Abbott’s Texas GOP Win Opens Culture-Clash Matchup With O’Rourke
(Bloomberg) -- Texas Governor Greg Abbott fended off a primary challenge by shifting his focus to the culture wars on the edges of the Republican Party’s right wing, setting up a potential test of the GOP strategy nationwide.
His general-election opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, launched his campaign bid with attacks on Abbott’s governing competence, particularly his handling of last year’s winter storm when Texas’s power grid failed, as well as economic issues.
But O’Rourke made clear on Tuesday that he’ll engage Abbott in the culture war fight. As governor, he said, he would roll back Abbott’s restrictions on abortion and “this crazy aggressive pursuit of transgender children in our communities, our schools and our families.”
“We’re going to make sure that everyone understands that this state is big enough for all of us. That the government truly reflects the genius and diversity of the people of this state. That we don’t have to be afraid of each other or pitted against each other or further polarize an already divided state,” O’Rourke said.
Nationwide, Republicans championed the culture-war strategy after they delivered Democrats an embarrassing loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial election when Glenn Youngkin defeated former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe.
Youngkin, a former co-CEO of Carlyle Group Inc. won by accusing Democrats of overreach, namely of infringing on parent’s rights with school closures, child mask mandates, curricula and also transgender rights, but still managed to win over independents, something O’Rourke hopes to prevent Abbott from doing.
Abbott, a conservative backed by former President Donald Trump, was pushed to even more strident stances by primary opponents Allen West, the former chair of the Texas GOP and Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator who advocated for sending more National Guard troops to the Mexican border and drastically cutting the state’s property taxes.
Abbott, 64, has recently used the powers of his office to oppose President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 mandates, ban abortion at six weeks into pregnancy, classify transgender care for children as child abuse, and dramatically restrict voting.
Such moves might have been seen as prologue for the general election against O’Rourke, 49, who lost his last two elections, one to replace Senator Ted Cruz and the other for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Instead, they were meant to mute Huffines, who has cast Abbott as a “Republican in Name Only.”
Texas Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said that those attacks never really stuck to Abbott, although it did put him under more pressure to deliver results for conservatives in the state over the last year. In the end, Abbott was able to stay comfortably above the 50% required to avoid a runoff in the Republican primary where he might have been more vulnerable.
“The attempt to drag him into a primary runoff failed miserably,” he said.
Abbott saw his approval slide last fall, going underwater in polls by the Texas Politics Project for the first time since 2015, although lately he has recovered. Over the last year, he’s signed laws that allow Texans to carry handguns without a license and dramatically restricted voting in a state that already has some of the strictest election laws in the country. Many called it the most conservative legislative session in decades.
For his part, O’Rourke easily won the Democratic primary on Tuesday after sidestepping the culture-war fights during the primary to focus on hammering Abbott for presiding over 2021’s failure of the state’s power grid during a winter storm, blamed for the deaths of at least 246 Texans. O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, is running his third long-shot campaign in the last five years. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to any statewide office since 1994, and no Democratic governor since 1990.
Democrats have long eyed making Texas a potential swing state because of emigration from liberal enclaves like California and an influx of Democrat-leaning minorities, but the party has so far failed to capitalize on those shifting demographics.
In the Real Clear Politics average of polls testing the matchup before Tuesday’s primary, Abbott was up 8.8 points over O’Rourke, a healthy lead, to be sure, but still within relative striking distance in a conservative state.
Texas’s primary officially kicks off the 2022 midterm cycle in a favorable political environment for the GOP. But Abbott was among 33 Trump-endorsed candidates running in Texas on Tuesday and he still faced a primary challenge from opponents who attacked him as insufficiently Republican.
Texas Democratic consultant Chuck Rocha said that the governor’s race was one of several in the primary that showed the “Donald Trump-inizing of the Republican Party” in the state. While he said the winners of the GOP primary were “pretty much guaranteed to win” in the general election, there’s a risk that if Republicans continue to move to the right they may lose some of their more moderate supporters in the suburbs in the long run, opening the door for the right kind of Democratic moderate.
“The further right that they run, the more they get out of the mainstream with the common-sense fiscal conservatives,” he said.
While O’Rourke is an unusually strong fundraiser for a Democrat in Texas, raising $7.2 million in the last quarter of 2021, he is dramatically outraised by Abbott, who took in $18.9 million over the same period, building up a $65 million war chest.
Even before the primary was over, Abbott was casting O’Rourke as a socialist who is soft on border security, while his campaign ran an ad that deceptively edited an O’Rourke interview to make him sound more extreme on the idea of defunding the police. Ed Espinoza, president of the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas, said that he expects Abbott to talk more about the border in the general election.
“Greg Abbott talks about the border being unsafe, but for him, politically speaking, it’s a safe space,” he joked.
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