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As Donald Trump mounts his 2024 presidential bid, his support among Texas politicos is waning

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Posted at 8:41 AM, Jan 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-11 09:41:25-05

Once a political force of nature with Texas Republicans, former President Donald Trump’s influence appears to be waning in the state as he mounts a 2024 presidential campaign and the state’s legislative session gets underway.

About two months into his comeback bid, few prominent Texas Republicans have endorsed Trump — and some are showing more willingness to cross him publicly. His recent blaming of abortion restrictions for Republicans’ midterm election losses sparked disagreement across the Texas GOP spectrum, and state Republicans have disregarded his preferences as they navigated the races for U.S. House speaker and Republican National Committee chair.

The developments are a notable shift from the last several years in Texas, where Trump has had a deep pool of loyal political allies. State Republicans went all-out to praise his presidency, and they enthusiastically courted his endorsement in their own campaigns. If any disagreed with him, they mostly kept it to themselves, fearful of retaliation from primary voters — or Trump himself.

Trump, the only president to be impeached twice, picked up little support in Texas beyond the usual suspects after he announced his reelection bid for the White House in mid-November. He got the endorsements of two predictable loyalists: Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who had already endorsed Trump for a comeback campaign about a year ago, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, whom Trump has teased as a potential U.S. attorney general if he wins the White House again.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been silent on the former president’s candidacy. Abbott, a potential 2024 candidate himself, got Trump’s endorsement in his primary last year but kept his distance during the general election, skipping an October rally in Texas.

Meanwhile, Trump’s two-time campaign chair in Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has signaled support for Trump’s comeback bid but stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.

Notably, a large majority of the Texas Republicans in the 118th Congress — 20 out of 25 — got Trump’s endorsement in the 2022 election. Of those members, only three have returned the favor and backed Trump for 2024: freshman U.S. Rep. Wesley Hunt of Houston, Rep. Troy Nehls of Richmond and Rep. Ronny Jackson of Amarillo, Trump’s former White House doctor. Texas’ U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have signaled openness to supporting someone beside Trump, and Cornyn has said he would like to “see some new blood.”

Heading into the legislative session, state House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has become notably outspoken against Trump after staying out of the fray since he took over the gavel in 2021. After Trump’s candidate Herschel Walker lost the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia last month, Phelan tweeted that “having the best candidate actually matters” and retweeted other users making the same point. Then, on New Year’s Day, after Trump made a social media post saying it was the “abortion issue,” not Trump, that caused Republicans to underwhelm in the midterms, Phelan responded with his most direct criticism to date.

“GOP has lost control of the Senate THREE cycles in a row & it was not the fault of the pro-life movement,” Phelan tweeted, addressing Trump. “It was your hand picked candidates who underperformed & lost ‘bigly’. May 2023-24 bring the GOP new leadership PROUD to protect the unborn.”

Phelan has faced little backlash inside his party for speaking out. To the contrary, more state House Republicans have taken his side, sharing his posts in displays of support and agreement.

“New leadership is necessary to restore the GOP to civility—and will be essential in preventing handing the White House back to the Ds (as Mr. Trump did last time),” state Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, said in a tweet. “I'm proud of Speaker Phelan speaking up and wish the rest of GOP state Speakers and Legislators would follow suit.”

Phelan’s team declined to comment beyond his recent tweets. A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Phelan was not the only prominent Texas Republican to object to Trump’s message about the midterms. Matt Rinaldi, the Texas GOP chair who hails from a further-right wing of the party than Phelan, also sent out a tweet disapproving of Trump’s take. Rinaldi argued Republicans did well in states like Texas that “effectively ended abortion” after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Dobbs wasn’t the problem,” Rinaldi said.

Trump has endured a number of setbacks within his own party. After taking heat for the GOP’s lackluster performance in November, a U.S. House select committee referred him for criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice for his role instigating the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. In December, Trump called for rules, including “those found in the Constitution” to be terminated in order to rehash the 2020 election. That post led to recriminations from Republicans across Capitol Hill, including from Cornyn, who called it “irresponsible.”

Polling suggests Trump remains popular with Texas Republicans — but not as much as he once was. He registered a 75% favorability rating among GOP voters in a December poll from the University of Texas at Austin, down from 82% in October and 85% in February 2021 after he left office.

More interesting has been the drop in intensity of GOP support for Trump, according to the same poll. The percentage of Republican voters who said they had a “very favorable” opinion of Trump was 39% in December; it was 50% in October and 58% in February 2021.

Chris Sacia is a conservative pollster who has been tracking Texas primary voters’ 2024 preferences every month. He noted that before the November election, Trump was averaging a 22-percentage-point lead, but in his latest poll, his advantage was down to 1 point, virtually tied with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“While President Trump’s direct support has noticeably declined, it’s clear that primary voters are not interested in transitioning back to the pre-Trump GOP,” Sacia said in a statement.

Indeed, DeSantis has supplanted Trump as a kind of a new North Star among Texas conservatives, and the next legislative session could feature several proposals that mimic new Florida laws. Patrick has already said he wants the Legislature to pass a version of Florida’s law prohibiting classroom discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity, which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Patrick and Trump have long enjoyed a close relationship, and it came on most vivid display in 2021. Patrick leveraged his friendship with Trump to bash Phelan and build pressure on the Texas House to pass an election audit. He also convinced Trump to make a host of primary endorsements that have allowed Patrick to enter the 2023 legislative session, which started Tuesday, with his most loyal Republican caucus yet.

Yet Patrick responded to Trump’s 2024 launch with a four-sentence Facebook post that praised his announcement speech but did not make a clear endorsement. Trump’s campaign sent emails to reporters afterward flagging Miller’s and Paxton’s statements as endorsements; there was no such email on Patrick’s statement.

Patrick aides did not respond to a request for comment on whether he was endorsing Trump for 2024.

Patrick gave an awkward answer when asked about his Trump support in a podcast interview posted Sunday.

“If he’s running 2024 — I say ‘if he’s running’ — he’s announced he’s running, so I assume he’s running. I have not talked to him since he announced, but we do talk, have talked often,” Patrick said. “If he’s running, I’ll be there supporting him. I think he’ll win the primary, but that’s how we sit here today in January. Who knows what’s ahead.”

In the fight over the U.S. House speakership, three Texas Republicans helped block Kevin McCarthy’s candidacy for days despite Trump’s support of McCarthy, which Trump reiterated emphatically amid the chaos. The three Texas Republicans — Reps. Michael Cloud, Chip Roy and Keith Self — all hail from solidly red districts where opposing Trump could be a vulnerability in a primary, but they seemed unfazed.

While McCarthy credited Trump with helping close the deal on his speakership late Friday night, the Texas trio had already come off the fence hours earlier after they believed they had extracted enough concessions from McCarthy.

There is no love lost between Roy and Trump — they clashed in a previous House leadership election, and Trump declined to endorse Roy for reelection last year despite backing virtually every other GOP member of the Texas delegation. But it was a more consequential decision for Cloud and Self, an incoming freshman who ran as a more pro-Trump Republican than the incumbent he challenged. Trump endorsed Cloud in his 2022 primary as he was drawing a growing group of challengers; Trump endorsed Self after he emerged as the GOP nominee in his district.

Trump’s backing of McCarthy drew open criticism from Michael Quinn Sullivan, the far-right ringleader in Texas politics.

“Why is Donald Trump sticking with this massive loser / swamp-thing?” Sullivan tweeted after McCarthy lost another round of speaker balloting last week.

Texas Republicans’ indifference to Trump has also surfaced in the race for chair of the Republican National Committee. In December, the State Republican Executive Committee unanimously passed a resolution expressing no confidence in Ronna McDaniel, the current RNC chair, who has been a Trump loyalist.

Neither the resolution — nor the SREC’s short discussion of it — made any mention of the former president. Trump has since weighed in on the race, saying he likes both McDaniel and one of her challengers, Harmeet Dhillon.

When it comes to Texas donors, Trump could also be losing steam. Roy Bailey, the Dallas business owner who helped lead Trump’s joint fundraising operation with the RNC, told The Dallas Morning News last month that many contributors are waiting to see if DeSantis enters the 2024 presidential primary.

“There’s no denying that Ron DeSantis’ political star is on the rise, and that’s why you have a primary process,” U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Sherman, said in a TV interview last month. “I’m looking forward to that process, and I think the two heavyweights right now are Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump.”

But who is Fallon supporting? “It’s too early to tell right now,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/11/donald-trump-texas-endorsements/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

"As Donald Trump mounts his 2024 presidential bid, his support among Texas politicos is waning" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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