Who is Greg Abbott?

Texans still don't know enough about the man who aspires to replace Rick Perry

AUSTIN, TX — He is the chosen one. The frontrunner. The presumptive nominee, and even the likely next governor of the second most populous state in the country. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott. Wait—who is Greg Abbott?

To political reporters and insiders in Texas, Abbott’s story—after 10 years as the top lawyer for Texas—feels well-worn. (He’s the politician with the spine of steel, a reference to his paraplegia. He’s the attorney general who, to paraphrase his words, goes into the office, sues Barack Obama, and goes home. He’s Ted Cruz’s mentor.) To insiders, Abbott’s ambitions to replace Rick Perry in the white antebellum governor’s mansion across from the pink, granite capitol may also seem old hat. And his election may seem practically a foregone conclusion.

But, we non-insider Texans really don’t know that much about Abbott—who announced his campaign July 14, six days after Perry announced he would not run. A July poll by Democratic Public Policy Polling found 43% of Texas voters surveyed are “not sure” whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Abbott. An earlier poll of Republican voters by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune found that 45% had no opinion of Abbott.

In other words, there is much more about Abbott—and, Abbott as would-be governor—that the public needs to know. The policy decisions Abbott could face as governor include issues that he never had to touch as attorney general. (For instance, the attorney general’s office doesn’t set budgetary priorities involving billions of dollars or have to wrangle with an unwieldy legislature on everything from education to water policy). Texans could use some good, probing reporting on the man, his policy positions, and how an Abbott administration might differ and not from Perry’s.

Right out of the gate, the air of inevitability was hard to avoid in coverage of this election (still over a year off). On July 16, The New Republic (for whom I occasionally write) observed that “a week after Perry withdrew his name from the race, it’s already more or less obvious who his successor will be: Greg Abbott” (though the piece went on to offer a solid exploration of the man and some of his positions). The day after Abbott announced, the Austin American-Statesman published a column headlined, “No one has the cachet—or cash—to beat Abbott.” Wrote the Statesman’s Ken Herman: “Right now, it looks like the best way to avoid having Republican Abbott as your next governor will be to move out of state.” That same day, Texas Monthly’s Brian D. Sweany concluded:

Abbott hits the campaign trail as the unquestioned front-runner. He has locked up widespread support among the party leaders, and he has amassed a war chest of more than $20 million. He will face underdog Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, in the Republican primary, but it is doubtful that any other major contender will enter the primary. That leaves two questions on the table: will a credible Democrat challenge Abbott now that the party appears to have reenergized itself around Fort Worth state senator Wendy Davis? And, given that a Democrat hasn’t won statewide office since 1994, does it really matter?

All of this is true—Abbott’s advantages are daunting—but, well, there are other “questions on the table.” Including, how might Abbott govern? And, who is funding Abbott’s hefty war chest?

Texas Monthly’s Sweany did nod to some remaining questions, noting that Abbott, upon declaring his candidacy, “offered few specific details” on the “critical issues facing the state,” and offered “nothing at all to suggest his thought on the current governor’s administration.” Similarly, Texas Tribune’s Jay Root on July 14 wrote:

Abbott, 55, strayed away from policy specifics, sticking instead to broad rhetorical strokes and weaving elements of his biography into his conservative vision for state government.

Some of the topics he mentioned in Sunday’s speech suggest that Abbott is running to the right of Perry. While there were no detailed policy initiatives unveiled, Abbott called for an economy with a “level playing field that gets government out of the business of picking between winners and losers, and by reducing taxes on employers.”…

With little meat in the policy proposals, though, it was hard to say whether Abbott would represent Perry 2.0 or more of a clean break.

In the days since Abbott’s announcement, some reporters here have made efforts to give Texans more on Abbott—including pursuing more policy meat.

Take the hot topic of the summer in Austin: Abortion. Wrote veteran Houston Chronicle capitol columnist Peggy Fikac on July 15: “[T]he Texas Capitol became a powder keg of emotion after Perry put proposed abortion restrictions before lawmakers in two special sessions. [Texans] want to know how the issue will be handled by the governor who succeeds Perry.” Fikac, despite good efforts, could not pin Abbott down on how he might handle the issue—which she acknowledged in her column’s lede:

The language of abortion is usually clear-cut. Then you talk to someone like Attorney General Greg Abbott.

It’s clear that Abbott, aiming to be Texas’ next governor, opposes abortion. But when you ask the standard question—whether he would allow exceptions—he doesn’t give the standard answer.

In Houston, KHOU’s Doug Miller buttonholed Abbott during a July 15 campaign stop and pushed Abbott to say where he really stands on the issue. Reported Miller:

Abbott—a disciplined, on-message campaigner—dodges questions about just how far his opposition to abortion goes.

Questioned about whether he would support or oppose legislation banning abortions for rape or incest victims, Abbott avoids the question…

When pressed again to directly answer the question, he dodged it.

This is just one example of the difference between running for—and, being—attorney general versus governor. It is one thing to, say, select and build a case for trial. It is another to declare with precision a policy in a messy debate that will meet with the approval of the public and their representatives. Reporters should keep pressing.

On the eve of Abbott’s announcement, the Dallas Morning News’s Christy Hoppe had a detailed profile of Abbott—from his “early life,” to his time as an “optimistic” civil litigator, a judge, and, since 2003, the state’s attorney general, when “he became much more conservative, some observers said.” Among the interesting nuggets Hoppe offered: that, for all the headlines Abbott has reaped in suing the federal government, he has actually lost far more times than he has won, prevailing in just five cases and losing or having cases dismissed in 12 instances. Hoppe also described “at a glance” a handful of recent cases brought by Attorney General Abbott, noting, for example, how he “pushed to have the state’s ‘voter ID’ law implemented,” and he argued that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

High up in her piece, Hoppe noted that Abbott and Perry “fish in the same pond” for campaign contributions. “An analysis of the last reports they filed with the state showed that Perry and Abbott tapped 140 of the same donors who gave more than $200,” Hoppe wrote. This is another thread for reporters to follow—look into (rather than merely mentioning) Abbott’s overflowing campaign coffers. The New York Times picked up another interesting thread this week, exploring how Abbott has “draw[n] support and critics for talk of [his] disability,” and noting the stand Abbott took against the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Despite the “race is already over” tone pervading early coverage, there’s still plenty of time for reporters to push and dig to paint a fuller picture of Greg Abbott for Texas voters—you know, the folks who ultimately decide who is electable.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: , , , , , , ,