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GOP eyes Abbott as Perry’s successor

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Even as he announced that he wasn’t running for governor again, Rick Perry implored Texans not to rock the boat too much in choosing a successor.

Although he stopped short of endorsing his Republican heir apparent, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, that’s undoubtedly whom Perry was referring to when he repeated a famous quote from legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal.

“You gotta dance with the one that brung ya,” Perry said, just before announcing that he won’t seek re-election.

Abbott is popular with both Tea Party activists and mainstream conservatives in the GOP-dominated state. He has raised a whopping $18 million in campaign funds, even without officially announcing his candidacy.

For months, Perry said he and Abbott had an agreement not to run against each other for governor — a pact Abbott never confirmed. Still, Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, said Abbott did a masterful job biding his time so he could carry on Perry’s conservative mantle without making it look as if he pushed him aside.

“I think you can see this as a managed transition,” Jones said, “but one that was done on Rick Perry’s terms, not on anyone else’s.”

‘Divine right’?

Abbott, who has used his post to sue the federal government more than 25 times since President Barack Obama took office, has kept a low profile in recent weeks while Perry, already the longest-serving governor in Texas history, decided his political future.

He was purposely nowhere to be found Monday when Perry formally eschewed a fourth re-election try in front of 200 relatives, friends, current and former staffers, and other supporters in San Antonio.

Abbott, considered the overwhelming front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in primaries set for March, “will make his intentions clear in the coming weeks,” spokesman Matt Hirsch said.

Tom Pauken, the former state GOP chairman and the only officially declared 2014 gubernatorial candidate, said Tuesday that he needs more than $2 million to compete in the party primary. He said that Abbott isn’t a true conservative and that the governorship shouldn’t be decided by “divine right” or “which Republican you chose to move up the ladder.”

Despite holding his post since 2002 and positioning himself as Perry’s successor, the 55-year-old Abbott is hardly a household name.

Abbott has used a wheelchair since he was 26, when a tree collapsed on him during a jog, leaving both legs paralyzed.

He has used the attorney general’s office to sue the Obama administration over everything from its signature healthcare law to environmental regulations to federal voting rules.

An avid defender of gun rights and a fierce opponent of abortion, Abbott champions social conservative causes but is also seen as a strong fiscal conservative.

“He gets what he wants, which is to be governor, but he was able to do it without alienating one of the most popular politicians in the history of the state,” Jones said. “Now the pathway between him and the governorship is a clear shot. There’s nothing standing in the way, and he created no ill will between himself and Perry.”

That’s important, because Perry has been governor since George W. Bush left for the White House in December 2000 and has reshaped what was traditionally a weak office to wield unprecedented power.

Perry’s sheer longevity has helped him fill every major appointed office statewide with loyalists — often even his donors — and dictate the direction of the Republican Party in one of the most conservative states.

Perry didn’t mention Abbott by name but told Monday’s crowd: “After January 2015, new chapters will be written, new leaders will write them.”

What about the Dems?

A Democrat hasn’t won statewide office in Texas since 1994, and for a generation, the winner of the GOP primary has usually cruised to victory in the general election, no matter the race.

No Democrats have entered the gubernatorial field, though Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, who became a national sensation for staging a filibuster to temporarily block sweeping new limits on abortion, may run.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said a race against Abbott would look very similar to one against Perry.

“They both think the exact same way,” Hinojosa said. “Philosophically, there’s absolutely no difference between Rick Perry and Greg Abbott.”

Hispanics have accounted for nearly 90 percent of Texas’ population growth in recent years, meaning demographics may soon no longer be on Republicans’ side. But the shift almost certainly won’t come in time to affect next year’s elections.

That means Perry’s decision breaks a logjam of top conservatives waiting to move up.

At least six of nine elected executive offices will change hands as Texans replace the governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, and commissioners for land, agriculture and railroads. They’ll also get a chance to choose another lieutenant governor, with three men running against David Dewhurst, who plans to seek re-election.

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