Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott surged to an overwhelming Republican triumph over Democrat Wendy Davis on Tuesday as Texas voters chose their first new governor in 14 years and soundly rejected Democratic hopes of staging a comeback in red-state Texas.
Abbott, a onetime high school track star who was left partly paralyzed in a jogging accident 30 years ago, upheld pre-election forecasts that Republicans would easily extend their two-decade winning streak, securing 60 percent of the vote in the race to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
“I am living proof that a young man can have his life broken in half and still rise up to be the governor of this great state,” Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since the 1984 accident, told cheering supporters at a victory party in downtown Austin.
Unofficial results showed Abbott had 60 percent of the vote and Davis 38.2 percent.
With his inauguration in January, Abbott will become the state’s 48th governor and the third Republican to occupy the office since January of 1995, following Perry and George W. Bush. Cecilia Abbott, his wife of more than 33 years, will become the state’s first Hispanic first lady.
For Davis and Texas Democrats, the results ended a once-hopeful trajectory that began with Davis’ star-powered entry in the race after winning national attention with an 11-hour filibuster in the state Senate. Davis, a two-term state senator from Fort Worth, was making her first bid for state office but her devastating defeat raised doubts about her political future in Texas.
“Tonight, the people of Texas have spoken,” Davis told supporters. “Just a few moments ago I called Gen. Abbott to wish him the very best. It’s in every Texan’s interest that he have a very productive four years.
“While he and I disagree on many interests, I know he loves Texas.”
An Election Day web ad released by Texans for Greg Abbott featured the Republican candidate calling on supporters to “cast that vote” and beat back a statewide effort by “Barack Obama operatives” attempting to turn the state blue. “We must work together to ensure we turn out the vote, to ensure that we keep Texas the best state in the United States of America,” Abbott asserted.
Davis, ending her 13-month-long campaign back in her hometown, headlined a morning get-out-the-vote block walk in Fort Worth that paralleled similar events in 900 neighborhoods across the state. “In this race we are choosing not just between two very different candidates but between two very, very different paths,” Davis told supporters.
The governor’s race consumed more than $83 million in combined spending and drew national attention because of Davis’ Democratic star power following her 11-hour Senate filibuster last year against a Republican abortion restriction bill that ultimately became law.
President Obama – who posted a supportive Tweet the night of the filibuster – held an election-eve conference call with Davis and Texas Democrats to lend his name to the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts, prompting Republicans to ratchet up their portrayal of Davis as an Obama liberal.
This year’s election brought the biggest wave of new faces into statewide offices in more than a decade, a musical-chairs phenomena stemming from Perry’s decision not to seek re-election to an unprecedented fourth four-year term. The offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state comptroller, and agriculture commissioner will all have new occupants when state government reorganizes in January.
Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, has been in office since December 2000 after he stepped up from lieutenant governor when predecessor George W. Bush became president. The Republican governor, who is considering a second run for president in 2016, is battling a felony abuse-of-power indictment over his veto threat to force the resignation of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmburg following a drunken driving arrest.
Davis, a former Fort Worth city council member who has been in the Senate since 2009, was seen as her party’s most formidable candidate in years when she jumped into the race in October 2013 on a surge of fanfare both in Texas and nationally. But she consistently trailed in the polls, often by double digits, and never gained the lead.
Both candidates, while separated by conflicting ideology and visions for the state, have brought compelling personal stories into the campaign. Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, has been paralyzed from the waist down since 1984 when he was struck by a tree while running. He announced his candidacy on the 29th anniversary of the accident, promising to wield his “spine of steel” to fight for Texans.
Big time for Davis
Davis has repeatedly laced her campaign message with an up-by-the bootstraps narrative that began after her parents divorced and she found herself as a 19-year-old single mother living in a trailer park. She went on to graduate from Texas Christian University and Harvard law school.
In a memoir released late in the campaign, Davis also revealed that she terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons more than 15 years earlier.
An attorney who served nine years on the Fort Worth city council, Davis defeated a favored Republican incumbent to enter the State Senate in 2009, representing District 10 that encompasses the southern half of Tarrant County. She beat back a fierce Republican assault to win re-election in 2012 and appeared to be considering running for a third Senate term before she donned rouge-red Mizuno running shoes to wage the marathon filibuster on the floor of the Republican-dominated Senate.
Thousands packed the capitol for the political drama and hundreds of thousands of others watched on an Internet live stream. The defiant performance instantly expanded her political base well beyond Senate District 10 as Democrats in Texas and beyond urged her to enter the 2014 governor’s race, seeing in Davis the hope of a Democratic resurgence that could put the party back in the governor’s mansion for the first time in two decades.
After considering her options, Davis entered the race setting up what became an acrid and highly partisan confrontation with Abbott, the instant Republican front-runner when he announced his candidacy four months earlier.
Abbott fights Obama
At one point, Abbott set his sights on the lieutenant governor’s position but was increasingly portrayed in Republican circles as Perry’s heir apparent. He had more than $20 million in political donations before entering the race at a San Antonio rally in June of last year and has since poured a total of $46.8 million into the campaign, compared to $36 million for Davis.
Abbott served as a state district judge in Houston and a justice on the State Supreme Court before being elected as attorney general in 2002. As the state’s highest law enforcement official, Abbott has gained nationwide attention for lodging more than two dozen lawsuits against the Obama Administration, a record that he has proudly cited throughout the campaign. One of his favorite boasts: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
Like Perry, he is a staunch defender of the state’s voter ID law, opposes abortion, and is a fierce critic of the president’s health program, widely known as Obama Care, which he has said he would continue to oppose as governor. He also shares Perry’s low-tax, business friendly economic views and has promised to continue policies that would enable Texas to maintain its claim as the nation’s biggest job creator.
As a candidate, Abbott has also signaled that he would stamp his own imprint on the office if he becomes governor and has suggested that he might be receptive to scrapping one of Perry’s pet initatives – the job-creating Texas Enterprise Fund, which recently came under sharp criticism in a state audit. Davis has supported the fund, but with adequate safeguards against abuses.
The gubernatorial candidates clashed in two debates in McAllen and Dallas and bolstered their campaign travels with TV and Internet ads that included Spanish-language messages geared to the state’s growing Hispanic population.
Davis’ campaign drew criticism even from Democrats for an ad that prominently featured a wheelchair but the Democratic candidate stood by the message, saying it was designed to show Abbott’s hypocrisy for getting a multimillion-dollar legal settlement for his 1984 injury while opposing similar opportunities for other accident victims.
Both candidates made well-publicized bids for Hispanics, who have driven much of the state’s population growth and typically lean Democratic but display low turnout in elections. A major component of the Democrats’ strategy was focused on igniting Hispanic turnout to optimize their support among Hispanics.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.