To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.
Early on the morning of Oct. 19, an air-conditioner repairman named David Lopez was driving his small box truck in Houston, Texas, when a black S.U.V. slammed into him from behind and forced him off the road. After the vehicles came to a stop, Lopez heard the S.U.V.’s driver scream for help. He approached the vehicle, whereupon the driver, a man named Mark Aguirre, jumped out and ordered him to the ground at gunpoint. Aguirre had been surveilling Lopez for four days, convinced that he was the mastermind of a scheme to steal the election from President Trump.
Aguirre’s investigation, it would emerge, was financed by Steven Hotze, a prolific Republican donor and Houston-area physician who made his fortune via “wellness centers” where he marketed “hormone replacement” therapies for everything from postpartum depression to hyperthyroidism, as well as a vitamin product called My HotzePak Skinny Pak. Hotze, 70, has long been prominent among the religious right for his opposition to gay rights. During the unrest following George Floyd’s death, he left a voice mail message for Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff, urging him to authorize the Texas National Guard to “shoot to kill” rioters.
Since then, Hotze had turned his attention to the specter of voter fraud. The state would later charge that he hired Aguirre, who was fired from his post as a Houston police captain in 2003 after leading a botched raid on drag racers, to assemble a squad of 20 private detectives. Their task was to investigate a voter-fraud conspiracy theory in Houston in the weeks before the election. For reasons that remain unclear, Aguirre’s investigation led him to believe that Lopez was transporting 750,000 mail-in ballots fraudulently signed by Hispanic children.
Lopez was not transporting 750,000 ballots fraudulently signed by Hispanic children. The air-conditioner repairman’s truck was carrying air-conditioner repair equipment. Fifteen days later, authorities in Texas presided over an election that has yet to yield any confirmed instances of widespread fraud. Republicans won every statewide office of any consequence.
A majority of Texas voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in an election that a few polls showed Joe Biden winning in Texas by as much as five points. John Cornyn, the Republican incumbent senator whom Democrats spent more than $29 million trying to defeat, won re-election by more than nine points. Republicans held each of the 10 House of Representatives seats in the state that some election forecasters had deemed “in play.” With control of redistricting at stake, they maintained their state House majority, making major inroads in heavily Hispanic counties along the border — historically Democratic territory — to a degree that shocked even Republicans.
Abbott, in his capacity as governor, helped shepherd his party to all this success. And yet several months later, on the morning of March 15, Abbott declared that he, like Hotze, considered voter fraud a matter of singular emergency in Texas, and he announced his endorsement of several measures designed to safeguard “election integrity.” He was in Houston to deliver this announcement, in the office of a Republican state senator who would help advance the cause in the Legislature.
‘I think Republican leaders are too often following these groups rather than trying to lead them.’
Through a floor-to-ceiling window, a small cluster of demonstrators protesting the restrictive measures could be seen gathered in the parking lot; one of them held aloft a sign reading, “Let Voters Vote.” Abbott opened his remarks by stressing that election integrity was “so important to our fellow Texans,” as well as “so important to making sure that we protect the fabric of our democracy.” His solemnity suggested the disorienting turn that events had taken lately for a man whose governorship, while not exactly overflowing with accomplishments, had until recently seemed accomplished enough. The Texas economy had hummed along for most of his tenure, the energy sector booming and the whole state flush with jobs. Even some Democrats grudgingly conceded the general OK-ness of things. “There is a pragmatic element of Texas, which is like, ‘Eh, everything’s OK, let’s not shake the apple cart,’” Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist in Houston, said. “No harm, no foul.”
Abbott was not an especially riveting politician, but that was the point. The oil magnates in Midland, the philanthropists with orchid-filled foyers in River Oaks — they liked no-harm-no-foul, liked it so much that Abbott, after sailing through to a second term in 2018, was heading into his next re-election effort on a campaign chest north of $40 million. In 2019, an Associated Press review found that Abbott had collected more money from donors than any other governor in U.S. history. Within the state Republican Party, he had maintained credibility among both chamber-of-commerce conservatives and the party’s various insurgent wings, in part by evincing few core convictions beyond a commitment to avoiding controversy.
But six years into his governorship, controversy had finally caught up with Abbott. Several of them, actually. First there was the pandemic, in which his attempts to placate all sides, by turns imposing and denouncing various restrictions, led him to enrage just about everyone. The results of the election should have offered some respite, but four months later, many Texas Republicans remained unmoved by the fact of their own triumphs. Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud had become elemental in the Republican consciousness, and politicians’ viability hinged on their willingness to echo them. State House Republicans now fielded questions during town halls like those from a woman named Karen who asked, at a March event hosted by the state representative Dustin Burrows, how the Legislature planned to “change the way we vote in Texas.” (“It’s a great question,” Burrows responded. “After this last election, I think that people’s confidence in our election system is down, and rightfully so. …”) The state G.O.P. named election integrity its top priority for the 2021 legislative session. And now Abbott was in Houston, signaling his commitment to fixing a system that by and large had just operated quite smoothly.
At the news conference, Abbott himself seemed to struggle to articulate why this crisis was real even as Texas remained plunged in another one that very much was. A month earlier, Texas was devastated by a winter storm, its power grid and water systems failing. In the weeks after the disaster, which left nearly 200 people dead, Texas officials scrambled to adjudicate blame; ultimately, the governor’s appointees to the commission that oversees the relevant infrastructure resigned. Those vacancies had not been filled by the time Abbott took up the cause of voter fraud.
“We’re no better prepared today than we were, what’s it been, three weeks ago? A month ago?” John Whitmire, a Democrat representing parts of Houston and Harris County in the State Senate, fumed. “It’s frustrating because, you know, we’re only here 140 days” — the Legislature’s biennial term — “and we don’t have days to waste. And when they play politics with the issues — I mean, Abbott’s down there in Houston trying to promote voter suppression, instead of having his tail up here. His butt ought to be in Austin.”
When I asked Abbott at the Houston event how he believed voter fraud had influenced election results at any level in Texas in 2020, he said the answer was “convoluted.” There had been some local election outcomes in the past, he stressed, that had been “altered” because of fraud. (There have been a few incidents in which suspected voter fraud may have swung local elections in Texas.) But as for whether he believed it occurred last year, he conceded, “I don’t know.”
As an unassailable citadel of Republican electoral power for a generation, and one whose demography and geography reflect the United States in miniature, Texas is often a leading indicator of political trends in the party. So it is a grim omen for Republican leaders that in this state, where the G.O.P. achieved what might be described as the best-case scenario for the party’s hopes in other states in the 2022 midterm elections, the state’s prominent Republicans are struggling against one another as if they had just gone down in a rout. Abbott, ostensibly the most powerful Republican in Texas, has seen his approval rating steadily plummet, reaching a four-year low of 45 percent in March, according to the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Though he remains broadly popular with Republican voters, in October his own state party’s leadership took the extraordinary step of protesting against him outside the governor’s mansion — “a striking display of intraparty defiance,” The Texas Tribune called it. Ever since, he has operated as if the protesters remain camped outside his door.
When lingering resentments over his Covid response collided with the winter storm, he abruptly lifted the mask mandate. Shortly after that, he visited the border and expressed his anger about the number of migrants there in a way that, rather than restoring his good will among conservatives, seemed to puzzle them. “It was almost — I don’t want to say Trump-like because I don’t think the governor can pull it off,” Chad Hasty, a popular conservative talk-show radio host in Lubbock, told me. “But you could tell that the governor was picking up on things that the president, former president, had done.”
Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his loss in the 2020 election, meanwhile, has placed his party in the awkward position of denying its own down-ballot successes in many states. This has been particularly striking in Texas, where the G.O.P. was arguably better positioned than Republicans elsewhere to escape his gravitational pull. Though it has a reputation, especially among coastal liberals, as a hotbed of fringe politics, the Texas Republican Party has long tended toward standard-issue conservatism. Abbott’s election in 2014, in fact, seemed to signal a retrenchment into politics as usual, following the 14-year governorship of Rick Perry, who, after his at-first formidable 2012 presidential candidacy collapsed spectacularly in the space of one forgotten agency, seemed to recede into an exhausting caricature of himself.
Abbott, on the other hand, had the great distinction of inspiring few emotions in people one way or the other. Before he became governor, his career included five years on the Texas Supreme Court and then 12 as attorney general. He had what his allies like to call a “judicial bearing,” which essentially meant that despite being deeply conservative — and despite once describing his role as attorney general, the post he held from December 2002 to January 2015, as going to the office, suing the Obama administration and then going home — he often left voters with the comfortably bland impression of a centrist. Abbott had a compelling story, too. In 1984, 26 and fresh out of law school, he was jogging in Houston when a rotting oak tree cracked and struck him, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. On the campaign trail, supporters praised him not only as someone whose politics were “a bit more balanced” than Perry’s, as one person told The San Antonio Express-News in 2013, but also a man whose experiences had made him “a true compassionate conservative.”
In Abbott’s first years in office, his low-emotion governance extended to his dealings with the state’s Legislature. Since the midterm elections in Obama’s first term, the G.O.P. has dominated state legislatures across the country, and they have often become test kitchens for Republican hyperpartisanship. But the unique structure of Texas’ Legislature for years had made it an exception to this rule. In the state House, the speaker is traditionally elected on a bipartisan basis. In both chambers, members of the minority party are awarded committee chairmanships. The system tended to elevate lawmakers like Joe Straus, the moderate Republican from San Antonio who served as speaker of the state House from 2009 to 2019, who earned bipartisan acclaim for advancing mental health care and developing the first funding measure in decades for the state’s water plan.
Then came the 2017 legislative session, which was quickly consumed by the so-called bathroom bill. Since 2016, when Republicans in North Carolina passed a measure barring transgender people from using public bathrooms that matched their gender identity, the issue had become a rallying cry on the right. In Texas, the measure was championed by Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor and former right-wing talk radio host who was chairman of Trump’s campaign in Texas in 2016. (In Texas, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately.) The bathroom bill was supported by the state G.O.P., but as in other states, it pitted social conservatives against the business community and allied politicians — including Straus, who kept the bill from reaching the floor.
In an effort to keep both factions happy, Abbott telegraphed his lack of support for the bill to business leaders while also scheduling a special session in which legislators would try once more to pass the measure. Straus, who to this point had enjoyed a relatively good relationship with Abbott, was not shy about his anger, comparing the forthcoming agenda to a pile of horse manure. His popularity among Republicans back home sputtered. Just before the special session began, the Republican Party of Bexar County passed a resolution calling for his replacement, citing his “nonsupport” of the party platform.
Straus was ultimately successful in helping kill the bill, but afterward he announced that he would not seek re-election. In January 2018, over two-thirds of the Texas G.O.P. voted to support Bexar Republicans in censuring him. For Straus, this remains a matter of pride. “The party apparatus has drifted so far to the extreme that it’s essentially a joke,” he told me. “Heck, I worked hard to be censured by those people.” What troubled Straus, however, was a feeling that the “clown show” increasingly seemed to be setting the terms in Austin. “I think Republican leaders are too often following these groups rather than trying to lead them,” he said.
Dennis Bonnen, another moderate Republican, succeeded Straus as speaker. When hard-line conservatives got controversial bills out of committee, he quietly worked with Democrats to keep many of them from reaching the floor. Bonnen apparently grew cocky enough about his political acumen that shortly after the end of the 2019 session, he called Michael Quinn Sullivan, an activist who helmed a far-right group called Empower Texans, to the Capitol for a meeting.
Funded by some of the wealthiest conservatives in the state, Sullivan’s group frequently antagonized, and sometimes primaried, moderate Republicans like Straus and Bonnen. During the hourlong conversation, Bonnen proposed a deal: If Sullivan agreed to stay out of the bulk of Republican primaries in 2020, Bonnen would give Empower Texans media access to the House floor during the next session, which would allow them to approach lawmakers and staff members more freely. He also said there were 10 House Republicans he didn’t mind Sullivan going after. And he proceeded to disparage a few House Democrats, calling one a “piece of [expletive]” and joking that the wife of another was “going to be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”
Sullivan was recording all of it. On Oct. 15, 2019, he posted the audio on his website. Seven days later, Bonnen announced that he would not seek re-election.
It is difficult to overstate the rush that conservatives experienced in the year that followed. “A couple of days before Bonnen threw in the towel, he was bashing heads in and ruling with absolute authority,” Jonathan Stickland, a former Republican state representative from Fort Worth, told me. “And it all changed in a split second.” A former pest-control specialist and one of the most conservative legislators in the state during his tenure, Stickland viewed the events familiarly known as Bonnenghazi as the dawning of a great establishment crackup in Austin. “That opened my eyes to a lot of different opportunities,” he said. “It gave me hope for the future.”
There was a sense that everything was finally coming together — the sense that, in Texas, Trump’s Republican Party was there to stay. The crowning of Allen West as the party’s new chairman only heightened this feeling.
“You can take your face diaper off now,” Allen West told me. I had just arrived, wearing a mask, at his light-filled office in the headquarters of the Texas Republican Party, in a midcentury office building on Brazos Street in downtown Austin. It was early February, and West was wearing a pinstripe suit and his signature wire-rimmed glasses. From behind his broad wooden desk flanked by the American and Texas flags, he radiated a kind of smug sereneness.
Meeting West in these circumstances felt somewhat startling, like encountering a character in the fourth season of a television series who was presumed dead in the second. The last time Americans heard from West in any official capacity was nearly a decade ago, when he was a congressman from Florida, serving a single term from 2011 to 2013. The first Black Republican to represent Florida in Congress since Reconstruction, he was elected amid the Tea Party wave and was one of its quintessential celebrities: a retired Army lieutenant colonel who still favored a military high-and-tight haircut and was invariably seen astride a bald-eagle-emblazoned 2005 Honda motorcycle. (Defending his choice of a Japanese make, he once argued, “As long as I put my American butt on it, it is American.”) He called people with Obama bumper stickers “a threat to the gene pool” and claimed George W. Bush “got snookered” when he referred to Islam as a religion of peace. Glenn Beck wanted him to run for president. Instead, he lost his bid to return to Congress in a bitter race against the Democrat Patrick Murphy.
West somewhat quietly departed Florida for Texas after his loss, moving to Dallas to helm a free-market think tank until its operations ceased in 2017. By 2019, he had managed to draw attention once more to the question of his political future, revealing on his YouTube channel that while he most certainly did not move to Texas to seek office, he could no longer ignore the fact of his “calling” to run for something, anything, be it the House, Senate or party chairmanship. As he tells it, conservatives had long been deprived of a “voice” in Texas, and he took it upon himself to restore it. “And I have to tell you,” West said, “that’s kind of like the leadership that you saw with President Trump — getting out there and connecting with people.”
West no longer rides motorcycles — not since he was injured in a crash last May, shortly after taking part in a ride protesting Texas’ coronavirus lockdown. But the concussion and fractured bones and lacerations did not stop him from campaigning for party chair, his overriding message a promise to make the Texas G.O.P. “relevant again.”
As in 2010, West’s instinct for political opportunity and sense of timing were impeccable. He was in the final stretch of his campaign as the coronavirus was causing trouble for Abbott. During the early days of the virus — which to date has caused the deaths of more than 50,000 Texans — the governor appeared incapable of clearly communicating a path forward. There was the stay-at-home order that he seemed hellbent on calling anything but a stay-at-home order; mask mandates that went from being enforceable at the local level to forbidden at the local level to sort of enforceable at the local level to required statewide. “The problem is in a situation like this, you can’t have it both ways,” Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor, secretary of housing and urban development under Obama and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, told me at the time. “You can either act decisively, or you can leave your state unsafe. And right now he’s chosen to leave Texas unsafe.”
‘What it felt like was the balloon was pricked and finally exploded.’
It wasn’t just Democrats who were angry. When a Dallas hairdresser named Shelley Luther refused to abide Abbott’s stay-at-home order and a local court order to close her salon in April 2020, she was, in accordance with Abbott’s order, sent to jail. Conservatives revolted, and Abbott scrambled to invalidate the penalties that he himself had mandated, but the damage was done. In August, several months after her release, Luther declared her candidacy in a special election for the State Senate. She campaigned as though she were running against Abbott himself, excoriating him as a “tyrant governor” who had “embarrassed us completely.” Over the course of a few months, Abbott’s approval rating fell by more than eight points.
West set out to accelerate Abbott’s troubles. In his final pitch to delegates before his election in July, he promised to defend the party against the “tyranny” of Abbott’s “executive orders and mandates.” After years of frustration with Republican leadership more broadly, “it was already there, that tension,” Jonathan Stickland said. “What it felt like was the balloon was pricked and finally exploded.”
Luther lost her runoff race to an Abbott-backed Republican in December, but this has not prompted any great reckoning among Abbott’s critics. At his office in March, West registered his disappointment with Abbott and particularly his recent State of the State address, in which Abbott listed his priorities for the legislative session — only one of which, West noted, matched the party’s. “Election integrity, it’s our No. 1 priority,” he said. “I believe it was his No. 4 priority.”
Theoretically, West’s priorities for the 87th session of the Texas Legislature should not be of great consequence to Abbott. When was the last time you knew the name of a state party chair? Ask even a politically inclined Texan, and he or she might — might — say the late 1990s, when the late Susan Weddington became the first woman to lead a major party in Texas. In a single year, she raised $16 million for the G.O.P., an internal party record that still stands.
This was what party chairs did then, for the most part: raise money. But in 2002 campaign-finance reform capped individual and corporate donations to party committees. “We’ve seen a pretty steady decline in their influence since then,” Wayne Hamilton, a Republican consultant and a former executive director of the Texas G.O.P., told me. “It became the case that if someone told you they were running for the chair, you said, ‘Yeah, yeah, OK,’ because nobody really cares anymore.”
State party conventions — the biennial gatherings where delegates elect their leadership and determine the party’s platform — became more ceremonial than anything else, an outpost for activist types who bore little resemblance to the party’s average voter. Still, they tended to be team players. “The governor effectively selected the state-party chairman, and the other members ratified his choice,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, told me. “In the past, you simply would not have had people like Kelli Ward or Allen West becoming state party chairs. That is the influence of Donald Trump.” (Before becoming chairwoman of the Arizona G.O.P. in 2019, Kelli Ward was best known for her unsuccessful attempts to unseat Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake and for using government resources to host a town hall addressing the conspiracy theory that the government was injecting dangerous chemicals into the air via airplane contrails when she was a state senator. McCain’s team dubbed her “Chemtrail Kelli.”)
On Oct. 10, West spoke at an anti-Abbott demonstration in front of the governor’s mansion in Austin. Some 200 people, almost all of them maskless, gathered for the “Free Texas” rally. Their signs featured such messages as “YOU ARE DESTROYING LIVES” and “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT SOCIALISM” and “IMPEACH ABBOTT.” Clutching a microphone, West recited the party leadership’s resolution demanding the governor “open Texas now.” Explaining why he was criticizing his own party’s top official just before an election, he said: “True leaders don’t pick and choose when they do what is right. They do what is right all the time.”
Luke Macias, a consultant who has worked with many of the state’s most conservative legislators, credits Trump with inspiring a kind of awakening among grass-roots conservatives in Texas. Abbott, he said, “comes from the George W. Bush-John McCain-Mitt Romney school of Republicans who have run a pretty successful con game where you don’t actually need to provide tangible policy results in order to run on a conservative platform. And Trump messed that up,” he said. “What you’re seeing now is this shift of Republicans saying, ‘We know exactly what we’re looking for.’”
What, exactly, are Republicans looking for? “Victories,” Macias said. It was a victory, for example, when Trump not only condemned critical race theory rhetorically but also took action to ban racial-sensitivity trainings across the federal government. It was a victory when he campaigned on a border wall and, when his own party refused to fund it in Congress, declared a national emergency in order to get the money from the defense budget. And it was a victory when, in the midst of Trump’s claims of voter fraud, “you saw a bunch of Republican attorneys general actually take action,” Macias said.
After the election, as it became clear that Trump had no intention of conceding the race, a group of Trump allies, including Kris Kobach, who had helped lead Trump’s voter-fraud commission (which folded after not finding any voter fraud), started shopping around a lawsuit to take the election result directly to the Supreme Court. They had already written a complaint, which made the argument that some state legislatures had violated their own constitutions in changing their election rules and should thus have their popular votes discounted. They just needed an attorney general of some state, any state, to put their name to it. After unsuccessfully pitching attorneys general including Jeff Landry of Louisiana, the group approached Ken Paxton of Texas.
An outside observer might have wondered why they didn’t try him first. No attorney general in the country had hitched his or her wagon more totally to Trump or benefited more splendidly from doing so. Paxton previously served a dozen years in the state House and Senate, where he was known mainly as an advocate of anti-abortion legislation and for having tried and failed to dethrone Joe Straus. That changed in 2015, when, just seven months after succeeding Abbott as attorney general, Paxton was indicted on charges of securities fraud. (He pleaded not guilty.) His fate seemed so preordained that colleagues wondered when rather than whether he’d resign.
‘I don’t think he supports me; I don’t support him.’
But Paxton held on, and he managed to mute critics within his party by churning out more than two dozen lawsuits against the Obama administration. When Trump was elected, Paxton wasted no time becoming his chief advocate in Texas, filing vigorous defenses of early policies like the Muslim travel ban. Trump took notice. “You have an attorney general who doesn’t stop,” Trump marveled at a rally in Austin in 2018. “He’s tough. He’s smart.” He added, inexplicably: “He collects more money for this state, Ken Paxton. You’re doing a great job, Ken.”
In the fall of 2020, things took a turn for Paxton again. Seven of his top staff members approached state and federal law-enforcement agencies with claims that he had abused his office to help a wealthy donor. In a subsequent lawsuit, four of the whistle-blowers claimed Paxton directed his staff to investigate the donor’s enemies and tidy up some of his legal troubles. In exchange, they said, the donor — a real estate developer — helped remodel Paxton’s home and gave a job to a former state-senate staff member with whom Paxton was supposedly having an affair. The F.B.I. is reportedly investigating the claims.
Filing the election lawsuit, as he did in the midst of these troubles, had been a “hard decision,” Paxton stressed to me recently. “It was unprecedented, and so it is harder to make decisions when you don’t have any kind of history to look back at and you’ve just got to make the first decision.” But to all outward appearances, the invitation to carry the lawsuit to defend Trump’s honor, arriving when it did, was nothing short of a gift. Trump reportedly asked Senator Ted Cruz to argue it before the Supreme Court; Cruz agreed. The court refused to hear it, but it nevertheless made Paxton once more a hero in the eyes of many Republicans. On Jan. 6, he stood outside the White House with his wife, drawing cheers from the crowd of Trump supporters as he promised them, just a few hours before many of them overran the U.S. Capitol, never to “quit fighting.” (Paxton insisted to me he’d “never even thought about” the potential of a pardon in exchange for taking on the lawsuit.)
Based on his conversations with Republican voters, Paxton said, election integrity remains the party’s “most important” focus. And so he planned to investigate claims of fraud in Texas: “As long as we have evidence of fraud, and as long as the statute of limitations is out there, we’ll pursue whatever evidence we have.” The Houston Chronicle recently reported that Paxton’s office logged more than 22,000 hours working on voter-fraud cases in 2020 (twice as many as in 2018), resolving 16 prosecutions (half as many as in 2018), all of them involving false addresses and none of them resulting in prison time. Paxton told me he did not think this report, which was based on data from his own office, was accurate, but he also said he had not read it. He reiterated that these cases “take time to develop.” (Paxton’s office subsequently said the election-fraud unit “resolved prosecutions of 68 offenses against 18 defendants” in 2020, a majority of them having to do with the 2018 election.)
Trump, he went on, was “clearly still the leader of the party.” The lawsuit in the former president’s name has invigorated Paxton’s career to the extent that despite his legal woes, he enjoys arguably more currency than Abbott among grass-roots conservatives. In our interview, Paxton seemed careful to distance himself from the governor whose legacy he once tried to emulate. In his handling of the pandemic, Abbott, Paxton allowed, had “done his best under the circumstances.” But reopening the state was “a direction that, you know, I wish we’d done a little bit earlier.” I asked if he was going to support Abbott in next year’s Republican primary for governor. “The way this typically works in a primary, is it’s kind of everybody running their own race,” he said. “I don’t think he supports me; I don’t support him.”
Abbott knows better than anyone that this is not how it typically works; as governor, he has involved himself in Republican primaries down to the state House level in attempts to knock off legislators who’ve spurned him. And so it is telling that an official like Paxton won’t commit to support Abbott against even a hypothetical challenger. Indeed, the accumulating tumult of the virus, the election and the storm has resulted in some Texas Republicans deciding that the 2022 gubernatorial primary represents a critical juncture in the fight for the future of the party. Primary speculation has been so rampant that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, with whom Abbott has endured intermittent friction, recently felt compelled to take himself out of the running. At a recent dinner for the Texas Young Republicans, according to a Texas Tribune reporter, the lieutenant governor emphasized his “hope” that no one would primary Abbott, “because he’s done a hell of a job, and we need to re-elect him again.”
Sid Miller, however — Sid Miller would respectfully disagree.
On the morning of March 11, Sidney Carroll Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, was riding a horse named Big Smokin Hawk at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Big Smokin Hawk, known outside the show ring as Mini Pearl, is a sorrel mare on whose left hindquarter the letters S, I and D are branded. It was Day 9 of the rodeo, which in normal times features a panoply of attractions and performances — in 2019, Cardi B, clad in a pink-and-blue-sequined cowgirl get-up, drew a record 75,000-plus people — but this year it was significantly downsized. As ever, Miller had trailered his horses the four and a half hours from his farm in Erath County to compete.
Miller is a 65-year-old lifelong rancher and Republican who served 12 years in the Texas House before running successfully in 2014 for ag commissioner, his campaign co-chaired by one Ted Nugent. Some highlights of his tenure since then include charges of using state funds to travel to a rodeo in Mississippi (for this, the Texas Ethics Commission fined him $500); overturning the ban on deep fryers and soda machines in public schools; posting an image on his Facebook page that endorsed nuking “the Muslim world” (his spokesman at the time blamed an unnamed staff member for the post but clarified that he would not be apologizing for it and in fact had found its message “thought provoking”); and sharing, as part of a 2018 Facebook post condemning ABC for canceling the sitcom “Roseanne,” a doctored photo of Whoopi Goldberg wearing a shirt that showed Donald Trump shooting himself in the head. (Spokesman: “We post hundreds of things a week. We put stuff out there. We’re like Fox News. We report, we let people decide.”)
Donald Trump, as it happened, quite liked Sid Miller. He first appeared to notice him when, while Miller was on a Trump-campaign advisory board in 2016, his account posted a tweet calling Hillary Clinton what was reported as the “C-word,” then quickly deleted and replaced it with a claim that the account had been hacked. (Via a spokesman, Miller later said his staff “inadvertently retweeted a tweet” but finally just apologized.) Shortly thereafter, at a rally in Tampa, while talking about his campaign’s strength in Texas, Trump name-checked Miller and his “big, beautiful white cowboy hat.” Later, Miller interviewed to be Trump’s first secretary of agriculture, though the position ultimately went to Sonny Perdue. So when activist types recently began floating Miller as a challenger to Abbott, the idea did not seem entirely ludicrous.
“You know,” he said, not five minutes into our interview, “if I was governor. …” We were sitting in a room off the arena along with Miller’s wife of 40 years, Debra, Miller still wearing his spurs and cowboy hat. “I think the governor’s got some problems,” Miller went on. He had attended the protest in front of the governor’s mansion in October. In his view, the recent move to lift all pandemic-related restrictions was beside the point. “I mean, I haven’t seen anything lifted. I’m having to wear my damn mask here, you know, in Houston, everywhere else I go.” (When I asked if a private business should be able to require a mask if it so wanted, Debra looked at her husband and nodded. “They can, they can, yeah,” Miller said.)
I noted that even as a vocal subset of Republicans had become disenchanted with Abbott, he and Trump seemed to get along well (“my best guy, best governor,” as Trump once called him). But Miller demurred. “Abbott wasn’t his biggest fan,” he claimed. “I would say they tolerated each other. They weren’t — they weren’t enemies.”
Miller said he hadn’t yet made a final decision about running. He would say, however, that he has received a lot of encouragement from others to do so. “I’ve had five people stop me here, and this is not even a political event. Just pulled me off the side and said, we really appreciate what you’re doing, and we hope you run for governor, and hang in there. And so there’s something building out there. People aren’t happy — ” He turned to Debra, who had just nudged him quietly. “You go to several events. …” she offered in a low tone. “Oh, yeah,” he said, turning back to me. “When I go to events, it’s overwhelming, the response we get at the Republican events.”
‘The game is really pretty simple: Just play for a majority of a small group, and the rest doesn’t matter.’
This is probably true, or at least true enough. Miller is not exaggerating when he says that on a good week he reaches millions of people on social media, more than Abbott, Patrick, John Cornyn and even Ted Cruz combined. He has mastered the art of Facebook engagement in no small part by promulgating conspiracy theories about the election. “Well,” he said, “I think there’s a lot of theories out there that aren’t conspiracies.”
Along with Allen West, Miller’s name comes up often when grass-roots conservatives muse about an alternative to Abbott. This could be on account of his social media, or his unending devotion to Trump, who recently hosted him for a private dinner at Mar-a-Lago to discuss topics including “possible future political plans,” according to Miller’s spokesman. But another reason is that there are now very, very rich Republican donors who want to take out Abbott, too, and they will need some candidate, perhaps even a candidate as cartoonish as Miller, to do it. Chief among them is Tim Dunn, a multimillionaire oil executive and evangelical Christian from Midland who for the past two decades has spent millions in order to move the Legislature further to the right. There’s the Wilks family out of Cisco, who made billions off the early-aughts fracking boom. Dunn and the Wilkses trend extremely libertarian in their politics, and they were especially angered by Abbott’s pandemic restrictions; Dunn, criticizing the “Austin Swamp,” lent Shelley Luther, the salon owner, $1 million for her failed State Senate bid.
Neither has yet indicated whom they would back, if anyone, in the primary. But at least one donor has taken a shine to Sid Miller of late: Steve Hotze. Though he was still dealing with the fallout of his election-fraud-investigation debacle — Aguirre, the former police captain, has since been charged with assault with a deadly weapon (plea: not guilty), and Hotze has since been sued by Lopez, the air-conditioner repairman — it had not stopped him from turning to his next target. In recent weeks, Hotze teamed up with Miller to sue Dan Patrick for requiring Covid-19 tests in the Texas Senate, over which Patrick presides; in response, Patrick’s spokesman said he agreed with the Republican-led senate’s unanimous decision to require the tests. (A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for early May.)
“I think the future of the G.O.P. in Texas is very bright,” Miller told me.
What matters is not so much whether Abbott can defeat a Republican like Sid Miller but whether, when he does, he will feel compelled to govern like one anyway. “If what you’re confronting is a party made up of a shrinking base of ever more — not ‘conservative,’ not just ‘right-wing,’ but people who believe in conspiracies, it gets really hard to govern,” Bob Stein, a political-science professor at Rice University, told me. Over the past two decades, the party’s vote share for president in Texas has declined by more than seven points, a trend accelerated by the state’s growing Asian and Hispanic populations — groups that have voted less Republican as hostility to even legal immigration has spread in the party — as well as the conversion of suburban Republicans to Democrats during the Trump era. “It gets hard to make important decisions about education and health and welfare.”
He reminded me of an exchange during one of the first Texas Senate committee hearings on the winter storm on Feb. 25. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat, was questioning a meteorologist about whether Texans could expect more such storms in the future as a result of climate change. The committee’s Republican chairman, Kelly Hancock, jumped in before the witness could respond. “Ah, Senator Whitmire, what we’d like to do in the committee is stick with the events of last week rather than getting — that’s, that’s a significant discussion, but —” Whitmire tried to interject, but Hancock went on: “This is, this is a discussion where we can chase a lot of rabbits. …”
“The game is really pretty simple: Just play for a majority of a small group, and the rest doesn’t matter,” Joe Straus told me. “But it will someday.”
The day after my interview with Allen West, about a hundred people gathered for a Republican Party “legislative priorities” rally, which West was attending, at a church in Webster, a small city just outside of Houston. The most discussed issue, by far, was “election integrity.” Melissa Conway, a Republican activist, whose red stilettos were fashioned to look like cowboy boots, delivered the first presentation. “We’re living in a country where the noise and the chaos is so. Incredibly. Loud,” Conway said. She then lowered her voice to a whisper: “The silence of the perfect storm is yet to be heard.” (The Texas G.O.P. has talked often of “the storm” in recent months, in what many have interpreted as a nod to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which invests great meaning in an offhand Trump comment from 2017 about “the calm before the storm.” West told me the slogan the party adopted over the summer, “We Are the Storm,” is a reference to “a simple poem,” not QAnon, though which poem is unclear.)
“You and I can walk the streets, and we can get fine men and women elected who represent our voice, who we vote for, but yet in the darkness and the quiet, if the right laws don’t exist and if the right structure is not in place — slowly, it can be stolen,” Conway went on. “Luckily, and again by God’s grace, the election — we held Texas,” she said. “But for how long?”
West returned to this theme again as the rally’s final speaker. Multiple people, some with their children, had already approached him to ask for selfies. On the stage, he held aloft his pocket copy of the Constitution and said it was time to “cowboy the hell up.” “It’s time to put on the full armor of God,” he went on, referencing Ephesians 6, “and go out there on this battlefield and save this incredible state, and this incredible nation.” He entreated the audience to prepare for their upcoming municipal elections. “If you control those elected positions, then you control the machinery, you control the process, you control everything else.” This, he said, was what he wanted Republicans to focus on — to stop chasing “rumors” and “conspiracy theories.” He tried to soften his admonishment with a joke. “If another person sends me a text message about some Italian dude and messing around with votes” — a reference to an obscure conspiracy theory involving an Italian defense contractor — “I’m going to go apoplectic on them.”
West, who for months had happily fanned the flames of election fraud, was suddenly trying to rein it in, as if appending a disclaimer to much of his speech. Several people in the audience laughed. What was remarkable was how many more did not. As West moved on, I watched as multiple people glanced disconcertedly at their neighbors. Some muttered under their breath. During the Q. and A. session, one woman appeared to give voice to many when, as West was arguing that they as voters “have the power to stop corruption,” she shouted back, “We had the election stolen!”
At the end of the rally, dozens of people formed a line to take pictures with West. Several vented their frustrations over Trump’s loss. A blond woman, who wore a red shirt that read “Liberalism: Find a Cure” and carried a “TEXIT NOW” sign — West had recently been arguing for the state’s secession — turned back to West after posing for a photo. “I know you talked about ignoring the conspiracy theories, but I don’t understand,” she said. “Are we just supposed to let them get away with it?”
I couldn’t make out West’s response, but as the woman walked away, a man who evidently heard the exchange approached her. “I’m with you,” he said. “They stole the election.”
“But we don’t go after them!” she responded. The man, who had silvering hair and wore a black Ariat quarter-zip and jeans, nodded and lowered his voice slightly. “I’m ready to start stacking bodies,” he said. “No, I’m serious. All I need is a target.” He then used his thumb and index finger to imitate the shape of a gun. “Zap, zap, zap,” he said.
I ran to catch up with the man as he headed to the parking lot. “We had an election stolen, and we’re just done,” he told me. He clarified that while he hoped for a “peaceful” future for the country, he was “absolutely” prepared to fight for Texas to secede. “At the end of the day, if it’s communism or freedom, it’s going to be ugly.”
The Republican Party — in Texas, in America — was “over” and “done,” he said. The Communists had taken control of system, and they had already picked their winners. And so he had made up his mind, he said: He would never vote in a federal election again.
Andrew Rae is an illustrator, a graphic novelist and an art director known for his irreverent images of characters using a simple hand-rendered line. He is based in London.