Politics

Texas’ Next Governor? Meet Wendy Davis' Opponent, Greg Abbott

The Attorney General is poised to beat Democrat Wendy Davis in the state's nationally watched and heated governor's race, but most Texans know very little about him.
by | February 2014
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has worked hard to put people at ease about his disability. AP/Darren Abate
 

There’s been a lot of talk in national political circles about how Texas will inevitably turn blue. The state is already majority-minority and the Hispanic population continues to grow rapidly. Democrats have pinned their main hopes on Wendy Davis, a state senator who became a party and media darling last year with a filibuster that temporarily derailed an abortion bill.

Davis is running for governor. If she can help put Texas into play, that would be disastrous for the national GOP. Texas is the only large state left that reliably votes Republican for president.

The problem with this scenario is that it’s highly unlikely to happen. Even Democrats in Texas will concede privately that Davis stands little chance against her all-but-certain Republican opponent, state Attorney General Greg Abbott. White voters may be a minority within the state, but they still cast two-thirds of the statewide vote—and they give an overwhelming share of their votes to the GOP. Davis will raise enough money and attract enough attention to cause some heartburn for down-ballot GOP candidates, but Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Texas in 20 years and Davis is unlikely to break that streak. “Texas didn’t become an all-Republican state overnight and this change to being a Democratic state is not going to happen overnight,” says Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer.

If the GOP feels solidly in control, the proof is in the candidates who are running this year. With Gov. Rick Perry stepping down and Abbott seeking to move up, there’s a game of musical chairs going on, with just about every statewide office up for grabs. The main action continues to take place in GOP primaries where this year’s crop of candidates is, for the most part, more conservative than the incumbents they seek to replace. In this regard, Abbott has already received a backhanded endorsement of sorts, with the liberal magazine Mother Jones worrying that he’ll be “worse” than Perry.

Abbott, 56, is little known outside Texas but is about to become a player on the national stage as governor of the second largest state. Name an issue—gun rights, abortion, same-sex marriage, taxes—and Abbott will assume a reliably conservative position. “Among the Republican grassroots, the deciders who determine GOP primary victors and victims, Greg Abbott enjoys near-Mount Rushmore adulation,” says Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who—like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz—once worked for Abbott in the AG’s office.

Abbott’s ability to speak both to mainstream and Tea Party Republicans, along with his formidable fundraising skills, make him the overwhelming favorite to win the March 4 primary. He’ll also be easily favored over Davis in the fall. “Abbott would have to make a colossal blunder to lose this race,” says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political scientist at the University of North Texas. But none of that gives people in Texas a clear idea about policies Abbott intends to emphasize as governor.

Despite a dozen years as attorney general and a prior stint on the Texas Supreme Court, Abbott is not an especially familiar figure in Texas. One poll last year found that a slight majority of Texans either had never heard of him, or didn’t know enough about him to have any opinion.

There are a couple of things that most Texas Republicans do know about Abbott, however. The first is that he’s paralyzed from the waist down. While out running nearly 30 years ago, he was felled by a tree. He’s worked hard to put people at ease about his disability, dressing up on various Halloweens as a tank or a grocery cart. Speaking to crowds, he’ll joke that they must wonder how slow he was running to get hit by a tree. He’s gained tremendous upper-body strength, though, pushing himself around in a wheelchair; he still has the politician’s knack for managing to dart out of a room quickly when he has to. “He’s overcome obstacles that would’ve dispirited most people and sent them spiraling into self-pity and bitterness,” says Justice Willett. “But one of Greg Abbott’s chief virtues is that he’s a fierce competitor who also boasts a sunny, Reagan-like optimism.” Indeed, Abbott has a wide grin that—with his white hair and narrow eyes—makes him resemble the comic actor Steve Martin.

Speaking with educators at a charter school in San Antonio, Abbott didn’t talk down the importance of academic achievement, but suggested that resolve might count more. “It’s harder to measure, but it’s essential to a successful life. If they can teach [resilience] alone, if students can walk away from this school with nothing else other than that, they will succeed in life,” Abbott says. “There’s one thing we know for a fact when these students leave this school, they’re going to meet with challenges. Algebra, history or English is not going to help them overcome those challenges. It’s the grit they apply in their lives.”

The other thing that Abbott is famous for among Texas Republicans is suing the federal government—a lot. He has sued the feds more than two dozen times. He was an early legal opponent of Obamacare and has fought in court to preserve state laws regarding abortion restrictions and voter ID requirements. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case brought by Abbott’s office and others contending that the federal Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its bounds in regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA in particular has been Abbott’s prime legal target. He’s sued the agency more than 15 times. His most frequent applause line is to boast that his working day consists of going to the office, suing the federal government (sometimes he says Barack Obama) and going home. “Greg is really appreciated by the grassroots because he’s taken on Washington through his office of attorney general and challenged some of the absurd policies,” says Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who is running for lieutenant governor.

Abbott brags about having been the “general” leading the charge against federal intrusion and overreach, but says as governor he’ll be the “commander-in-chief, where I will be overseeing the agencies that have been the clients in these cases. We will fight to ensure the federal government remains in check.”

That’s a message that plays well for Abbott. Obama is unpopular in many states, but in Texas, resistance to the federal government is a founding principle. Not long after giving up its status as an independent republic, Texas joined with other Southern states in seceding from the union.

Despite all the prognostication about Texas eventually favoring Democrats—as Dallas and Houston already do—it’s easy to make a case that Texas is becoming more Republican, not less. After the 2010 elections, the Texas GOP held the state House by just two votes; now, they’re almost a supermajority. As recently as 2008, Democrats controlled a solid majority of the more than 5,000 elective offices throughout the state; today, the GOP has 61 percent of them. Even GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s share of the vote went up in 2012, compared to what John McCain had taken four years earlier.

White voters give Texas Republicans some 70 percent of their vote. That puts statewide candidates close to a majority. What puts the GOP over the top is support from Hispanics, who mostly vote for Democrats but give just over a third of their vote to Republicans—better than Republicans can count on elsewhere. Romney received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

That puts Abbott in a tricky spot. He finds himself having to navigate the fine line sometimes trampled on by Republicans nationwide—appealing to a base concerned about illegal immigration while also not alienating Hispanics. “Really, it’s not welcome news for Abbott that the candidates in the lieutenant governor’s race, because it’s so competitive and they’re all running to the right, are making such an issue of immigration,” says James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

In recent years, prominent Texas Republicans have adopted a milder tone on the issue than Republicans elsewhere. Abbott himself never hesitates to mention that his wife, who has Mexican ancestry, would be the state’s first Latina first lady. “Texas politicians have been smart about how you have to include the Hispanic community as part of your base of support,” says Steve Munisteri, the state GOP chair.

But Abbott and others remember that Perry got himself in trouble with conservatives during his presidential run in 2012 by defending the Texas version of the Dream Act, which gives in-state tuition rates to some children brought into the country illegally. “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought there through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said during a debate. By contrast, a number of Republican hopefuls are spending the primary season trying to top their opponents in expressing their desire to repeal the Dream Act. Abbott joins this year’s class in stressing border security and insisting that “the rule of law” must prevail. As for the Dream Act itself, Abbott says it has “noble goals” but must be reformed.

Martinez Fischer, the Democratic state representative who has sometimes clashed with Abbott over policy, warns that Texas Republicans are in danger of writing off the limited support they have among Hispanics, not so much through tough talk on immigration as taking unyielding stances on voter ID restrictions, Medicaid expansion and education. “Greg Abbott’s biggest problem, or concern, is the fact that he has been consistently insistent on bad policy choices in a state that is changing demographically by the day,” Martinez Fischer says.

Texas Republican legislators cut education spending by $5.4 billion in 2011, a fact that Wendy Davis brings up at every opportunity. (It was the subject of her first widely noted filibuster.) Abbott talks about wanting to make Texas the nation’s leader in education, but does he believe restoring funding is necessary to achieve that ambition? It’s a question Abbott refuses to answer. “I cannot give you an answer about, quote, adequacy of funding, when part of my job as attorney general is defending in court the adequacy of school funding,” Abbott told reporters at the San Antonio charter school.

Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Texas in 20 years. State Sen. Wendy Davis is unlikely to break that streak in her run for the governorship. AP/Eric Gay

 Although Abbott has been cagey, no one expects his tenure to mark a radical shift. Perry is the longest-serving governor in Texas history—he’ll have served 14 years when all is said and done. Usually, when candidates run to replace a longtime incumbent, they’ll stress the need for change and new brooms and their eagerness to address Crisis X. Abbott doesn’t have any of that sort of rhetoric in his stump speech. He’s close with Perry and although they are stylistically different—no one in Texas anticipates a Greg Abbott blooper reel—politically, there’s little daylight between the two. Texans won’t feel any tectonic shifts with the change in administrations. GOP chair Munisteri likens the moment to turnover on a high school football team: The players will change, but the playbook will not. “Greg Abbott represents the conservative, pro-growth leadership that Texans have made clear they want time and again at the ballot box,” Perry himself says.

That indeed seems to be what Texans want—and seem always to have wanted. The state may innovate in health, information technology and energy extraction, but its government remains conservative and cautious. Certainty has been a more important gift to business executives than direct handouts, Texas Monthly editor Erica Grieder argues in Big, Hot, Cheap and Right, a book that Abbott sometimes cites when talking about the state’s independent streak. “You don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen in Texas next year or 10 years from now or, probably, a hundred years from now: what’s good for business is what’s going to happen,” she writes.

Not just Grieder’s but an entire shelf of books has been written debating whether the so-called Texas model—low taxes and limited government regulation and services—has been a blessing or a curse. The state ranks poorly in areas such as incarceration, poverty and access to health care. Texas must be doing something right, however. It leads the nation by a mile in job creation and in population growth. Over the past couple of decades, economic growth in Texas has outpaced the rest of the country by 2-to-1, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Its performance since the recession has been equally impressive. Sales tax receipts have increased in Texas every month for nearly four years straight. “State leadership has accomplished a lot in good times and in tougher times, and the public seems to approve of what we’ve done, even though the faces may change,” says Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.

Whether the Lone Star State has been blessed more by its governance or its oil and gas deposits, more than 1,000 people per day are making it clear they favor the state by the simple act of moving there. During the 19th century, transplants from Appalachia would sometimes scrawl a simple message on their doors—“GTT,” meaning “gone to Texas.” Millions more have made the same choice during Perry’s tenure.

All of this—the state’s robust economy and the GOP’s dominance—means that Abbott’s biggest challenge in becoming governor is simply not to blow it. Rather than rolling out concrete policy proposals, his campaign is run like a reality show, offering endless promises of big “reveals” in the coming weeks and months. “He’s raising a lot of money, he’s playing it safe, it’s steady as you go,” says Bill Miller, a longtime Austin consultant and lobbyist.

But Abbott knows that if things change once he assumes the top office—the economic vitality of the state or his party’s dominance—he’ll bear the blame. Abbott understands, therefore, that he can’t take good news for granted forever. Growth creates its own problems, so he’ll certainly be called upon to address the perennial Texas issues of water and transportation. “There’s always challenges,” he says. “If you go back decades, the shining city in the United States of America was Detroit, and now it’s in bankruptcy. If you don’t pursue policies that allow a state to flourish and grow, you could head down the pathway of Detroit.”

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