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.”