Attendees of CPAC in Dallas have mixed feelings about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as he heads into a 2022 primary and amid speculation of a 2024 presidential bid.
Conservatives from across the country, including many from Abbott’s home state, are in North Texas for the convention hosted by the American Conservative Union. Headlining the three-day event is former President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to speak Sunday, but the lineup of speakers also includes two of Abbott’s Republican primary challengers: exiting Texas GOP Chair Allen West and former state Sen. Don Huffines. BlazeTV host Chad Prather has also said he’ll run for the seat.
Not on the agenda is Abbott, who declined to attend the convention as lawmakers meet in Austin for a special session.
Some at the Conservative Political Action Conference expressed support for Abbott, be it now or in 2024. Others weren’t pleased with his performance over the past year, taking issue with his handing of the coronavirus pandemic — particularly the shutdown of businesses — and brushed off the idea of a presidential bid.
“I’m for Chad Prather. I’m for Don Huffines. I’m for Cornel West. I’m for anybody here on the Republican side except for Greg Abbott,” said Donnie Neill, 44, who is from Sherman.
He and other attendees stood in a long check-in line on Friday that snaked to the ballroom where speakers would take the stage. Many wore Texas gear as they waited or sat in the lobby of the Dallas hotel where the event’s being held.
Neill once supported Abbott, he said.
“I did in the beginning, but this last year he showed me he’s not qualified,” he said. “He’s absolutely lost every bit of trust I ever had in him.”
Gina Gentile, 52, of Galveston County, said Abbott doesn’t need to worry about trying to run for president.
“We’re gonna replace him as governor first,” said Gentile, who said Allen West stood out to her as a top candidate. “I think it’s time for him (Abbott) to go. I don’t think he was as strong as he needed to be last year during COVID. I don’t think he was an efficient leader for our state.”
Diego Garza, 18, was at CPAC with Hidalgo County Young Republicans. He said the group is advocating for Abbott, Republicans and George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner who is challenging fellow Republican Ken Paxton for attorney general. Abbott has showed Garza he has “an interest in South Texas people at heart,” said Garza, who lives in McAllen.
“He understands what the valley is going through within COVID rates…, poverty, immigration — it’s a huge conflict and a lot of people are not paying attention to it,” he said.
Garza said he’d advocate for Abbott in whatever role he decides is in his interest.
“Governor Abbott, I think, has given us all the tools … and resources that we have asked for, generally speaking, and this is why we will definitely stand by him in whichever election he chooses to pursue,” he said.
Ahmad Ladnany, 18, will choose his pick for governor for the first time in 2022. He tends to agree more with candidates he sees as more conservative than Abbott — Abbott can appeal to more moderate voters, he said — but he thinks Abbott has a better chance of winning Texas.
Ladnany, who came to Dallas from Austin, worries about Texas becoming a swing state in the next decade or so and says Republicans need to start worrying about it now.
“Even though he is less right wing than I would like, he is still very much conservative,” Ladnany said, pointing to legislation recently passed that allows for the permitless carry of handguns and a new law prohibiting abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks. Both laws go into effect Sept. 1.
Policies like that make Ladnany want to vote for Abbott. But Ladnany shook his head “no” when asked about Abbott as a presidential contender. He doesn’t have the energy to draw massive crowds like Trump, Ladnany said.
“Abbott is more of a traditional politician in what is rapidly becoming a non-traditional political landscape,” he said.
At a CPAC convention held in February in Orlando, a straw poll was taken to get a sense of favorable 2024 presidential candidates. Abbott got zero percent of the votes. Trump got the largest chunk followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to the New York Times.
The results of the Dallas event’s polls are scheduled to be released Sunday. Abbott’s name is among the options.
“Is he (Abbott) going to run for president in 2024? I don’t know that he even knows the answer to that question yet,” TCU Political Science Professor James Riddlesperger said. “But he’s certainly positioning himself to where he could choose to do so if he wanted to.”
A big question hanging over 2024 is whether Donald Trump, who has endorsed Abbott for governor, will again seek reelection. If he does, Riddlesperger said he’ll, in all likelihood, be the Republican nominee.
“He’s clearly the face of the Republican Party,” he said.
On the gubernatorial side, a recent poll by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that Abbott had the approval of 80% of Republicans surveyed and 50% approval overall. A June University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that the governor had 77% approval among Republicans polled and 44% among all Texans polled.
In a 2022 matchup against Huffines in the Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll, 77% of Republican primary voters said they support Abbott. The poll, which was conducted from June 22-29, didn’t test a West-Abbott matchup. West announced his bid for governor on July 4.
West is on the conference agenda for Sunday and Huffines spoke Saturday morning. He told attendees Abbott wasn’t there because he “doesn’t want to face you.”
A spokesperson for the governor and the American Conservative Union confirmed he was asked to participate in the programming. Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said he was unable to attend as he’s “focused on working with the legislature to ensure a successful special session.” Lawmakers returned to Austin on Thursday for the session.
“Governor Abbott is currently focused on the legislative session, working with legislators on funding for the border wall and securing our southern border, protecting the integrity of our elections, and unleashing the full might of our economy to build a stronger and brighter future for all Texans,” Eze said in a statement.
Riddlesperger said that over the past year Abbott has moved further to the right.
“I think it’s a reaction to the fact that the Republican Party in Texas as a whole has become more conservative and that … if he has any vulnerability at all, it’s from the right, which is really ironic as conservative as he is getting ideologically,” he said.