AUSTIN — The governor of Texas is not legally required to possess a supreme amount of self-confidence, but a law like that might as well be on the books. Sam Houston governed the state. The last two incumbents, George W. Bush and Rick Perry, ran for president.
In the annals of self-confidence, the man likely to succeed Perry next year, Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), fits right in. He is, in his own estimation, a bridge between the conservative and business wings of the Texas Republican Party, the candidate who can show his party how to reach out to a large and growing Hispanic population, and someone who can make thousands of able-bodied people more comfortable around those with disabilities.
If he lives up to the image he paints of himself, Abbott could follow in Bush and Perry’s footsteps in another respect: He could become the latest governor of Texas to be considered presidential timber.
The strain that runs through Abbott’s life — and, perhaps, gives him such a healthy ego — is competition. One of his earliest memories is of foot-racing his older brother, and of trying to stop his brother from beating out their father. The 4-year-old Abbott broke his collarbone when his older brother ran right through him.
Though he has a staid and calm demeanor, Abbott tends to come unglued when he watches his Houston Rockets play basketball. Patrick Oxford, a Houston lawyer who has known Abbott for a quarter-century, recalled being taken aback when he saw Abbott taunting opposing players from his seat underneath one of the baskets.
Competition “has been a big part of myself since my earliest memories,” Abbott said in a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in Austin. “Competition leads to better results.”
Abbott’s biography is punctuated by moments of triumph: He recalls winning every track meet he entered during his senior year in high school. He served as president of the National Honor Society. His classmates voted him Most Likely to Succeed. In six elections, from his first run to become a state trial court judge in 1992 to two terms on the Texas Supreme Court and three terms as attorney general, Abbott has never lost.
Still, the single moment that has most shaped the public image of Greg Abbott is not a victory, but a profound loss: In 1984, while taking a jogging break from studying for the bar exam, Abbott was struck by a falling tree. The tree broke bones that pierced his spinal cord, fractured ribs that poked his organs. He had to wait five hours before doctors gave him painkillers. For 30 years, Abbott has had to use a wheelchair. It has, by necessity, changed his outlook on life.
“I’m a guy in a wheelchair. By definition, being a person who had a life-altering experience, you view life differently from someone who hasn’t been through that kind of thing,” he said. “But it’s not just a one-time event that I move on from. It’s an event that I live with every single day. I am living proof that you can take a young man whose life was literally broken in half, and he can elevate to the highest rungs of government in this state.”
Abbott has embraced his injury, largely because the wheelchair is impossible to miss. Even Justice John Paul Stevens commented on it when Abbott argued before the Supreme Court, successfully, for Texas’ right to keep a monument to the Ten Commandments on state grounds.
“I want to thank you … for demonstrating that it’s not necessary to stand at the lectern in order to do a fine job,” Stevens said during the oral arguments in 2005.
Abbott is acutely aware, however, that for many able-bodied people, interacting with someone in a wheelchair can be uncomfortable. His habit, developed over two decades in the public spotlight, is to make light of himself.
“I know what you’ve gotta be thinking: How slow is that guy running that he got hit by a tree?” Abbott will joke to crowds.
“You chuckle a little nervously, not sure if you’re allowed to laugh. But he has a strength of moral character such that his disability does not slow him down one iota,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R), who was hired by Abbott in 2003 to serve as the state’s solicitor general. “He is genuinely at peace with his disability. It would be very easy to be angry at the accident, at the loss of the ability to walk, and yet he regularly joked about it.”
In Austin’s state Capitol, Abbott’s wheelchair sometimes presented challenges to aides. Abbott would put on driving gloves, Cruz said, and fly across the marble floors. Some aides would put a finger to one ear as they jogged — sometimes ran — along beside him, pretending they were Clint Eastwood’s character in “In The Line of Fire.”
As he runs for governor, Abbott’s injury has given him a shorthand to connect to voters. In one television ad, Abbott wheels himself up the inclined ramp of a parking garage, sweating through his T-shirt. “With each floor, it got harder and harder. But I wouldn’t quit. ‘Just one more,’ I would tell myself. ‘Just one more.’ “
“He had to, earlier than most of us, come to grips with his own mortality,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R), who served with Abbott on the state Supreme Court and preceded him in the attorney general’s office. “You either live your life to the fullest or give up, and he never gave up.”
The wheelchair also played a role in a controversial ad run by his opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D). The Davis ad showed an empty wheelchair, to which some Republicans took offense. Abbott did not: He said he was “disappointed” in the ad — not because it showed a wheelchair, but because it was aimed at “tear[ing] someone down.”
Davis and others say the fact that Abbott was able to recover millions by suing the owner of the property where the tree fell, yet favored tort reform that would prevent others from receiving similar benefits, reeks of hypocrisy. Republicans feared that that could be an effective attack on the attorney general, and were relieved when Davis’s campaign handled it in such a ham-handed fashion.
Perry, who assumed the governorship when Bush resigned in 2000, and Abbott, first elected attorney general in 2002, are anomalies in American politics: They are two elected officials with competing egos who have worked together, with few public disputes, for more than a decade. In a state that has created more than 1 million jobs since the depths of the recession, it behooves Abbott to claim most of the Rick Perry mantle.
“Governor Perry rightfully deserves tremendous credit for establishing the premier business model for the way government should operate and for attracting so much business to the state,” Abbott said.
Yet Texas political observers say that a Governor Abbott would represent a remarkable departure in style, if not substance. Perry, a former Texas A&M cheerleader who came up through the legislative branch, is a consummate back-slapping politician who delegates research and responsibility to staff and makes gut-level decisions in a split second. Abbott, the judge, prefers to gather experts and preside over a debate before making key decisions.
After more than a decade of Perry’s quick decision-making process, some Texas Republicans think Abbott’s slower, more deliberative process would be a jolt — one that either leads to better policy or a traffic jam in the governor’s mansion.
In Texas, top-level Republicans typically wait their turn to move up the political ladder. In 1998, Abbott passed on a chance to run for attorney general when his fellow Supreme Court justice, Cornyn, jumped into the race. By 2013, he was cautious not to appear to be publicly pushing Perry aside, though privately he sent signals that he would run for governor whether or not Perry wanted to keep his job.
Both men have evolved over time. Perry and Abbott both came to prominence in George W. Bush’s Republican Party, but the growing influence of conservative activists waving the tea party banner gave both the opportunity to recast themselves further to the right.
“One key to success in politics is that you respond to and reflect the people and the priorities of the people you represent. We’ve obviously seen some changes and evolution over time, and I think you’ve seen Greg reflect that, just as Gov. Perry has,” Cornyn said.
Perry’s evolution from Bush clone to 10th Amendment champion helped him beat back a challenge from then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) in the 2010 Republican primary. Abbott, who had closer ties to conservative activists to begin with, faced no significant challenge from the right this year.
A national figure
Under Perry and Bush, the governor of Texas has played an outsized role in national politics, a status Abbott hopes to maintain. The second-largest state in the country is home to some of the wealthiest donors in Republican politics, almost all of whom count themselves as Abbott backers.
If Abbott wins — polls show him leading Davis by double digits, and by the beginning of October he had a campaign fund close to six times the size of hers — he will immediately become a player on the national Republican scene. He’s unlikely to take sides between Perry, with whom he has a close working relationship, and Cruz, whom he hired back in 2003, if both men seek the Republican presidential nomination.
But if Democrats keep the White House in 2016, a Republican governor of Texas could find himself ideally placed to make a play for the next Republican presidential nomination. Abbott’s credentials with conservative activists would give him an entry point into key primary states like Iowa and South Carolina. And if Republicans are still plagued by an inability to appeal to Hispanic voters, Abbott may have an electoral record that impresses: His campaign has run six Spanish-language television advertisements, and his wife, Cecilia, whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico, is a frequent surrogate on the campaign trail. Cecilia’s mother appeared in one ad to endorse her son-in-law, in Spanish.
In typical fashion, Abbott is confident of his place within the Republican Party in his home state.
“I have the ability to bridge the conservative segments of our party with the business elements of our party, and also build a bridge to the Hispanic community in the state of Texas. So I’m able to hit a trifecta that’s really never been done,” Abbott said.
If his competitive urges get the best of him once again, Abbott may some day be testing whether that trifecta can win over a national audience.