OPINION

Abbott sent a message to Biden in South Texas, but it was also aimed at his 2022 rivals

During his visit to South Texas with other GOP governors, Abbott talked a lot about Joe Biden. But the Democratic president might not have been the only target.

John C. Moritz
Corpus Christi Caller Times

MISSION — If you did nothing but hear the words he spoke at his news conference a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande on Wednesday, you likely came away with the impression that Gov. Greg Abbott was sending a blunt message to President Joe Biden about the effects of unchecked migration at the southern border.

Make no mistake, he was.

But layer on the visuals for the event at the bucolic Anzalduas Park on the southern rim of Mission, and it's easy to surmise that Abbott also was sending a pointed message to at least three of his fellow Texans: Don Huffines, Allen West and Beto O'Rourke.

Abbott, a two-term Republican governor, invited 10 of his fellow GOP state chief executives to join him at the border. Nine showed up; the other had to cancel because of pressing business back home. They ceded center stage to Abbott and behind them were more than a dozen camouflage-colored military vehicles and two imposing Army Black Hawk helicopters that hammered home the intended point that Abbott is an immigration hardliner who backs up his words with deeds.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, backed by other Republican state governors, Texas National Guard leaders, and law enforcement officers, speaks at a press conference on the United States' southern border in Mission, Texas on Oct. 6, 2021 to speak on the Biden Administration's lack of action on what they described as the continuing crisis at the border.

We'll set aside the policy merits of all this for now and just focus on the politics of the visuals. And that brings us back to Huffines, West and O'Rourke.

The first two plan to challenge Abbott from the right in next year's Republican primary. The visuals and the rhetoric blaming the Democratic president for conditions on the border served notice that there's no ground on Abbott's right that might give the challengers any traction on the immigration issue.

More:Texas Gov. Abbott, nine GOP governors come to border to blame Biden for 'humanitarian crisis and chaos'

The third, O'Rourke, is widely expected to announce his candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination sometime soon. The clear but unspoken message to the former congressman from El Paso, assuming he prevails in the primary, was: I'm going to hang Joe Biden around your neck like a dead fish from now until Nov. 8, 2022.

Technically speaking, the border visit was not a campaign event. There were no sign-waving supporters, no flourishes of patriotic music from the soundstage. Actually, no soundstage at all. But there's always a political element to every public event a politician engages in. So it's fair to point out that Abbott is wise to take advantage of political opportunities when they present themselves.

National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles line up at Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas on the Texas-Mexico Border ahead of Texas Governor Greg Abbot's border press conference that will include governors from several other republican-led states on Oct. 6, 2021.

That's especially true heading into 2022. A Quinnipiac University Poll released in late September showed that 51% of Texas voters don't think the governor deserves another term. Exactly half of the respondents disapproved of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And more than half gave Abbott thumbs down on the abortion issue now that he's signed legislation essentially forbidding the procedure beyond six weeks of pregnancy.

More:Beto 3.0: Here's what to watch for in a matchup between O'Rourke and Gov. Greg Abbott

He's even upside down on his handling of the border: 43% approve; 46% don't. But those numbers come with a bucketful of nuance that might help explain why Abbott talks so much about the issue. At the top of this list is that self-identified Republicans are on Abbott's side by a 4-1 margin when it comes to border policy. That means West and Huffines are frozen out, and Abbott's likely just fine with that.

Secondly, as the immigration issue began to dominate Texas headlines, Biden's numbers in Texas have tanked. Early summer, his approval rate in the Quinnipiac poll was 45%; disapproval was 50%. That's pretty respectable for a Democrat in a red state like Texas. Now, the president is deep in the hole, 32-61. 

Without a significant upswing by this time next year, Biden will be Beto's albatross.

Bottom line: Abbott is better off politically talking about the border and taking advantage of the take-charge visuals it offers him. Otherwise, the headlines might be dominated by the pandemic and the still scary number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Or about whether Republicans in the Legislature overreached on abortion, voter restrictions, gun laws or anything else that might put the governor on the defensive heading into an election year.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

John Moritz