Texas Republicans Keep Moving Right

Think the radicals lost on primary day? Look who they're about to elect.

by Jason Zengerle | March 6, 2014

photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Eric Gay

Is there any American politician who’s had a more disastrous past couple years than Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst? Not so long ago, with George W. Bush off painting and Rick Perry having face-planted in his presidential run, Dewhurst appeared to be the Lone Star State Republican with the brightest future.

A former CIA officer with a net worth of $200 million from his energy and investment company and four successful statewide campaigns under his belt, Dewhurst appeared to be on a glide path to the U.S. Senate in 2012. He even looked Senatorial. “He’s one powdered wig away from being a Founding Father,” Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith liked to joke.

One poll had Dewhurst up by 45 points five months before the GOP primary. But then Ted Cruz caught fire and you know the rest of that story.

After Cruz went to Washington and blew up Congress, at least Dewhurst could console himself with the knowledge that he’d lost to a political tyro. Until this week, that is, when he finished in second in the lieutenant gubernatorial primary behind a state senator and talk radio host named Dan Patrick (and not even this talk radio host named Dan Patrick). Despite his having swung far to the right since his loss to Cruz—even calling for Barack Obama’s impeachment—Texas Republicans deemed Dewhurst insufficiently conservative.

Indeed, about the only victory Dewhurst has scored in the last two years came in a courtroom—and it was pyrrhic: In January, Buddy Barfield, Dewhurst’s former campaign manager, gave the lieutenant governor his house and his business assets in order to settle a civil suit Dewhurst had filed against Barfield accusing him of embezzling $2 million from Dewhurst’s campaign treasury.

Granted, Dewhurst isn’t politically dead just yet. Because Patrick didn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote—finishing with 41 percent to Dewhurst’s 28—he’ll have to face Dewhurst in a run-off in May. But even if Dewhurst were to somehow prevail over Patrick in that election—a tall order considering more than 70 percent of primary voters cast their votes against the incumbent—his ambitions of rising above the LG’s office are effectively over. Even before the primary, he’d conceded that, having spent more than $25 million of his personal fortune on his campaigns over the years, this would likely be his last race.

For a while, it seemed that Cruz had taken Dewhurst’s place as the Texas Republican with the brightest future. But I predict that Cruz himself is about to be eclipsed by the man who won the Texas GOP’s gubernatorial nomination on Tuesday, Greg Abbott. Although Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor, has received much more national press, it’s Abbott who’ll almost certainly win in November—and not just because Texas remains a solidly red state.

As Texas’s attorney general, Abbott pioneered the strategy—later copied by other ambitious Republican state AG’s, like Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli and Florida’s Pam Bondi—of waging a litigious war against the Obama administration on everything from environmental regulations to Obamacare. “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home,” Abbott has boasted. But even before Obama got to the White House, Abbott was an unusually aggressive state attorney general. “When General Abbott first came into office in 2003,” says James Ho, who served as Texas solicitor general under Abbott, “he was determined to look for every possible opportunity to promote conservative legal principles in every forum possible.”

In fact, that’s why, in 2005, Abbott hired a hotshot young Harvard Law grad and Federalist Society member named Ted Cruz to be Texas’s solicitor general. Seven years later, when Cruz ran for the U.S. Senate, it was the politically charged cases he’d argued on Texas’s behalf that formed the backbone of his campaign. “Cruz ran on a record that was also Abbott’s record,” notes Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Abbott’s most potent political tool, though, is his personal story. In 1984, the then-26-year-old Abbott took a break from studying for the bar to go for a jog in his Houston neighborhood. That’s when a giant oak tree fell on him, crushing his spinal cord and leaving him a paraplegic. Today, as he campaigns from his wheelchair, Abbott uses that story to great political effect. (Check out this campaign video.) And it’s what makes him one of the more compelling figures in American politics, especially on the Republican side of the aisle. As Brian D. Sweany wrote of Abbott in Texas Monthly, “[I]f there’s anything about his candidacy—and his potential governorship—that could wind up transforming his party, it’s the idea that he is, in a visceral, obvious sense, a victim. At a time when the Republican party is working to expand its appeal—to the booming Hispanic population, among others—his story of tragic loss and the perseverance that has enabled him to overcome it makes him more relatable than most major Republican candidates in Texas.”

Although John Cornyn and Pete Sessions managed to best their conservative challengers on Tuesday night, the real story of the Texas primaries was the state GOP’s continued march to the right, as Tea Party candidates won a host of down-ballot races. That was bad news for Dewhurst, but for someone like Abbott—who’s more conservative than even Perry, much less Bush—it’s just further confirmation that he’s perfectly aligned with Republican sentiment these days in Texas.

And when you consider that the state’s last two Republican governors both concluded that they were also perfectly aligned with national Republican sentiment—so perfectly aligned that they ran for the White House—it’s a good bet that, while we probably won’t have David Dewhurst to kick around anymore, we will be hearing a lot more from Greg Abbott in these next few years. “Abbott’s not really on the national radar yet, but I think he will be quickly,” says Mackowiak. “Part of that is his story, and part of that is Texas is a compelling story in and of itself.”

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