For Texas Governor, Hard Right Turn Followed a Careful Rise

Greg Abbott’s shift will face a test in next year’s election, but he has demonstrated during his career a keen sense of the political winds.,

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AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott surprised some on his staff when he arrived at his office this fall with plans for a new pandemic decree: a ban on mandated vaccinations by private employers in Texas.

The decision was a stark departure for the two-term governor, an intrusion into business decisions of the sort Mr. Abbott had long opposed — and had indeed opposed just two months earlier. “Private businesses don’t need government running their business,” a spokeswoman had said then.

His about-face drew criticism from major Texas business groups, from corporations like American Airlines and from a powerful player in local Republican politics, Texans for Lawsuit Reform. It also prompted frustration among some of the governor’s staff.

Those who have known Mr. Abbott and watched his rise — from lawyer to state court judge to attorney general and, ultimately, to governor — have been stunned at his sudden alignment with the Republican Party’s most strident activists.

But as a governor with a keen sense of the political winds, in a state where Republican domination remains complete, his ban on vaccine mandates was in keeping with his penchant for reading the moment. And at this moment, even in business-centered Texas, corporate interests are out and cultural concerns are in.

He is overseeing an audit of the 2020 results in four large counties in Texas, a state that the former president, Donald J. Trump, won by more than 5 points. He called for and signed into law restrictions on transgender athletes after appearing content, four years earlier, to watch bathroom restrictions on transgender Texans fail in the face of opposition from businesses. He went from a mask mandate last year to a ban on such orders this spring.

His rightward shift will be tested next year as he faces his most well-known and well-funded Democratic challenger yet, Beto O’Rourke, who announced his run late last month. Their contest raises the question of how far right a Texas governor can go and still hold on against a rising tide of Democrats in the state’s largest cities and suburbs.

The election is also an important test of Mr. Abbott’s strength on the national stage, where he is frequently mentioned alongside potential non-Trump presidential candidates like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, even as his aides insist he is not interested. His attacks on Mr. O’Rourke have doubled as attacks on President Biden.

These days, Mr. Abbott finds himself torn between the even-keeled conservative approach that has brought him favor in Texas business circles and an intense focus on winning in the evolving Republican Party, according to interviews with many current and former advisers and more than two dozen friends, former colleagues, elected officials and political strategists.

His vaccine mandate ban was not enough for ultraconservatives, who have been demanding a special legislative session to codify his order. At the same time, businesses and hospitals have largely moved forward on existing or planned vaccination requirements, and the state has done little if anything to enforce the ban, industry groups said.

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More than 200 lives were lost during the winter storm that caused power outages in Texas in February.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

When Mr. Abbott first ran for governor, in 2014, he presented a more moderate side when facing the Democratic state representative Wendy Davis. An ad in Spanish featured his wife, Cecilia, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. Another had him rolling in his wheelchair — he is paralyzed from the waist down from an accident in 1984 — across a map to show businesses leaving California for Texas.

But as Republicans have strengthened their hold on state government, Mr. Abbott has seen challenges from his party’s animated base. This year, Mr. Abbott has joined with the firebrand lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, backing perhaps the most conservative legislative sessions in Texas history.

He has done so even with a nearly $60 million campaign war chest and an early endorsement from Mr. Trump, who often calls the governor on his cellphone. (Mr. Trump has done so to press for the 2020 audit.)

He has maintained an air of confidence and has offered guidance to fellow Republican governors, particularly those recently elected. As the pandemic hit, Mr. Abbott organized weekly calls among them to discuss policy, and he has led them in bucking the Biden administration and creating a separate, state-run criminal justice approach to migrants.

And his aggressive attacks on Mr. Biden over the border have garnered him regular appearances on Fox News.

“Greg is an arch, arch far-right conservative, which remains a shock to me,” said Pearson Grimes, a partner at the law firm where Mr. Abbott worked in the 1980s after a falling tree paralyzed him from the waist down. Mr. Grimes helped the future governor find a lawyer for his suit over the accident.

“When I knew him long ago,” Mr. Grimes said, “I never would have dreamed that this would be his politics.”

Mr. Abbott, who conducts few news conferences, declined requests to speak for this article. His press secretary, Renae Eze, described him in an email as an “unwavering conservative leader” and “defender of constitutional and fundamental rights,” a man driven by his belief in “Texas exceptionalism” and the need to protect it.

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Former President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visit an unfinished section of border wall in Pharr, Tx., in June.Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

Mr. Abbott, 63, was born in the small town of Wichita Falls, Texas, northwest of Dallas, and later moved to Duncanville, just south of the city. His father died of a heart attack while Mr. Abbott was in high school, and his mother, who had been staying at home, went to work to support him and his older brother, Gary, who goes by the nickname Bud.

By the time he attended Vanderbilt Law School, Mr. Abbott was already married, having met his wife at the University of Texas. “He wasn’t particularly political as I recall in those years,” said Fred Frost, a law school friend who is now executive counsel at ExxonMobil.

It was during a jog with Mr. Frost through Houston’s affluent River Oaks neighborhood that Mr. Abbott’s life changed: An oak tree crashed down on him with enough force to crush a nearby Cadillac. Mr. Abbott, who was just 26, immediately lost sensation in his legs.

He was determined to rebound. Mr. Frost recalled one night out in Houston watching Mr. Abbott park his maroon two-door sedan at a restaurant, grab his wheelchair, vault himself into it and roll around to the passenger side to open the door for his wife.

Mr. Abbott secured a settlement including payments for the rest of his life, so far about $8 million in total.The settlement did not stop Mr. Abbott from later becoming a strong advocate for limits to personal injury lawsuits. And as a young lawyer in Houston, he defended the city’s bus system in personal injury cases.

Since his accident, his wheelchair has been intertwined with his professional identity. As governor, it has allowed him to connect in moments of tragedy, aides said, such as after the mass shooting in 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso that left 23 dead, or after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Still, despite his personal story, Texas political observers often lament that Mr. Abbott lacks the outsized personality of his immediate predecessors, Ann Richards, George W. Bush and Rick Perry.

“He’s conservative with a small ‘c’ — that is, careful,” said Robert Stein, a Rice University professor of political science.

Mr. Abbott has bristled at challenges from his right by Don Huffines, a former state senator, and by Allen West, a former Florida congressman who briefly led the Republican Party of Texas. While polls show Mr. Abbott broadly popular among Republican voters, he has appeared focused on the small number who have shifted away from him.

Even before his campaign began, he was crisscrossing the state to meet Republican voters and holding huge invite-only telephone town halls. He frequently blocks out his daily schedule for eight hours of fund-raising calls.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott prays after a candlelight vigil in El Paso after more than 20 people were killed in a mass shooting at a Walmart.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre/EPA, via Shutterstock

An early test of Mr. Abbott’s leadership came during his first year as governor, as conspiracy theories grew in conservative circles that a United States military exercise, known as Jade Helm 15, was actually a secret plot to take over Texas. Mr. Abbott wanted to say something.

“People had been engaging him on Twitter,” one adviser said. “He felt compelled to respond. To him, these are the grass-roots people who are engaged in the politics of the party. They’re the ones who knock on doors for you.”

The governor eventually decided to direct the Texas State Guard, part of the state’s military department, to “monitor” the operation.

To some of his aides, it was a mistake. For his Democratic critics, the moment was emblematic of a governor unwilling to stand up to his party’s fringe.

“Abbott is just a guy who, in my opinion, he’s always afraid of something,” said Chris Turner, the Democratic leader in the Texas House.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Abbott had been able to unite the business-oriented wing of the party with its right-most fringe. But as the coronavirus tore across the state last year, Mr. Abbott faced a critical moment. In July 2020, he issued a statewide mask mandate, a decision aides said he made by following his own mantra to ignore the politics and “do what’s right.”

It did not go over well with some conservatives. The backlash helped spur insurgent energy and gave his Republican challengers an issue.

Mr. Huffines, his most vocal primary opponent, also pushed the governor on a border wall, calling in May for the state to build one. By June, Mr. Abbott had announced his intention to construct one.

And days before Mr. Abbott decided to bar businesses from mandating vaccinations, Mr. Huffines called on the governor to do just that. “No Texan should lose their job because they don’t want to get a Covid vaccine,” Mr. Huffines said in a news release.

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Mr. Abbott has taken up policies that are identical to much more conservative members of his party. Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

It was the same message that Mr. Abbott’s aides said the governor had been hearing for weeks from everyday Texas at events across the state.

When Mr. Abbott told his staff that he wanted to issue the order, a discussion followed, aides said. Some opposed the move. After a debate among staff, Mr. Abbott decided to go ahead with the order.

David Carney, his campaign adviser, said Mr. Abbott wanted to protect small businesses from laying off workers because of President Biden’s “bumbling, incoherent” policy of mandating vaccinations for those with 100 or more employees, which is set to take effect Jan. 4 and which Mr. Abbott contested last month in federal court.

“This always was driven by small businesses,” Mr. Carney said, and not by Republican primary politics at all.

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