After winning re-election rather comfortably in 2018, outlasting the Democratic wave driven by the El Paso man he now faces, Abbott shifted legislative focus to “bread and butter, kitchen table” issues. In 2019, he touted and pushed the buydown of local property taxes and stronger limits on their growth, paired with a massive school finance disbursement.
One year later, the state would be under lockdown; businesses shuttered that would never reopen, jobs lost that were never recovered, and goodbyes made through a phone screen. In the span of two weeks that summer, Abbott would emphatically assert that no jurisdiction could impose a mask mandate on individuals — and then issue one of his own.
The economic collapse that stemmed from something entirely out of his control, a global pandemic, was exacerbated by the government-mandated shutdowns states and political subdivisions made across the country, including in Texas.
Abbott would eventually pare back those shutdowns and other orders and scrap with local governments who tried to preserve them. But less than two months after the calendar turned over, Abbott would find himself staring down another crisis: a statewide power grid collapse, shocking the first post-pandemic legislative session into disruption.
For a week, residents across the 268,596 square miles of Texas struggled to regain power in a state known for its energy prowess. A perfect storm of extreme weather, bureaucratic missteps, and bad luck left a wreckage of tarnished reputations and billions of dollars in costs.
Once the lights flickered back on, the Legislature moved forward with permitless carry and two massive pro-life bills — the latter of which would become an even bigger deal when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
While those passed, the feature of the 87th legislative session, election reform, perished on the final night as House Democrats walked out of the chamber to break quorum and prevent the bill’s passage. Abbott vowed to call special sessions until the bill passed, a promise that took two installations to fulfill due to a second, month-long quorum break by House Democrats fleeing to Washington D.C.
During those special sessions, closed out by the finalization of the decennial redistricting, critics of Abbott from both left and right prepared and launched their challenges to the incumbent.
Abbott would face and soundly defeat the most significant primary challenges of his career from the likes of former Texas GOP Chair Allen West, former state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas), and BlazeTV host Chad Prather.
Only a few months after the general election matchup between Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke was finalized, an unspeakable tragedy would occur — 19 children and two teachers massacred by a shooter in a Uvalde elementary school.
A month later, Roe would meet its demise.
In 1957, when Harold Macmillan took over as British prime minister, an inquiring reporter asked him what would determine the course of his term: “Events, dear boy, events.”
Abbott has dealt with more than his fair share of earth-shaking events in just a fraction of his two terms in office.
Now the governor faces down O’Rourke in the home stretch of this heated but not overwhelmingly competitive race.
This isn’t 2018, and Abbott is not Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). But the world, and Texas Democrats, seems to have thrown the kitchen sink at the incumbent, who appears poised to secure a third term — despite occasional wobbly moments, both self-inflicted and spontaneous.
Running Scared from Pole Position
Throughout the general election, Abbott’s polling average has vacillated in the high single digits; he is currently at +9.2 points according to RealClearPolitics. The occasional poll has shown O’Rourke within spitting distance, but most reflect the current average or even put the governor’s lead into double digits.
The tightest string of polls came from May through early July — a period that included the Uvalde shooting and the abortion ruling — where the governor’s lead was pegged in the mid-single digits.
It’s not a comfortable lead, but it isn’t a narrow one, and so Abbott is running scared. Any politico worth their salt will say the only other way to run is unopposed.
True to this, the Abbott campaign vowed earlier this year to spend north of $100 million on the race to “retire” O’Rourke for good. Despite the unlikelihood of sending O’Rourke packing never to be heard from again — something increasingly improbable when accounting for Texas Democrats’ short bench of reserves — the Abbott camp has already eclipsed that total, with more spending on the horizon during the closing weeks of the campaign after the latest reporting period.
O’Rourke received a fundraising boost after the Uvalde shooting and both candidates saw a boon after Roe’s demise, but Abbott had a large head start buttressed by his near-bottomless war chest going into the midterm year.
Abbott’s camp has hit O’Rourke on nearly everything under the sun: previous — and sometimes contradictory — statements made on police funding, energy and climate, the state of the border, and of course, on the ownership of semi-automatic rifles.
The current state of crime and public safety in Texas’ largest cities has become a feature of the governor’s campaign, something proving salient in Harris County as Republicans hope to flip the county judge seat while simultaneously offsetting any gains the Democrat may make elsewhere.
On the reverse, Abbott has been accused by O’Rourke and other Democrats of taking bribes from certain corners of the energy industry in the wake of the 2021 blackouts; negligence that led to the Uvalde shooting; and setting “bounties” on women who abort their unborn children.
The Abbott camp has rejected each of these accusations and offered its own rebuttals.
But in his closing ad, O’Rourke has taken a softer approach while still trying to drive the same point home.
“I don’t think Greg Abbott wakes up wanting to see our kids shot in our schools or property taxes to go up $20 billion or for the grid to fail,” he said in the face-to-camera ad airing across the state. “But after eight years, he’s been unable to fix these problems — he’s failed us.”
Meanwhile, in his closing message, Abbott didn’t even mention O’Rourke. The ad, titled “Determination,” highlights Abbott’s recovery from a paralyzing back injury that left him wheelchair-bound and touts the state’s continual economic recovery as well as his police funding and border policies.
There’s a reason for the difference between the two closing ads: Abbott’s the one in pole position, not the one playing catch up.
It’s a favorable environment for the incumbent, with a Democratic president and a stuttering economy teetering on the edge of a recession. Just as Democrats, O’Rourke chief among them, benefited electorally from Donald Trump’s occupation of the White House in the 2018 midterm, the inverse is true this year.
On top of that is a very low early voting rate at the moment, illustrating little excitement among voters. Turnout in 2018 was 53 percent, a high water mark for midterms. It’s currently on pace for 36.5 percent, something that may change but also might not.
Four years ago, Abbott outpaced other statewide Republicans substantially in his margin of victory. In 2014, he won by 20 points and in 2018 by 13 points. Should he win by the current polling average, it’d be his slimmest margin while running for governor. But should that come to pass, it will also be a fairly sound victory over the most formidable candidate Texas Democrats currently have to offer.
And should November 8 come and pass as the pollsters currently expect, it will be only the beginning of the next chapter of Abbott’s governorship with the 88th Legislative Session on the horizon.
The Policy Road Ahead
Like politicians are wont to do on the campaign trail, Abbott has made numerous promises for the next legislative session.
There’s an estimated $27 billion pot of surplus money the state government will be rearing to appropriate. Abbott has called for at least half of that to go toward “the largest property tax cut in the history of the State of Texas.” Tangential to that, he’s backed the elimination of the school district Maintenance & Operations rate — the single largest component of property tax bills in Texas. But he has been less clear on how soon he’ll push the envelope on that, and it may play out as a phased process over a decade, as the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s plan calls for.
Abbott’s renewed his interest in some form of school choice this year, saying in July, “Parents should not be forced to send their child to a government-mandated school that teaches critical race theory, or is forcing their child to wear a face mask against their parents’ desire, or is forcing them to attend a school that isn’t safe.”
The details of that endeavor are so far scant. But it could be paired with another substantial school finance injection, especially as objections to a “voucher” system center on the financial impact to public schools of parents taking their tax dollars elsewhere.
During the gubernatorial race’s only debate, Abbott pledged to raise teacher pay. He and other state leaders have already transferred over $500 million in current-biennium funds toward school safety measures and every indication is there will be more of that to come next year.
Other tasks in front of the governor include a potential renewal of Chapter 313, a tax incentive program given to companies moving operations to Texas that will expire at the end of 2022 after the legislature declined to renew its charter last year. Chapter 313 is among the lesser contributors to the influx of renewable generation flowing into Texas, which some see as a boon to the power grid and others as a problem causing electricity market “distortion” that has crowded out development of dispatchable generation.
Last year, Abbott called for the Public Utilities Commission to stick renewable generators with the reliability costs that the market shoulders when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow — the latter of which occurred a lot this past summer. These two priorities are not functionally mutually exclusive — both can be done at the same time — but they are in conflict in spirit as the system is currently constituted.
Concerning social issues, state Rep. Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) has already promised to file the “Save Women’s Sports Act” — a college sports extension to last year’s law requiring grade school athletes to compete in conjunction with their biological sex. Another hack at the teaching of critical race theory and sexualized topics in schools will be taken by Republican legislators, along with prohibitions on child gender modification — something Abbott did not push last session but has since tried to address through the executive branch.
A resurgent issue Abbott will likely back to the hilt is cracking down on lax bail policies that lead to the release of violent offenders. Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) has indicated that Republicans’ incomplete win on the issue last session must be completed next year.
These issues and many more will come before the next governor of Texas, in proposed bills hoping for help and momentum from the state’s top elected official.
It’s been a wild few years for Gov. Abbott with little sign of letting up. Either he loses in a shocking upset next week, or wins and sights move toward the litany of policy items to be considered next year — and even further out, the governor’s potential bid for president in 2024.
Harold Macmillan’s tenure as British prime minister came to its end in the fallout of events — both affairs by those in his administration — from which he never recovered.
For the Texas governor, the events foisted upon him are far more tangible and severe but appear right now to have barely dented the machine driving his re-election hopes.
On November 8, push will come to shove and a new chapter will begin — one that the two-term governor hopes is the next page over, and not the start of a new book.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.