While sitting in a local barbecue joint in Waco, surrounded by Texas memorabilia, Greg Abbott seems easily able to connect with Texas voters.
The Republican candidate for Texas governor understands the legitimate need of the party to become a “big tent” and appeal to other groups. “I bring a complete different style and perception that will connect differently with the changing Texas that we live in,” says Abbott. His wife, Cecilia, would be the first Latina first lady of the state of Texas, and Abbott believes he is uniquely qualified to understand the “genuine connection between the Hispanic community and the conservative philosophy.”
That would be a huge asset to the Republican Party of Texas. Facing semi-strong opposition for the first time in recent history, the party is trying to fight the growing Battleground Texas movement. With a growing Hispanic population, the Democrats, led by Wendy Davis, believe they can “turn Texas blue” within two decades.
Abbott still isn’t worried. He thinks the fundamental principle of the Battleground Texas movement misses the mark. The demographic problem isn’t with conservative principles, just the Republican brand, he claims. “All we need to do is do a better job of communicating that the Republican Party stands for conservative values that are really embraced by an overwhelming majority of the Hispanic community.”
He cites an example from the last state Republican Party convention, when the “hardcore of the hardcore of the Republican Party” voted over two-thirds for “the most progressive guest-worker provision of any state.” If Republicans can frame their message better, he argues, they’ll be better prepared to appeal to the Hispanic community. He also believes that he has the background, experience, and talents to meet that challenge.
The clear front-runner in the Texas gubernatorial race, Abbott is typically described as a more conservative version of Perry. Though his stances on major issues strongly support this claim, he is able to effectively articulate conservatism in a way that pleases both the hardliners and the moderates in the party. He’s just looking for ways to “get government even more off the backs of people in the state.”
When Abbott believes in something, he doesn’t let anything get in his way. He was tragically paralyzed by a falling tree in 1984, but he doesn’t let his wheelchair hinder his dedication. In fact, he argues that it provides him with a unique opportunity to understand the concerns of those with disabilities. It is this perseverance that defines his approach to controversial political issues.
Take voter-ID laws, for example. It is Abbott who has taken the leading role as Attorney General of Texas. The Supreme Court has already ruled that voter-ID laws are “perfectly constitutional,” says Abbott.
According to Abbott, voter-ID is a necessary tool to stop the very real problem of voter fraud. He draws on his experience as attorney general to back up his conclusion. “I’ve prosecuted voter fraud across the state of Texas, including instances where dead people were casting votes, people were voting twice, and foreign nationals had registered to vote illegally.”
Abbott’s legal experience uniquely qualifies him to deal with these issues. After short periods in private practice, as a state trial judge, and serving on the Texas Supreme Court, he is currently the longest-serving attorney general in Texas history.
Abbott uses his role as attorney general to advance the cause of conservatism in any way possible, suing the Obama administration over voter-ID laws, onerous environmental regulations, and Obamacare. At an event in February 2013, Abbott described his job as “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.” He means what he says – Abbott has sued the President at least 27 times in the past five years.
But he doesn’t come off as a hardline conservative. When Abbott speaks to you, you feel as if he isn’t fishing for talking points or strategizing about his next line. He has an uncanny ability to sincerely connect with voters while maintaining the strong conservative principles he advocates.
Abbott clearly admires Perry, saying he will “continue his economic development model” to bring more jobs to the state. But Abbott has likely been planning this campaign for a long time. Before Gov. Rick Perry announced that he would not be seeking a fourth term, Abbott was already raising millions in contributions and making the necessary connections. He was poised to transition right into the campaign as soon as Perry made his future plans official.
Greg Abbott also doesn’t worry much about his opponent Wendy Davis. She doesn’t understand what Texans want, says Abbott. She is “on the extreme wing, contrary to the mainstream Texans.”
An inspirational savior to the “Turn Texas Blue” movement known as Battleground Texas, Davis is a state senator who gained national prominence during her filibuster of Texas’ new abortion law last summer. Davis declared her candidacy for governor in early October and has already been holding fundraisers in Washington and New York to try to catch up to Abbott’s $27 million.
But Abbott believes Davis’ criticism of the state’s abortion law has aligned her with a minority of Texas voters. “An overwhelming majority of Texans agree that allowing abortions after five months of pregnancy is just not where they stand – and yet, that’s where Wendy Davis stands.” The most recent PPP poll has Abbott ahead by 15 percentage points.
Attorney General Abbott, or “The General,” as he is known, will not face much difficulty in the race to be Texas’ next governor. By maintaining his conservative principles while trying to rebrand the party, Greg Abbott could do great things for Texas.
Danny Huizinga | Baylor University | @HuizingaDanna