As it turned out, the people most excited weren’t Perry’s people at all.
After the longest-serving Texas governor announced he would not seek re-election—while avoiding the question of whether he might take another whack at the presidency in 2016—it was Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott whose supporters were celebrating. Abbott may not have formally announced that he’s running for governor, but his new Austin campaign offices and his whopping $18 million war chest do a lot of talking for him. Until Monday, speculation was rampant about what would happen if Perry—who lost much of his intimidating aura after a disastrous presidential bid—decided to risk another run. It wasn’t clear if Abbott would face off against Perry, but if he did, Texas politicos couldn’t help but wonder which of the two conservative white Republicans would prevail.
Now Abbott has a much easier path to the governor's office. He's got over 120,000 Facebook fans, a growing staff of campaign workers, and a resume that seems tailor-made for Perry's core constituency of extreme conservatives. Rick Perry’s reign in Texas may be coming to an end, but an Abbott governorship would continue the era of hardline conservative policies. In some ways, the current attorney general might move the state more to the right. Perry, after all, mostly catered to the whims of business, pushing for slush funds like the Texas Enterprise Fund that he could use to offer companies incentives for relocating to Texas. Crony capitalism was the norm. While Perry’s politics have morphed repeatedly, often bending to benefit donors and special interests Abbott is perceived to have more of a guiding political philosophy—which likely means more conservative policies, more of the time.
Abbott is a compelling figure for conservatives. Like Ted Cruz, he’s an articulate lawyer who can give a thoughtful defense of Tea Party policies. A former state Supreme Court justice, he’s got a long record of conservative positions on everything from abortion rights to tort reform. Most importantly, he’s got a great sense of political timing. Abbott has built a reputation among movement conservatives both in Texas and across the country. He's done so by suing the Obama administration more than two dozen times, almost always on red-meat issues that appeal to the both the Texas GOP base and the national conservative groups that write big checks.
"I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home," Abbott said, characterizing his job to the Associated Press this year. Among legal scholars, he's most famous for winning a 2005 Supreme Court case that allowed the state to display the Ten Commandments in front of the state Capitol, but since then he’s become a frequent face on Fox News for his opposition to Obama policies. Most recently, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion gutting a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that required certain states (including Texas) to get election law changes pre-cleared by the feds, Abbott waited just two hours before announcing the state would begin implementing a voter ID law and redistricting maps that the D.C. District Court found to be discriminatory. Abbott's announcement helped confirm concerns from progressives that Republicans would use the Supreme Court decision to put suppressive voting measures in place. It also helped garner him media attention.
That was only the most recent of Abbott's attention-getting moves. In addition to defending the state’s most controversial laws, like banning funding for Planned Parenthood, Abbott has also gone on the offensive. During the 2012 election, he threatened to arrest international elections observers if they came to Texas polling places. He’s launched six different suits against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority in state matters. In a radio interview with NPR-affiliate KUT, Abbott justified one of his biggest EPA fights over the agency’s regulation of greenhouse gases in the state, by explaining "It's almost the height of insanity of bureaucracy to have the EPA regulating something that is emitted by all living things." (As The Texas Observer's Forrest Wilder wrote in response, "Don’t worry about that leaking sewage plant. It’s just all-natural feces!")
Abbott's politics are just as conservative as Perry's, but his style is notably different. While he's just as Texas-born and bred, Abbott's a lot less twangier and a lot more serious than Perry. Instead of hyperbolic statement served up with a good deal of charm, Abbot is known for caution. For instance, as a profile in the Texas Tribune noted, Perry made huge waves at the National Right to Life conference when he said that Wendy Davis, the state senator who killed an abortion ban, should "learn from her own example" as a woman raised by a single mother. By contrast, Abbott, who spoke later, didn't even mention Davis.
Abbott's personal story is also quite different from Perry's. Where the current governor focuses on his humble roots in rural West Texas, Abbott grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, a popular track star who served as copy editor of the yearbook. But his life was far from easy. His father died when he was 16, and then, in a freak accident when he was 26, a tree fell on Abbott while he was jogging, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
While Abbott is the top contender for governor, the path isn't totally clear. Though he has a much lower profile, Tom Pauken, the former chair of the state GOP and chair of the Texas Workforce Commission, had already announced his intention to run. Pauken is no moderate either—one of his primary issues is getting rid of the school funding mechanism that sends some funds from wealthy school districts to poor ones—but he has always styled himself as an outsider. Less than half an hour after Rick Perry announced he would not seek re-election as governor, Pauken released a statement that claimed Abbott "represents an Austin that has grown stale with insiders inheriting promotions whose primary allegiance is to those who write the big checks." The critique seemed more relevant to Perry’s tenure than Abbott’s. (Perry, after all gave his big announcement at a Catepillar dealership owned by one of his biggest contributors—while bragging about making special interests “uncomfortable.”) Nonetheless, Pauken’s remarks revealed a willingness to get negative that could make the race rockier for Abbott. Even so, Pauken is seen as a long shot, trailing both in money and political power.
So what, Democrats and Republicans alike will ask, about Wendy Davis? Since the state senator’s high-profile filibuster of the abortion ban, Democrats have begun clamoring for the Fort Worth Democrat to jump in the race. While it's hard to see any path to a statewide Democratic victory in 2014, a recent poll showed Davis faring better against Abbott than Perry, although Abbott still led her 48-40 in a possible matchup.
While the odds are that Abbott will dominate the race, he's still not a sure thing. For one thing, he still hasn't even announced. If memory serves, in 2011, the presumed frontrunner waited until the last minute to announce his bid for president. His name was Rick Perry.