For most of his first term, Gov. Greg Abbott was guided by his experience as a former state District Court judge and state Supreme Court justice.
“What I found interesting is the similarity between being a judge and being a governor,” Abbott told the American-Statesman a year ago. “A judge presides over legal disputes, and, the fact of matter is you have lawyers on each side representing different interests and 99 percent of the time those interests work themselves out and the judge never really has to get involved.
“The same is true in the Capitol,” Abbott said. “You have legislators that will have different interests, and 99 percent of the time they will come together and work things out without the judge or the governor needing to get involved.”
But beginning with a special legislative session last summer, and with a startling vengeance in the runup to Tuesday’s primary, a new, more aggressive Abbott has emerged. Far and away the most popular elected official in the state of Texas — and, with more than $40 million in his campaign kitty, its most politically powerful official — Abbott is now seeking to establish himself in no uncertain terms as the judge, jury and executioner of Texas Republican politics, supporting allies and targeting for defeat three state House members he says have stood in the way of his conservative agenda.
“Now there’s nothing wrong with Sarah Davis running for state representative as long as she is honest with people in her district — telling people that she is the Democrat that she votes to be,” Abbott said at a Feb. 20 rally in Houston for Susanna Dokupil, who worked for Abbott when he was attorney general and who is running against Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, in the GOP primary.
“I personally, in a wheelchair, have been block walking in House District 134,” Abbott exhorted his audience. “If a guy in a wheelchair can do it, you have no excuse not to be out knocking on doors.”
The governor’s campaign has plowed more than $360,000 into the three House GOP primary elections — $223,000 into defeating Davis, $136,000 into helping Chris Fails take out Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, and a small sum for Mayes Middleton, who has plenty of his own money, in his campaign against Rep. Wayne Faircloth of Galveston.
So, why is a governor virtually guaranteed of re-election, in a state totally dominated by conservative Republicans, spending his political capital, literally and figuratively, on defeating three members of his own party?
“There’s no sense of getting re-elected just for the record books,” said Dave Carney, his top strategist. “The governor wants to get stuff done. So this is one strategy that he’s adapted to try to get things done.”
He’s flashing his badge, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “This is the way to show the sheriff in Texas is Greg Abbott.”
“It’s an escalation of the GOP civil war, taking it to the next level,” Jones said of complementary efforts by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to make their very conservative brand of Republican politics the only brand on offer in Texas. Patrick is seeking the defeat of state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.
Earlier this year, the State Republican Executive Committee censured House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who had announced in October he was not seeking re-election, for not hewing to the state party’s platform, repudiating the man who was the bulwark of the sort of mainstream chamber of commerce conservatism that once had great purchase in Texas.
Abbott’s and Patrick’s search-and-destroy mission in the primary is intended to root out and make examples of remaining vestiges of old-school middle-of-the-roadism.
“You now have a Republican governor and lieutenant governor actively working to unseat Republican incumbents,” said Jones. He said he knows of no precedent in modern Texas politics.
Neither does Allen Blakemore, Patrick’s longtime strategist.
“With the governor and the lieutenant governor, this is not the norm,” Blakemore said. “These guys are stepping out and being bold in a way that others have not been before.”
Like Carney, Blakemore said the raison d’être is “elections matter and elections have consequences.”
More than their predecessors, Blakemore said, Abbott and Patrick have “succinctly delineated a specific agenda” and are “singularly focused on achieving it.”
“And guess what?” Blakemore said. “That now carries over to the election. Why wouldn’t it?”
Some Republicans find the whole enterprise wrongheaded, however.
“To get full-court-press involved against a sitting member is inappropriate in my opinion,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Zerwas said of the governor’s intervention. ‘I think it’s best that the executive branch stay out of this and worry about their own election and leave the elections in the local districts to the local districts.”
Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Zerwas is a member of Straus’ leadership team. He wants to succeed Straus as speaker. So far, he and Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, are the only two declared candidates for speaker, and Zerwas, who doesn’t have a primary opponent, has instead spent his time campaigning with members for speaker.
“I haven’t run into anybody who thinks that’s an appropriate thing to do,” Zerwas said of the governor’s approach.
“I’ve worked very closely with all three of those people,” said Zerwas of Davis, Larson and Faircloth. “They’re great people. They represent their districts and are very engaged in the legislative process, and that’s how this game is played.”
Republicans hold 95 of the 150 seats in the House, but if the margin is cut in November, Zerwas said, the question will be put to Abbott, “When you have $43 million in your war chest you have to wonder why would your party lose seats when the chief executive has that kind of resources available to him?”
“If Democrats make legislative gains, people will blame him for that,” Davis agreed. “How can you not when he has been openly campaigning and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars against Republican incumbents as opposed to using his influence and power to protect Republican incumbents.”
“I mean I was shocked that he basically conceded in my race, if I lose, the Democrat will win,” Davis said.
“I assume that their goal is to control the House out of fear, to have all the Republicans afraid of Abbott, that if they don’t go along with him they are going to have to deal with his $43 million in the next election cycle,” Davis said. “That’s got to be what their end game is.”
And if Davis prevails on Tuesday and again in the fall, she could return to a House where her name is mud, a guarantee of an Abbott veto of anything it’s attached to. Or, depending on what happens in November, she could return to a chamber where she is closer to the new center of gravity, and bonded with colleagues in defense of their legislative prerogatives.
“I think the governor will be surprised at the reaction,” Davis said. “We understand the importance of our body and care about the legislative branch. I don’t think you are going to get a compliant House, which is what I think the governor wants to see.”
“I think everybody will read something into what he’s doing,” said state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton. “Other elected officials may say, `Hey, I don’t care if he wins or not, I don’t want that happening to me,’ or they may be, `I beat him anyway, so I’ll be even more bold.’”
But Simmons is very happy to have Abbott’s endorsement in his primary race.
“There’s no question that in the Republican Party, Greg Abbott is the most popular elected official in the state by a good margin,” he said. “Donald Trump is very popular, but Greg Abbott is even above him. So having him endorse you as an incumbent in a primary is helpful.”
Dan Patrick’s gambit
As for the lieutenant governor’s involvement in a fistful of contested Senate races, Jones said, “with Patrick, it’s not something that he really needed to do. He already had the Senate marching in complete lockstep, with (Sen. Kel) Seliger on rare occasions defecting, but it didn’t really slow up the Senate.”
“It’s more about eliminating pockets of potential opposition, not even actual opposition,” Jones said.
On Monday, Patrick, who presides over the Senate, endorsed state Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, who is challenging Estes. Patrick said he weighed in because of a negative web ad in which the Estes campaign used a dramatization of a priest hearing a man’s confession to call Fallon a liar.
“This is not the first time Sen. Estes has used offensive and inaccurate language,” Patrick said in backing Fallon. “In 2015, when Sen. Estes personally blocked the bill to ban sanctuary cities, he said he didn’t want Texans to be ‘like Nazis,’ checking people’s papers. In 2015, Sen. Estes also aligned himself with our opponents. He was the only Republican senator who voted with the Democrats to keep the 21-vote rule, known as the blocker bill, which allowed liberal Democrats to maintain veto power over every Republican bill passed in the Texas Senate.”
When Patrick became lieutenant governor, his first priority was lowering the number of votes needed to bring bills to the floor from 21 to 19.
“Dan Patrick neither forgives nor forgets when it comes to political betrayal,” Jones said.
Altogether, Patrick’s campaign has given $675,000, mostly in-kind donations of media buys and polling, to help Fallon, as well as Sens. Bob Hall and Joan Huffman, both of whom are in difficult primaries, and Angela Paxton, the wife of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is waging a bitter battle against Phillip Huffines to fill the seat being vacated by Van Taylor, R-Plano, who is running for Congress.
Taking sides in the Paxton-Huffines race — the only open Senate contest — is a twin-edged sword, because Huffines’ twin brother is Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, an occasional thorn in Patrick’s side, who is facing a tough re-election bid in a district Hillary Clinton won by more than 4 percentage points. Come 2019, Patrick could be presiding over a Senate with two Huffines, each nursing a grudge against him.
Meanwhile, Blakemore has taken command of the Hall campaign against Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, a Straus ally, and is advising Victor Leal, one of two candidates engaged in an uphill bid to unseat Seliger of Amarillo, who is the least conservative Republican in the Senate. Patrick has not endorsed a candidate in that race, and Seliger has neither endorsed nor opposed Patrick’s re-election.
Adding to the uncertainty, Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, has no primary challenge, but uncertain prospects in the fall in a competitive district previously held by the Democrat Wendy Davis.
The Legislature’s regular session ended in late May on a sour note, with Patrick and Straus blaming each other for what was left undone and the necessity of a special session.
So the governor called a midsummer special session with an expansive 20-item agenda, replete with campaign-style 20-for-20 buttons and his warning that he was going to be keeping a list: “Who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position yet. No one gets to hide.”
The morning after the Legislature finished its work, having enacted only half of the governor’s agenda and not his top priority of property tax reform, Abbott laid down the gauntlet.
Straus was an obstacle, the governor said, and he was prepared to get involved in legislative races both for and against members.
“I wasn’t altogether dumbfounded to be on the naughty list with Lyle,” Davis said in an interview Thursday.
“I’m kind of an easy target because I’m painted as the most liberal Republican in the House, and they all like to fall back on Mark Jones,” Davis said. “Professor Jones is a constituent of mine.”
Davis is referring to an index Jones compiles every session, arraying the members of the House and Senate from left to right based on how they vote relative to one another. Jones found that “Davis is the Texas House’s one true independent, significantly more conservative than every Democrat and significantly less conservative than every Republican.”
It makes her, Jones said, an outsider among her Republican colleagues in Austin, but also a perfect match for her purple district, which includes affluent neighborhoods of central Houston.
Davis and Larson ran afoul of the governor when, in the middle of the special session, they held a bipartisan news conference calling on Abbott to add ethics reform to the agenda for the session. Davis, chairwoman of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics, wanted to close a loophole allowing fundraising during a special session, and Larson wanted to reprise legislation that had passed the House in the regular session, but died in the Senate, that would bar the governor from appointing big donors to state boards or commissions. (Faircloth’s less obvious transgression might have been speaking publicly in favor of that measure.)
“Instead of working to advance items on the special session agenda that could reform property taxes, fix school finance, increase teacher pay and reduce regulations, Reps. Davis and Larson are showboating over proposals that are not on the governor’s call,” Abbott press secretary John Wittman said in an immediate response.
“I think I spoke very respectfully in my remarks,” Davis said.
“But I think the governor accused me of being openly hostile to his agenda, which is not true at all,” Davis said. “I mean Greg Abbott and I agree on far more than we disagree. I mean I am a Republican, but I am never going to be in favor of wasting our time being the potty police or this nonsense about not letting our local governments enact tree ordinances.”
Abbott called on lawmakers during the special session to limit transgender bathroom use and restrict the authority of cities to regulate tree removal, among other things.
“You know, that’s ridiculous. I live in West U and I represent Bellaire and Southside Place and we have very strict tree ordinances and we have a beautiful canopy in our neighborhood, and no constituent of mine has ever complained to me about those tree ordinances, and that’s at such a local level, I just can’t get behind this attack on our local governments,” Davis said.
“So there were some things that I disagreed with him on, but I don’t think you could say that I was hostile to the whole agenda,” Davis said.
Angry at the governor
“He just seems to be very thin-skinned and overreactionary,” said Davis, adding that her constituents resent being told how to vote.
“I can tell you the anecdotal reaction I get on a daily basis, at the Rotary breakfast this morning or at the grocery store, or block walking,” Davis said. “People are angry that the governor would involve himself in my race. These are people that are Republicans and that have voted in the past for Abbott. They have said, `I’ve voted for Abbott but I can’t believe what he’s doing in our district.’ This is a highly educated, independent-minded district, so the normal, `I endorse this person, I endorse that person,’ is not what guides their vote.”
“I will say my fundraising has probably never been better,” said Davis, who received $50,000 from Straus, whose campaign account also gave $10,000 to Larson, as well as $350,000 to the House Leadership Fund, and $250,000 to Associated Republicans of Texas, two groups that redistribute the money to Republican candidates.
“As a lifelong Republican, I proudly support Republicans who act on principle and put their constituents first,” Straus said. “A successful political party should be big enough for independent thinkers and diverse points of view.”
Of Abbott, Davis said, “He doesn’t really seem to get a cadence for governing.”
“This guy spent his career in offices in which he dictates what to do, and so that’s the kind of governing he’s used to and that’s not the same when you’re the governor and you’re dealing with the legislative bodies,” she said. “I never really got the sense that he understood the need to build coalitions and have allies in both chambers and in both parties.”
That’s wrong, Carney said.
“Gov. Abbott probably laid out the most aggressive agenda during the campaign in ’13 and ’14 and we got the vast majority of it accomplished in the first session,” Carney said.
“The governor is out front on the things that he thinks are important and key to where we are going, and he works — and it became less effective near the end of the second session — to bring people together,” Carney said. “Of all people, he understands the constitutionality of the coequal branches of the executive and the Legislature, and the ability to work with legislators and let them take the lead on this stuff publicly because that’s what they do, that’s their role.”
Abbott was out front more during his first special session, Carney said, because as a governor, “when you have a special session you own that” — setting the date and the agenda.
And, Carney said, “if you attack the governor you have no expectation that is just going to be ignored.”
Altogether, the governor has endorsed candidates in 27 legislative primary races.
“It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for right-of-center voters — `If Abbott’s for you, that’s good enough for me.’ Some people will be like that,” Carney said. Better yet, he said, “we know who those people are” and communicate with them regularly.
Carney said Abbott’s popularity is rooted in his personal story — he has been paralyzed from the waist down since a tree fell on him while jogging in Houston’s River Oaks in 1984 — his expert use of social media and targeted media outlets to reach his audience, and his utter devotion to the job.
“He doesn’t have a lot of hobbies, so he’s focused on this a lot, and he works on it, and he’s tireless,” Carney said. “He’s out there communicating all the time.”
But despite his strengths, and Texas Democrats’ record losing streak — they have not won any statewide office since 1994 — Carney said Abbott’s re-election campaign promises to be tougher than four years ago.
“The last time we ran against a dolt with $40 million,” Carney said, referring to Wendy Davis, who lost by 20 points. “That was an easy election. This one will not be easy.”
“There is energy in this country that is looking for a way to screw Donald Trump, there’s anger out there, and Texas is not immune,” Carney said. “There will be a competitive environment where voters are going to turn out, and particularly blue voters who are progressive who would vote for a box of rocks to send a message to Trump.”
“The only way we can win this race is if everyone from the precinct constable all the way up to the U.S. Senate and everyone in between runs a very focused, a very targeted race that talks about the things we’ve done, but more importantly the things we want to do,” Carney said.
Find comprehensive coverage of local and state primary races, as well as a link to the League of Women Voters voter guide, at statesman.com/elections.
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