Gov. Greg Abbott may be looking beyond Texas, as he runs even farther to the right

McALLEN, Texas — It was not yet 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning when the doorbell rang. At first the man inside thought it was some Jehovah’s Witnesses calling, making their usual weekend rounds in his suburban neighborhood here in far south Texas.

But when he opened his front door, the man, who later introduced himself as Victor, seemed momentarily taken aback by what he saw. At least a dozen people, many with cameras and microphones, were crowding the tiny entryway of his modest brick home, while one photographer scrambled through the bushes like a wild animal to get a better vantage point. “The guy probably thinks we’re from Publishers Clearing House,” someone whispered.

But there were no giant checks, and no surprise jackpots. Just a man in a wheelchair right in front with big smile and a strong handshake, which he quickly offered up. “Hello,” he told Victor, grabbing his hand firmly. “I’m Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.”

It was officially day two of Abbott’s reelection campaign. Less than 24 hours before, the Texas governor had announced he would run for reelection in 2018. It was just a formality, though; the campaign had already been up and running for months, assembling the kind of political infrastructure not usually seen this early in a nonpresidential race. Abbott’s team has been working the ground game for months, canvassing neighborhoods across the state in what national party officials have described as one of the most advanced voter-targeting operations of any political campaign in the country.

And that’s how Abbott ended up here, rolling down Jasmine Lane in his wheelchair on a hot and sticky summer morning in one of the last remaining counties that still votes strongly blue in a flaming red state. While Abbott easily defeated his Democratic opponent Wendy Davis by 20 points during his race for governor three years ago, she trounced him here in the Rio Grande Valley by a margin as high as 30 points in some counties. It was a disappointing result for Abbott, who had visited the area dozens of times — more than Davis and more than any Republican before him — trying to make inroads with an electorate that is heavily Hispanic. It’s an issue that is personal for Abbott: His wife, Cecilia, a former teacher, is a third-generation Mexican-American, the granddaughter of immigrants.

The Rio Grande Valley was the first place Abbott visited after launching his first campaign for governor, and nearly four years later, it was his first stop again, even as he has pursued an agenda that has grown distinctly more conservative and, in some cases, some have argued, anti-Latino. But Abbott hadn’t given up trying to win over voters here. “I have a vision. I have a goal that I intend to achieve,” Abbott bluntly told a group of volunteers who had gathered to go knock doors on his behalf. “Whether it be this election or some election in the future, my goal is to ensure that in my lifetime the Rio Grande Valley is gonna be voting Republican every single election.”

Abbott’s campaign had chosen this block in particular, as it was home to what an aide described as “soft Democrats” — moderate, swing voters they believed could be convinced to support a Republican. Steering his wheelchair down a bumpy sidewalk, Abbott, who is partially paralyzed from the waist down, seemed more hopeful about his chances than decades of voting data would suggest. “You can’t get someone’s support unless you ask,” he breezily declared as he rolled toward the next house trailed by his wife, a contingent of staff and security and a scrum of reporters. “So we need to ask.”

Even before he arrived here, Abbott’s campaign was already in full force — so well organized that many outside Texas have taken notice, wondering if there isn’t more on the governor’s mind than trying to flip Democratic counties in the far southern part of his state. As of June 30, Abbott had nearly $41 million in the bank for his campaign, $10 million of which he’d raised in the last few days of the month alone. It was a near-record haul for any statewide candidate at this point in the race, even though he has yet to attract any major opponent and is widely regarded to be one of the safest gubernatorial incumbents in the country. A Morning Consult poll released this week named Abbott as the seventh-most-popular governor in the country, with a 64 percent approval rating among likely Texas voters.

Abbott’s popularity in a fast-growing state that is as strongly identified with Republican politics as California is for Democrats has already sparked whispers among GOP insiders always on the lookout for who might be worthy White House material. Abbott’s aggressive reelection campaign has only added to the speculation about whether the governor, emboldened in part by the example of Donald Trump, has higher ambitions than another four years in the Texas statehouse.

“I wouldn’t put him in the category of he goes to bed at night dreaming of being in the White House because he clearly is a guy who enjoys being governor of Texas,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist and political consultant who has close ties to Abbott world. But after Trump’s victory last November, Miller noticed a change: “I felt at that time his national antenna had gone up. He’s the governor of Texas, and in the political field, the person who is governor from Texas, the most conservative state, it puts you in the profile [of White House hopefuls]. I think he started thinking about it.”

Another longtime GOP campaign hand was less circumspect — though he declined to be named to speak more freely. “Abbott is from the land of George W. Bush and Rick Perry, who both ran for president,” he said. “You don’t think he’s looking at the White House right now and thinking he can do so much better?”

Abbott, a former Texas Supreme Court justice who spent 12 years as the state attorney general before becoming governor, has the strict conservative credentials that many Republicans used to require for those considering higher office — at least in the days before Trump. And he already has close relationships with the Koch brothers and other heavyweight conservatives who were viewed as Republican kingmakers before Trump’s unlikely campaign for president upended the 2016 campaign and shook up the party.

What is telling is that Abbott did not seem so outwardly surprised by Trump. Though he had endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, a close friend and political ally who had worked for him as Texas’ solicitor general in the GOP primary, Abbott did not criticize Trump in the way many others in his party did. Perhaps that’s because he had already been embracing issues that came to animate Trump’s surprising political rise, including calls for stronger border security, a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities and efforts to limit the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.

While Trump’s efforts to deliver on those campaign promises have been caught up in a mix of politics and legal wrangling in Washington, Abbott has continued to push forward with little opposition, raising the idea that Trump’s vision for America may ultimately be implemented by state executives like him, not the White House.

In May, Abbott signed a law banning sanctuary cities, which threatens local officials not only with stripped state funding but jail time and removal from public office if they do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Known as SB4, the bill also included a controversial provision that allows law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain.

Similar to Trump’s executive order signed earlier this year that sought to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities, the Texas law has prompted a flurry of litigation, including lawsuits from local governments including Texas’s four largest cities: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. But unlike Trump’s order, which has been blocked by the courts and is currently under appeal, the law Abbott signed is set to take effect on Sept. 1, barring interference from the courts.

Abbott has seized on other issues that have been championed by Trump and energized his conservative base. He has argued against the resettlement of Syrians and other refugees in his state — though as governor of Texas he can do little but complain about what is largely a federal issue. And echoing Trump, Abbott has decried what he has described as “rampant voter fraud” across Texas, though only a few cases have actually merited prosecution so far.

Earlier this year, a Mexican national from Fort Worth was sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally voting in the 2012 and 2014 elections. The woman, who is a permanent U.S. resident and cast her ballot for Republican candidates including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who prosecuted her case, said she believed she was allowed to vote and simply made a mistake. But Abbott pointed to her case as proof that “voter fraud is real and will be punished in the state of Texas.”

On some issues, Abbott is further to the right than Trump — though it’s unclear whether he is there out of personal conviction or the fear of being outflanked by other prominent Texas conservatives. That includes Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, a fiery former talk radio host and tea party conservative from Houston who is the tonal opposite of the more restrained Abbott, who tends to operate with what a friend describes as a “judicial temperament.”

Their differences in style has led to criticism, even from Republicans, that Abbott has allowed Patrick too much control of the agenda in Austin. People close to governor insist he is leading, not following, but some also acknowledge the pressure Abbott has faced in keeping up with a party that has moved further and further to the right.

“The biggest challenge for Abbott right now is the danger of getting flanked on the right, and he knows that,” a close ally of Abbott said. “And the atmosphere just keeps getting more and more conservative. You don’t think we can get anymore conservative, and then we do. And so he just has to keep going that way, to stay ahead of the needle.”

Abbott this week convened a special session of the state legislature to tackle unfinished business from last spring’s session, including the “bathroom bill” championed by Patrick that seeks to restrict which public restrooms transgendered Texans can use. The bill is modeled after a controversial law passed by North Carolina in 2016 and partially repealed by officials there earlier this year after widespread boycotts, including from the National Basketball Association, which pulled the All-Star Game out of Charlotte.

Abbott initially seemed to try to stay out of the fray as Patrick promoted the bill, which like the North Carolina law, has sparked threats of boycotts, including from the National Football League and dozens of corporations who have threatened to relocate jobs elsewhere. But he later signaled his support for the bill. When Patrick, who is head of the state Senate, failed to reach a deal with state Rep. Joe Straus, the moderate Republican speaker of the House, the governor called the state legislature back to work, with the bathroom bill as one of the leading agenda items.

Abbott has said the bill is necessary to clarify state law because of mixed signals from the federal government. But some in Texas have wondered if there are other political motivations at work. That includes persistent rumors that Patrick had considered a primary challenge against Abbott next year — something Patrick, who has announced his own bid for reelection, has repeatedly denied.

The Texas governor launched his reelection bid against the backdrop of the special session in what seemed to be a move to raise his public profile. In a shift, he’s threatened to publicly shame Republicans who break with his agenda, suggesting he might campaign against them next year — a move that was cheered by his most conservative supporters. He’s become more active on social media including Facebook and Twitter — where, like Trump, he seems to be trying directly engage and energize his base.

Asked about the ground game and fundraising, Abbott aides say the governor will eventually attract an opponent, and they want to be ready. “If you don’t run a campaign, you can’t win … whether we have a serious opponent or not,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based political operative who worked for Rick Perry before he signed as a senior advisor to Abbott.

On the stump, Abbott has been urging voters not to be complacent. In his announcement speech and later to supporters in McAllen, Abbott also cited concerns about an increasingly energized Democratic base in Texas — pointing to Trump’s 9-point win over Hillary Clinton in November, the smallest margin of victory for a Republican presidential candidate in 20 years.

Though they have worked hard for years to make inroads into what has unquestionably become one of the reddest states in the country, many Texas Democrats believe their party is still far from winning back significant ground in the state. Democrats haven’t held a statewide office in Texas since 1994 —the longest record of any state in the country. But you’d never know that listening to Abbott.

“Liberals are trying to mess with Texas,” the governor said in his announcement speech, pointing to places like Harris County, which includes Houston. He won there three years ago, but it went decidedly blue for Clinton last November, handing victories to other state and local Democrats on the ticket. Political observers cite changing voter demographics, including a growing Hispanic population that is expected to outnumber Anglos in the state within a few decades, and the influx of new voters from states like California, drawn to Texas by lower taxes and strong economic growth.

But Abbott attributed the results to outside forces like George Soros and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi — the familiar bogeymen for the right whose mere mention elicited loud boos from the governor’s supporters. “Liberals think they have found cracks in our armor,” Abbott warned.

As he spoke, a supporter waved a handmade sign that had been distributed by Abbott’s campaign, depicting a cannon that said, “COME AND GET IT.”

The next morning, rallying supporters at a barbecue restaurant in McAllen, Abbott issued a similar warning. “We’re fighting for something that the liberals are trying to take away. And that is the freedom that Texas stands for,” he said. “If we were to lose Texas to the liberals, there would be no other place in the United States for people to go to for freedom. If we lose Texas, we lose America.”

Beyond Abbott’s conservative bona fides, he has a personal story that likely would play well on the national stage. In 1984, after graduating from Vanderbilt Law School, Abbott, who grew up in East Texas, moved back to Houston, where he had landed a job at a tony law firm. One day, while taking a break from studying for the bar, he went for a run and was jogging past a towering oak tree as it crashed to the ground.

A nearby Cadillac was flattened, and so was Abbott’s spine, nearly killing him. He was hospitalized for months and left paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors rebuilt his vertebrae piece by piece along with steel rods in his back.

When Abbott tells the story on the trail, he tries to do so with a little humor, telling voters that politicians promise all the time that they will have a spine of steel. “I really do have a steel spine,” the governor jokes.

Abbott’s disability makes him unusual — especially in Texas politics, where politicians are known for their swagger. But observing him, one quickly gets the sense that Abbott’s injury also motivates him to demonstrate his will and stamina. He operates with the air of someone who has something to prove.

Not by coincidence, the Texas governor kicked off his reelection on July 14—the 33rd anniversary of his accident. Though he made no mention of the date, Abbott rolled up a ramp to a specially lowered lectern, where he maneuvered around the stage shaking hands before delivering a 25-minute speech. Afterward, he worked the crowd longer than most politicians would, spending another 30 minutes posing for photos, leaning in for hugs and shaking the hand of everyone who approached him. He stayed until the very last supporter had cleared the stage, and then he rolled down a ramp and climbed into a waiting car on his own.

It was a striking image compared to how aides to Franklin Delano Roosevelt discouraged and even outright forced reporters to refrain from showing the president, who had lost the use of his legs as a result of polio, in a wheelchair. Though Texas media has reported extensively on Abbott’s disability, some voters are still surprised to discover the governor’s paralysis.

During his get-out-the-vote effort in McAllen, Abbott rolled up the driveway of a Korean War veteran who was stunned to see the governor in a wheelchair. All the times he’d seen him on television, “I didn’t know you were paralyzed,” the man said, as he patted Abbott several times on the leg —explaining that was how troops would greet and honor comrades who had lost limbs in conflict. “Nice to meet you too,” the governor said.

Abbott’s political identity in Texas has been defined just as much by his willingness to take on Washington in the courts. Texas sued the Obama administration 48 times between 2009 and 2016, according to a tally by the Texas Tribune — with most of those lawsuits filed by Abbott himself. When he was running for governor in 2013, Abbott famously described his average workday: “I go to the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home.”

But having Trump in the White House has made it trickier for Abbott to present himself as a relentless warrior against Washington. Many of the regulations that he filed suit over, including rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, are in the process of being dialed back by the Trump administration, which means Abbott has less to complain about.

On the campaign trail and on the job, he rarely mentions Trump. In a radio interview earlier this week, he offered a rare critique of Trump’s performance so far, suggesting the White House needs some legislative accomplishments. “It’s like going through the first half of a football game without scoring a touchdown,” he told Austin’s KOKE radio. “You have to start putting some points on the board.”

But there are tensions. Last month, Paxton, the state attorney general and a close ally of Abbott, threatened to sue the Trump administration if it did not act to rescind a 2012 program approved by President Barack Obama that granted temporary work status to so-called dreamers — young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

The letter, which was co-signed by nine other Republican state attorneys general, called on the Trump administration to immediately cease processing new enrollees into the program and renewals. It came as Trump has publicly agonized over program — the fate of which he will personally decide, he told reporters on Air Force One last week.

At the same time, Abbott continues to champion one of his pet projects: a call for a new constitutional convention. Among Abbott’s proposals is an amendment that would allow a two-thirds majority of the states to override a Supreme Court decision and one requiring Congress to balance the federal budget.

Asked earlier this year if he still thinks a convention of states is necessary under Trump, he told reporters, “What is ailing America is far bigger than what any one president can fix.”

For the better part of an hour, Abbott rolled from house to house in McAllen, dodging low-hanging tree limbs and occasionally jetting into the street to avoid cracked sidewalks and driveways blocked by cars, as his entourage ran to keep up with him. Along the way, he stopped at five houses, cold calling on residents who seemed stunned to see the governor of Texas on their doorstep, asking for their vote. “I wish I had makeup on,” one woman told him. “But yes, you’ve got my vote.”

Even Victor, a Latino factory worker and registered Democrat, was won over, telling Abbott he backed his efforts to create jobs. “You’ve got my support,” he said.

Abbott aides have insisted their boss is focused on his reelection race and not beyond — and that his more immediate goal, in addition to winning a second term, is to expand the GOP’s power in places like the Rio Grande Valley.

“I honestly don’t think he has ambitions to go to Washington,” Carney said of Abbott. “I think he believes, and I’ve heard this privately and publicly, he has the best job there is in American politics.”

But Carney acknowledged he also didn’t see his former boss Perry running for president. “You never know, I guess,” he said. “But I just don’t think [Abbott] is driven by personal ambition in that way. He’s extremely ambitious and competitive about what he wants to get done, but it’s not personal ambition.”

By the time Abbott hoisted himself from his wheelchair into the backseat of a black car set to take him to another campaign event, he had gotten pledges from seven people to vote for his campaign, while some had even promised to volunteer. “Not bad,” he told his staff.

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