Texas Governor Targets Hispanic Vote Ahead of O’Rourke Face-Off
(Bloomberg) -- Texas Governor Greg Abbott kicked off his re-election campaign in the Rio Grande Valley this weekend as the Republican Party seeks to strengthen its toehold in the heavily Hispanic region.
The incumbent vowed to thwart “big-government liberals” and “leftists” bent on raising taxes and restricting gun rights during an address in the border town of McAllen on Saturday. He also predicted a groundswell of Hispanic support for his campaign.
“Mark my words: Freedom is on the ballot,” Abbott said during his 30-minute speech. “In their hearts, Hispanics really are Republicans and they will keep Texas red.”
His appearance came less than eight weeks before a primary election against ultra-conservative rivals. But with pundits predicting an easy victory, Abbott’s real focus may be his likely Democratic opponent in November’s general election, Beto O’Rourke.
Abbott, 64, has mostly ignored the challenges mounted from fellow Republicans who say he’s insufficiently conservative. Instead, the governor touts his track record of overseeing some of the country’s strongest economic growth amid a host of corporate relocations to the low-tax state. Meanwhile, party leaders have stepped up their efforts to establish a GOP base in South Texas, an area that has traditionally voted heavily Democratic but showed a surprising level of support for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
“It’s clear Governor Abbott is doing everything he can to win a sizable number from South Texas and among Latinos more generally,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “The more time and money Abbott and the Republican Party spend there, the more the Democratic Party needs to spend there to combat it.”
Abbott’s most high-profile opponents in the March 1 primary are former state Senator Don Huffines, whose campaign promises a Super Bowl win for the Dallas Cowboys, and former state GOP chief Allen West, who has floated the idea of Texas seceding from the U.S.
A University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll of Republicans taken in October found Abbott would win 56% of primary votes, compared with 13% for West and less than 10% for Huffines and other, lesser-known candidates.
Abbott never mentioned O’Rourke by name during Saturday’s speech but appeared to indirectly reference the former congressman in remarks on gun rights.
“While some have threatened to come and take your guns, I signed more than 20 laws to protect your Second Amendment rights,” the governor said. “I’ve got news for the leftist liberals -- as long as I am governor, your right to bear arms will never be infringed.”
Another Republican primary race may hold more drama. Attorney General Ken Paxton faces challengers including Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, son of the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Paxton, who has been in the job since 2015, is battling a securities fraud indictment from more than five years ago and more recently has been accused of bribery and abuse of office.
Rio Grande Valley
In 2020, several of Paxton’s staffers asked federal authorities to investigate the top Texas lawyer, saying he committed multiple criminal violations. Seven aides who accused Paxton of accepting bribes from an Austin-based real estate investor have since resigned, been fired or put on leave. Paxton has denied any wrongdoing.
In the governor’s race, an October poll by the University of Texas showed Abbott with a nine-point advantage over O’Rourke, 49, a former three-term House member from El Paso who lost a 2018 Senate bid.
In the Rio Grande Valley, which is more than 90% Hispanic, the incumbent is vying for voters who traditionally support Democrats. The state Republican Party has set up outreach offices and stepped up recruitment of candidates for local offices in the region, which shifted dramatically to the right during the 2020 presidential election and delivered counties such as Zapata to the GOP for the first time in a century.
Hispanics comprise 40% of the state’s population, roughly equal to the share of white residents, Census Bureau figures showed.
O’Rourke’s campaign criticized the governor the day before his speech for opposing local mask mandates at a time when the Covid-19 testing-positivity rate has surged to 35%.
“Abbott’s Covid failures are being felt statewide,” the campaign said in a statement.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.