist and Texas native, said that Abbott is in a competition with Florida Republican Gov. DeSantis, another GOP governor who has repeatedly sought to challenge the Biden administration on COVID-19 response and other issues.

“I think that these two governors are conscious of each other, but they’re also conscious of Donald Trump,” said Hinojosa, who served as spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee during the 2020 election.

“They’re eyeing the presidency. If Trump runs, I think the two of them would want to be contenders as a vice presidential candidate,” she said. “And if he doesn’t run, the two of them will want to run and will need Trump’s backing.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who ran for president in 2016 and could run again in the future, said Abbott has demonstrated policy alternatives to Biden and predicted that it would mean multiple legal battles between the state and federal government in addition to the pending abortion case.

“I think Texas’ role is incredibly important right now as an oasis of freedom, as an alternative reality to the authoritarian policies of today’s radical left,” Cruz said.

But Texas Democrats said the state’s residents won’t benefit from a series of politically motivated legal battles between the governor and the federal government.

“This is all about deliberate, contrived conflict that does not need to happen,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, whose district stretches from Austin to San Antonio, in reference to the dispute over vaccines.

“To have a Republican state governor tell businesses what they can and cannot do with their employees, what they can and cannot do with their customers is in direct conflict with everything that Republicans claim that they are for,” Doggett said.

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