(The Hill) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) drew national attention this week by sending two buses full of Latin American asylum applicants from the southern border to Washington, D.C., the latest move to fuel speculation that he’s plotting a future campaign for the White House.
Abbott largely received praise from fellow Republicans for his headline-grabbing move, and the arrival of dozens of migrants in Washington was played on conservative news networks. Abbott also sparked controversy at the border with the now-repealed order for state troops to step up truck inspections, which led to extensive traffic and protests by drivers.
The latest moves mark an audacious step in a hot-button issue that is a top animator for Republicans by a skilled operator rumored to have ambitions beyond Austin. And party insiders forecast the latest moves, while controversial, will be well received by an already amped-up base.
“I think so far it’s playing well with Republicans because they clearly want their elected officials to be tough on illegal immigration. They want to make sure that security comes first,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based GOP strategist and member of the Texas State Guard whose unit was deployed to help set up the operation to bus the migrants to Washington.
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“From the people I’ve talked to, from the polling I’ve seen, from just anecdotal evidence of where the activists are, where the voters are, they just want to see the governor and the president and future elected leaders, Congress, get tough and take action and put security first. And so I think they look at this and say, ‘He’s doing what he should be doing on that,’” Steinhauser added.
Abbott directed his state’s Division of Emergency Management to bring migrants in Texas to the nation’s capital in response to the Biden administration’s move to wind down Title 42, a sweeping border restriction policy implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow for easier expulsions of migrants.
Fourteen Nicaraguan, Cuban, Venezuelan and Colombian nationals were dropped off on Thursday outside of the building that houses the Washington bureau of Fox News, which broke the story. On Wednesday, Fox News showed footage of the first bus full of migrants arriving in Washington, near the U.S. Capitol.
The migrants are all legally in the U.S. and waiting for official determination of their asylum claims. They also all voluntarily got on the bus to Washington, which the White House has repeatedly reminded the public of when asked for its reaction to Abbott sending the buses.
But immigration is an issue that plays disproportionately up with Republicans. A Quinnipiac University poll from late March showed that just 9 percent of Americans said immigration is the most important issue facing the country. However, 19 percent of Republicans said it is the most important issue, the highest share behind those who cited inflation.
While Abbott’s actions on immigration this week elevate his profile nationally, former President Trump’s looming decision on 2024 hangs over many Republicans, including the Texas governor, GOP strategist Doug Heye said.
“Like so many Republicans, Gov. Abbott is increasing his name ID and pushing on issues important to the base and thereby putting himself in a position to run. But it still remains a waiting game for all of those Republicans until Donald Trump decides what he will do. They’re all jockeying for a race they ultimately may not run,” Heye said.
Abbott’s moves swiftly drew plaudits from other prominent Republicans who said he was bringing immigration to the fore after months of grumbling over the rising number of border crossings.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Wednesday, “Hopefully this gets liberal elites and the Biden administration to actually care about the millions of illegal aliens who are streaming across our southern border.”
“They’re going to see, with all these people invading Washington, D.C., like they’ve invaded our border states, and it may make them realize how bad it is,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) added on Fox News on Thursday.
Beyond busing the migrants, Abbott had ordered truck inspections by state troops, which first sparked long lines at key border crossings before fueling driver protests. He repealed the order on Friday afternoon but before had argued that such inspections were necessary because he claimed the vehicles offer opportunities for smuggling.
The latest maneuvering led to unsurprising backlash from Democrats, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki mocking the buses as a “publicity stunt.”
But Republicans say the publicity might not necessarily be bad for Abbott.
“I think it’s hard to separate politics and government. I mean, in everything that happens, whether it’s foreign policy or domestic policy, politics and government go hand in hand. Public relations is a key aspect of governing. So I don’t see this any different than anything else,” Steinhauser said.
“There’s always a selling, a marketing side of it. There’s always a communications plan. And there clearly has been one on this. But I also think that it’s just one of the many things that the state of Texas is doing to try and deal with this problem.”
To be sure, not every Republican was pleased with Abbott’s recent decisions.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller called the truck inspection policy “misguided” and “political theater” in a letter to Abbott on Wednesday.
“Instead, this policy will hurt Texas and American consumers by driving up already sky rocketing food prices, worsening ongoing supply chain disruptions, causing massive produce shortages, and saddling Texas and American companies with untold losses,” Miller said, adding that he predicts prices will rise for limes and avocados within a week.
“Buses, and trucks, and demagoguery, oh my,” added moderate GOP commentator Charlie Sykes. “Texas’s Greg Abbott has simultaneously (1) manufactured a massive snafu at the border, and (2) shocked even some conservative allies with the crassness of his immigrants-on-a-bus stunt.”
But still, Abbott’s unique position as a border-state governor offers him a chance to differentiate himself from other Republicans, which could be a boon if he’s considering a 2024 presidential run.
Abbott has leaned into culture wars during his reelection bid, bolstering his hard-line bona fides on issues such as abortion, gun rights and “election integrity” to successfully beat back primary challenges from his right earlier this year. However, the stringent new policies he implemented have caught national attention and fueled speculation that he has his eye on the White House.
In a sign of immigration’s potency as a wedge issue, other prominent Republicans, including potential 2024 candidates, have pounced on the White House’s handling of Title 42.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) warned migrants on the bus to D.C. not to try to get to his state after some of them reportedly said they hoped to make their way to Miami.
“Life will not be easy for you, because we are obligated to uphold the immigration laws of this country, even if our federal government and other states won’t,” DeSantis’s office told Fox News on Wednesday.
Dave Carney, Abbott’s political consultant, told The Hill that the governor is solely focused on his reelection bid this year, when he’ll face off against former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). But Carney also boasted that Abbott’s latest moves are hitting on what Republicans view as a winning issue.
“I think it shows that [President] Biden and [Vice President] Harris and the Democrats could have done something like this in January of last year,” he said of Abbott’s policies. “But for politics, what they thought at the time was a winning issue, is going to kill them.”