Musings: How to Beat Greg Abbott, revisited

by | Sep 2, 2021 | 2022 Elections, Musings, Opinion

Way back in early February, I made a bold proclamation: despite his decades in office in millions in his campaign coffers, Governor Greg Abbott was eminently beatable in 2022. 

Here we are, half a year later, and from my perspective as an extremely pissed-off Texan, not much has changed to improve Abbott’s position. In fact, things have gotten worse. 

Of course, we suffered through the deadly winter storm that crippled our electric grid and cost hundreds of Texans their lives. If that weren’t enough, instead of working to solve the issues plaguing our grid, Abbott served up nothing but red meat during a regular legislative session that played out like a dystopian novel about culture wars. And, of course, there’s Abbott’s continued bungling of the covid-19 pandemic, including his own infection and role as a participant in several super spreader events.

A thinking person’s politician would have greeted their recovery from covid as a political gift worth its weight in gold, an opportunity to pivot away from their own incompetence and reclaim the narrative and take control of the deadly pandemic ravaging our state.

Greg Abbott is not a thinking person’s governor. He’s only doubled and tripled down on his worst policy impulses, fighting tooth and nail to prevent local governments and school districts from implementing mask mandates and vaccine requirements. He’s gone from being an active participant in pandemic response to an active accelerant in the unmitigated spread of the delta variant.

When I sat down to write about the opportunity Texas Democrats have to topple a man who has become inarguably one of the worst governors in the country in short order back in February, one of the core arguments that I made was that time was on our side and that the long electoral cycle gave Democrats plenty of opportunities to define Abbott and drive a compelling message that reconnects Texans with Democratic values.

As I sit here now, heading into Labor Day weekend, we are still stuck in a bad rendition of a Velvet Underground track, continually waiting for the man (or woman) to roll up their sleeves and make this a race.

Sadly, we are quite literally waiting on one specific man to make up his mind. People across Texas and national bigfoot journalists like David Siders alike are all loudly wondering if and when former El Paso Congressman and 2018 U.S. Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke will decide to jump into the race.

My question, for O’Rourke and any other able-minded Democrat thinking about challenging Abbott, is exceptionally simple: what the fuck are you waiting for?

Greg Abbott has repeatedly proven that he is thoroughly in over his own head, and over the last several months he has presented innumerable opportunities for a pugnacious Democratic opponent to exploit. We Texans have found ourselves at the center of at least three consecutive national controversies, and with the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the state, each day becomes a case study in Abbott’s callous ineptitude and cold-hearted ambition.

Texans need a Democratic candidate willing to get into the arena and joust with Abbott on the most important issues facing our state because Texans are currently faced with literal life and death stakes, right now, at the hands of our little baby tyrant in the governor’s mansion.

Right now, today, our state has made it illegal to get a medically necessary abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy while also deputizing anybody that wants to terrorize a pregnant woman with the ability to place and collect bounties on their heads. If that weren’t frightening enough, those same folks can openly carry a gun while they’re doing it.

The stakes have never been higher for Texans, and the contrast with Abbott’s catastrophic failures has never been clearer. We can beat Greg Abbott, but the first step to doing that is, quite simply, to do it. No one wins on the bench, and in Greg Abbott, Texas Democrats are facing a pitcher that has lost his fastball. If we want to score points and win for Texans, we just need to step up to the plate and swing for the fences.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not insensitive to the complexities of deciding to run for office. I have sat at plenty of kitchen tables, on scores of living room couches, in offices both cramped and expansive, and helped better people than myself make the decision to put their name on the ballot.

I know exactly what I’m asking. I know the toll this will take on the candidate, on their families, on their lives. 

I also know the toll living in Greg Abbott’s Texas is taking on all of us. I know the terror and anger and the hurt that he’s causing because I hear it from people that I care about every day. I know the pain and confusion and fear that we’re all experiencing because Texans, and Texas women, in particular, have been warning us that we were heading to this moment for a very long time.

I’ve been listening. And if Beto or any other candidate is listening, too, they need to understand that this can’t wait. 

Every politician that has ever lost an election has lived to tell the tale. While running and losing certainly pose risks, what we stand to lose as people and as a state is so much larger and more fundamental.

What is your political future worth in a world where we do nothing to stop the slide that Texas is suffering from? How do we look at our friends, our colleagues, our children, or ourselves and rationalize that the best choice for ourselves or for Texas is to do absolutely nothing? To let someone else truly fight the good fight? 

Every day that Abbott is in the news for being bad at his job, a phenomenon we can all expect to continue well into 2022, is an opportunity for a Democratic candidate to make the case. Think of every time you’ve seen an erstwhile Texas Democrat on national television since the quorum break began in July. Now imagine what an incredible opportunity it would have been for a Democratic candidate for Governor to be making the case against Abbott on the biggest stages possible.

The time is now. Stepping into the race against Abbott is the first step to beating him, but once you find yourself toe-to-toe with the governor, this is how we beat Greg Abbott:

Define Abbott

This was the first piece of the puzzle in my February column, and that remains unchanged. Abbott has and continues to provide Democrats with ample opportunities to define Abbott as the governor who can’t shoot straight.

He’s bungled covid-19 response, was asleep at the wheel when the state was frozen to its core and people were dying, and instead of pushing any legislation or policy that might stabilize the situation in our state, he spent the legislative session cheerleading for the absolute worst red meat policies imaginable.

What’s worse? He lacked the strength as governor to pass some of the most important pieces of his conservative agenda and was forced to launch two special legislative sessions to try to impose his will on the people of Texas. 

Time and time again, Abbott has been given opportunities to pivot and redefine himself, and time and time again he’s instead decided to double and triple down on narrow-minded, base-baiting politics.

And there’s no end in sight for Abbott, who faces the most serious Republican primary challenge of his electoral life in the form of twin dipshits Don Huffines and Allen West, one a former Tea Party state senator, the other an infamous Florida Man and former Texas GOP chairman running a quixotic campaign in the mold of Davey Crockett (kind of).

Huffines and West are attempting to run further right than Abbott has ever seemed capable or willing of going, that is until 2020 hit. In the Trump era, Abbott’s transformation from a fairly unremarkable establishment conservative to a dithering culture warrior has been as sweeping as it has complete. Instead of retreating to the middle ground against these potentially more Trump-esque candidates, Abbott has continued to lean right.

And where will that hurt Abbott? While Texas Republicans are confident about their ability to gerrymander the state’s legislative lines for another generation, Abbott doesn’t have that trick to fall back on. He has to run on his record and win in suburban and exurban counties that have been rapidly fleeing the Republican Party, and Abbott’s performance over the last three years has done little for suburban voters other than creating a deepening sense of alienation.

Combine that with a Democratic candidate capable of driving turnout and running up the score in the urban core of the state, and we have a recipe for a real race for governor. 

Set the tone

What good is a standard-bearer if they don’t set a high standard? Being at the top of the Democratic ticket confers with it a very special power: the ability to set the tone and agenda for the rest of the Democratic ticket.

While we have talented candidates pursuing offices below the governor’s race such as lieutenant governor and attorney general, running in those positions on the ticket limits how effective the messaging coming from those candidates can be.

That dynamic changes with a hard-charging Democrat at the top of the ticket who is willing to set a pace for the rest of the field and get their arms around the most important issues facing Texans and frame the debate. 

Want to beat Dan Patrick? Make sure we have a good candidate to beat Greg Abbott.

Want to beat Ken Paxton? You get my point.

And it isn’t hard to set the tone and pace of this race. Any Democratic candidate that jumps into the governor’s race can fully embrace the moment and barnstorm the state, setting the table for the issues we’ll be debating and defining the true battlegrounds in the 2022 race.

Pick your spots

There is certainly a lot that can be said about Beto O’Rourke’s madcap 254 county strategy in 2018, but allow me to be so bold as to say that the most important point that can be made about that strategy is that it should not be replicated.

In February, I told our readers and any prospective candidate that time was on our side. With 2021 rapidly evaporating and 14 months to flip the state, that is no longer the case. We can beat Greg Abbott, but to do so Democrats need to be very sober in their assessment of what is and is not an electoral battleground, and how we can truly meaningfully reach voters across the state.

The Democratic candidate for governor does not need to spend much time behind the great red wall up in the panhandle. They need to have their feet on the ground in South Texas and the Valley, and in every majority Black and Latino precinct in this state to organize the communities that need us the most and can also help us close the gap quickest.

I found O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race to be exceptionally inspiring, but as an operative and tactician, it is readily apparent where we could and should have done better. Part of that calculus is on how the candidate should spend their time, but we also need to take a cold hard look at how we’ve been spending our money in this state for the last ten years.

I believe in the power of organizing, and that creating a permanent organizing climate in Texas is one of the most powerful things that we can do to build power and create a better future. Some former Democratic candidates have been very vocal that they feel more money should flow to organizing than to paid media, the television and digital ads and direct mail campaigns that have become very easy to thumb our noses at.

It is true that Democratic candidates who ran for office in both 2018 and 2020 generally spent more money on advertising in the ‘20 cycle than they did in 2018, and that broadly speaking they performed more poorly than they expected. The lesson some of these candidates are taking away is that they should have invested more money on grassroots organizing instead, and that paid media has become an outdated or ineffective way to reach voters.

I would respectfully suggest that those candidates might try a spoonful of introspection about what they were saying in their paid communications. Is the problem the medium we used, or the message we delivered?

To be completely blunt, I’ve watched pretty much every ad a Democrat ran in the 2020 and 2018 election cycles, and the missteps are glaringly obvious to anyone with their thinking cap on. We ran candidates in what we thought were competitive districts, and in many of those supposed battlegrounds, we deployed messaging that we frankly had no reason to believe would be effective.

Democrats can win in districts across Texas, but we can’t do it by talking down to voters or by assuming that our theory of the race is incontrovertible. Texas is rapidly becoming a more progressive place and Democrats should embrace that shift change and find ways to grow with the times. But we’re playing a rigged game in gerrymandered congressional districts across the state, and if our messaging doesn’t ring true or speak to voters in a genuine way, we aren’t going to win those races.

And we aren’t going to win races on organizing alone. We’ve been through nearly a decade of bragging about how Big Organizing and Big Data were going to help us awaken the sleeping giant and turn Texas blue, and to be completely blunt we will not flip this state without them.

But organizing is a game all about the margins. It’s a component of your campaign that allows you to use a scalpel to handpick the voters you want to speak to, and O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race took distributed organizing to an epic new level.

But one door knock or phone call or text message is not enough. Two or three or five are also probably not enough. To get voters to really understand and embrace their message, the missing piece for Democrats has been high-quality statewide paid media that is grounded in the reality of what Texans actually care about.

All of the organizing in the world might, at best, swing a few points for your campaign. Without the air cover of television in a statewide campaign, we can’t achieve the repetition that we need to truly break through the noise.

Be relentless

We need a candidate for governor who is willing to run with the same sense of relentlessness that Abbott brings to being asleep at the wheel. Abbott will keep playing cheap right-wing political games to try to score points, and we need a candidate who will meet each of those opportunities with a clarity and tenacity that we haven’t seen.

Greg Abbott keeps getting re-elected in this state because he has never had an opponent with the ability to put pressure on him every day. We keep letting him up off the mat and wondering why he won’t stay down.

Beating Greg Abbott is not an impossible dream for Texas Democrats, it is an accomplishable feat, but only if we take the fight to him and keep him off balance. Elections have consequences, and for years we’ve lived with the consequences of living in Greg Abbott’s Texas.

It’s time for payback. 

Get in the game.

Senior Advisor | + posts

Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.

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