The town square in Athens, Texas, is similar to countless others like it across the state. At its center towers the Henderson County Courthouse, a historic three-story red brick Classical Revival-style building with large white columns at its entrance. The surrounding city blocks are littered with banks, churches, restaurants, and, yes, the local GOP headquarters laden with Trump 2024 memorabilia. Traffic is rare, save for the lunchtime rush that leaves vehicles full of hungry workers waiting for congestion to clear beyond the nearby train tracks.
Athens is not unlike many small Texas towns in how it votes, too. With a population of roughly 13,000 and a strong religious bent, the northeast Texas community known fondly as the “Black Eyed Pea Capital of the World” sits within a sea of bright red on the political maps. Gov. Greg Abbott won Henderson County, named for the state’s first governor, James Pinckney Henderson, with more than 81 percent of the vote in 2018.
And yet, during a recent reporting trip up to the area, I was surprised to find that some people there aren’t happy with Abbott’s ongoing shift to the furthest right fringes of the Republican Party. In my two days spent there, I had four separate instances in which people expressed their frustration about the governor’s actions, including several who brought up their disappointment unprompted. These were lifelong conservatives — people who have traditionally shared little in common with the people occupying liberal enclaves like Austin. But they were angered, dismayed, and confused about Abbott’s prerogatives at a time when hospitals are overloaded, health care is scarce for the state’s poorest populations, and the power grid remains a mystery with winter fast approaching. Their priorities varied and their experiences were different, but the same question seemed to be gnawing at them: Is this really what our state leaders should be focusing on right now?
The “this” they were referring to is the deluge of culture war-fueled, red meat that Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and their cronies have pushed throughout the 2021 session and the three special sessions that have followed. Expanding unbridled access to firearms despite the protests of leading law enforcement agencies, attacking youth trans athletes, stripping away voting rights in their embracement of Trump’s Big Lie — all of these moves, and many other similarly damaging pieces of legislation, were prioritized ahead of efforts Texans still desperately need. Things like aiding pandemic-riddled communities and economies, protecting students in classrooms from the virus, and, once again, fixing the grid after millions of people (hundreds of whom died) were left without power during last February’s bone-chilling winter storm.
The logic behind Abbott’s ongoing descent into the bowels of the Republican party is obvious. By staking out the most extreme right-wing stances, he can fend off primary challenges from the likes of Allen West, the former Texas GOP chairman and avid InfoWars lover, and Don Huffines, the former state senator who says he’s the only “real Republican” in the race and has littered I-35 with absurdly offensive billboards. And based on recent polling, which shows Abbott more than 40 percentage points ahead of West and Huffines all but irrelevant, he’s accomplished that. But conversations with the aforementioned Athenians and recent polling suggests that the governor just may pay for his extremism when the general election rolls around in 2022.
Easily the most consequential and headline-grabbing policy pushed by Abbott has been SB 8, the abortion bill that went into effect earlier this month. Beyond denying pregnant people access to the procedure after six weeks (when many aren’t even aware that they’re pregnant yet) and leaving no exemptions for cases of rape and incest, the law deputizes private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone accused of “aiding and abetting” an abortion. Even more, it incentivizes such actions with $10,000 rewards for every successful court case — essentially creating a world in which vigilantes can harass, threaten, and sue doctors and loved ones alike if an abortion is carried out beyond six weeks.
This abortion ban and the vigilante justice it inspires is wildly unpopular, and the numbers prove it. According to a recent Monmouth poll, 54 percent of Americans disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the law to go into effect. 70 percent disapprove of allowing private citizens to use lawsuits to enforce the law. And 81 percent disapprove of giving $10,000 to private citizens who successfully file suits. Even Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a man who has no scruples with embracing extremist policies, has refrained from supporting such a bill in his state.
Forcing unpopular propositions on constituents has been part of the governor’s 2021 playbook, though. Back in May, the Texas Tribune published a number of polls showing that Republicans’ legislative moves didn’t align with the majority of Texans. Case in point: 59 percent of people opposed permitless carry at the time, and 75 percent believed the state should require criminal and mental health background checks before any gun sales. Neither of those prevailing opinions seemed to matter, though, with Abbott’s administration ramming through permitless carry the following month.
These findings align with the larger narrative swirling around Abbott’s re-election campaign. Between his administration’s failure to fix the grid, his apathy about the pandemic that has killed nearly 63,000 Texans (and counting) and is ravaging hospitals, his willingness to sue school districts with mask mandates, and the myriad of far-right legislation he’s pushed in place of such priorities, it’s clear that the Republican’s only allegiance is to special interests and his most conservative primary voters. His actions show that he simply doesn’t feel threatened about the general election, and that he’s willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of millions of people if it means appeasing a select few.
Only time will tell just how influential these factors will be in the coming year. But what’s evident is that Abbott has provided an arsenal of political weapons for whomever challenges him. And assuming Beto O’Rourke formally (and finally!) announces his candidacy atop the Democratic ticket, the governor will be up against the most prominent, influential, well-funded, and popular opponent in his career. The people of Texas, even a handful in places like Athens, have their eye on Abbott in 2022 — and they won’t forget the callousness, ruthlessness, and indifference he’s shown in our state’s darkest hours.
Photo: Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images