TEXAS JULY 16, 2013
When Rick Perry, who has been the governor of Texas for over a decade, announced last week that he wouldn’t run again, he set off a flurry of speculation about who would replace him next year. Many floated the name of Wendy Davis, the Texas State Senator who claimed the spotlight with her 13-hour filibuster of a behemoth abortion bill, and who seems to have the best shot of becoming the first Democrat to hold statewide office in Texas since 1995. But a week after Perry withdrew his name from the race, it’s already more or less obvious who his successor will be: Greg Abbott, Texas’s longest-serving Attorney General—he first won the post in 2002—who is so clearly his party and Perry’s handpicked favorite that even his Republican opponent has taken to calling him “the anointed one.” Here’s what you need to know about the man who may soon be at the helm of America’s second-largest state.
Man of Steel
Abbott has built his narrative as a politician around the first thing people notice about him: He’s paraplegic, and uses a wheelchair. When Abbott was 26, he went out jogging and was crushed by a falling oak tree. He says he whiled away the months of his recovery by studying politics and politicians, deriving energy from his newfound ambition to be one of them. Today, Abbott, who also lost his father when he was a teen, calls himself a “fighter.” “Some politicians talk about having a steel spine. I actually have one. I will use my steel spine to fight for Texas values every single day,” he said when he launched his campaign for governor Sunday.
Though Abbott’s disability is a big part of his identity—friends say he cracks jokes about his accident, and used to go by “Wheels”—he has been accused of lacking sympathy for others in the same position. In 2003, he unsuccessfully fought the federal Americans with Disabilities Act in court, arguing a section that prohibited public entities from discriminating based on disability was unconstitutional. (Abbott said he was personally for the ADA, and was just doing his job by defending Texas.) This kind of hypocrisy has dogged Abbott in the past. As The Washington Post reports:
The accident became an issue in Abbott’s 2002 race for attorney general, when he criticized his Democratic rival for being a personal injury lawyer. Don Riddle, the lawyer who represented Abbott in his own personal injury suit against the owner of the tree and the company that took care of it, suggested his old client was being a hypocrite. Abbott’s settlement is reported to exceed $10 million.
God, Guns, and Gynos
It’s a red flag to many that Abbott and Perry have been called “two peas in a pod,” and that he counts Senator Ted Cruz, who served under him as solicitor general, among his good friends. Sure enough, Abbott’s record as AG is hard to the right. USA Carry recently featured him on its list, “30 Influential Pro-Gun Rights Advocates,” gushing: “Attorney General of Texas Greg Abbott has claimed that the gun control debate was settled in 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified. He is a hunter and a member of the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association,” and praising the amicus curiae brief he wrote in the 2008 D.C. v. Heller, which overturned part of the Firearms Control Regulations Act. While Abbott announced his candidacy Sunday, his staff meandered through the crowd handing out signs proclaiming, “Fast cars, firearms, and freedom—Endorsed by Greg Abbott.”
Abbott cut his teeth as AG by fighting to keep the Ten Commandments on display before the Austin capitol building; he ultimately won the case in front of the Supreme Court in 2005. More recently, he has become a hero to the anti-abortion movement by slashing funding to Planned Parenthood, enforcing mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds for women who receive abortions, and suing President Barack Obama over the requirement in the health care law that employers cover birth control. In the run-up the 2012 elections, he also pushed a voter ID law that would have kept countless minority citizens from the ballot box.
Abbott has boasted, “My job description includes getting up every morning, going to work, and suing the Obama Administration to defend Texas values.” Sure enough, he’s sued the Obama administration 27 times—including the challenge to the Voting Rights Act mentioned above and several to Obamacare—and the Environmental Protection Agency 17 times, decrying its pollution standards.
Anyone with Abbott’s conservative chops is a force to be reckoned with in Texas, but he has the fundraising prowess to back it up. With $18 million going into this year, he already had Texas politics’ biggest war chest—and that was before he broke state records and raised $4.78 million in just two weeks this June. Abbott’s Republican opponent, former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken, has tried to turn his opulence against him, accusing him of being “trapped in this crony capitalism that has taken over both parties” and not an “authentic conservative.” But given that Pauken still has a long road to his funding goal of $2 million, it’s hard to say if anyone is listening.
If there's one thing standing in Abbott’s way, it's that he’s coy about the camera. As one friend told The Texas Tribune, “He is very methodical in his planning, more than the normal politician. He really has not been a big risk taker politically.” After last year’s gaffe-ridden campaign season, that might be savvy, but it could also cost him among voters who are used to Perry’s flamboyant style. His detractors argue that as he climbed the ladder from Texas Supreme Court Justice (he was a George W. Bush appointee) to AG, he never faced the kind of serious challenger who could have turned him into a seasoned campaigner. In March, when University of Texas pollsters tried to predict the outcome of a Perry-Abbott match-up, they found the incumbent ahead despite all his bloopers, and noted, “we also see a large bloc of potential Republican primary voters for whom the attorney general is an undefined quantity.”
But with Perry out of the race, Abbott’s chances are looking good. A recent PPP poll put him eight points in front of Wendy Davis if she were to run, and miles ahead of any other Democratic candidate. And friends and colleagues say anyone who scoffs at Abbott’s easy road to the AG’s office misses the point. “It wasn’t enough for him to win,” fellow lawyer Pat Mizell told The Texas Tribune about Abbott’s first judicial race. “It was more important for him to crush the other side. If he runs for governor, I think everyone will see how competitive he is.”
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.