Managing pandemic politics is easiest in states with stable majorities, as Andrew Cuomo of New York and Mike DeWine of Ohio have shown. It is much harder in more divided ones, especially for Republican governors, who cannot get too far out of step with the source of much of the divisiveness, President Donald Trump. And Texas is one of the most politically torn states of all. Its Republican rulers, grown decadent by decades in power, are bitterly feuding even as a tsunami of politico-demographic change rushes towards them. Mr Abbott’s highly politicised management of the pandemic may be about as solid as such pressures allow.
His political balancing act reflects his enigmatic figure. He is much less charismatic than his immediate predecessors, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, and—deep into his second gubernatorial term—less well-known. Having ascended to the governorship via the state Supreme Court bench and attorney-general’s office, he has never faced a tough election. Many Texans have no idea even that he is wheelchair-bound, owing to a freak tree-fall accident he suffered as a teenager— though his courage in battling back from that tragedy is his most admirable quality. Politically, too, Mr Abbott has managed to remain usefully indeterminate.
He took office as a conservative hardliner—boasting of the 31 times he had sued the Obama administration and soon enough echoing Mr Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. This earned him credit with a state party that had veered hard to the right. Dan Patrick, leader of the Texan senate and an advocate of American grandparents risking covid-19 infection for the sake of the economy— even unto death—is its most recognisable face. Yet Mr Abbott knows Mr Patrick’s politics is another sort of suicide mission in a state that last had a white majority over a decade ago. The 2018 mid-terms, in which the Democrats flipped 14 seats in the state legislature (and Mr Patrick survived a surprisingly fierce challenge) underlined that reality. Having won his own re-election with ease, Mr Abbott used his increased heft in the party to help launch one of the most quietly impressive Republican rethinks of the Trump era. The state’s next biennial legislative session, held last year, was devoted to property tax and bipartisan education funding, not—as previously—to bathroom bills.