Musings: How to Beat Greg Abbott

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Last week’s social media showdown between Governor Greg Abbott and a refreshed but angry Beto O’Rourke still has Texas abuzz, but maybe not for the right reasons.

No doubt, for erstwhile Texas Democrats, the prospect of having O’Rourke bring his magic to the top of another ticket is undoubtedly tempting. Still, the reality remains that on paper, Abbott has a long and strong electoral record in Texas. 

Abbott’s 2018 victory over former Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez was his worst performance on a statewide ticket this millennium, despite O’Rourke nearly beating Ted Cruz just above him on the ticket. Even still, he managed to trounce a perpetually out-of-her-element and underfunded Valdez by 13 points. 

Therein lies the rub for Abbott and the GOP strategists boldly thumping their chests and claiming to be spoiling for an opportunity to take on O’Rourke. While Abbott has scored some resounding victories, he hasn’t been tested anywhere near as seriously as O’Rourke tested Cruz, or 2018 candidates Mike Collier and Justin Nelson tried Lite Gov. Dan Patrick and indicted AG Ken Paxton, respectively.

While we need to be fair and acknowledge that Abbott is a heavyweight in the Texas GOP and that he’s caustically playing the angles on a potential 2024 presidential race, we also need to be honest that his last best challenge came in 2014 from Wendy Davis, a midterm election that was dreadful for Democrats nationally and particularly painful in Texas. 

Make no mistake, Abbott does not relish the thought of O’Rourke and his rockstar magnetism taking the debate stage against him in 2022. Still, O’Rourke is just beginning to think about the race, and despite what you may fear, Texas Democrats have a smart and capable bench that could step up to take Abbott on. 

But in the Twitter thread that split this race wide open, O’Rourke did a tremendous kindness for any Democrat by laying out the foundation for the case against Greg Abbott, a message that, if executed correctly, could give any Democratic candidate a fighting chance in 2022.

I’ve worked on campaigns for a decade, and even someone as jaded as myself can see the opportunity in front of us. Here’s how to beat Greg Abbott:

Level the Financial Playing Field 

This first step is always easier said than done, but the cold hard truth is it’s hard for even the best candidate to breakthrough when you’re being outraised 20 to 1.

That was one of the most pronounced difficulties Valdez faced in 2018. Abbott raised funds at a clip that amounted to an 18 to 1 advantage and generally outspent Valdez by a 6 to 1 margin while keeping money in the bank and dolling some out to his legislative allies. 

Abbott will start out with a massive financial advantage. Still, in the past two election cycles, we’ve seen candidates like O’Rourke and 2020 U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar close massive financial gaps and run incredibly competitive campaigns. At the state level in Texas, there are no limits on campaign contributions, allowing Democrats to raise money in increments larger than a few thousand dollars.

What makes the path to raise that money easier and frankly, less gross, for Democratic candidates is their growing digital presence. O’Rourke and Hegar built their war chests primarily with grassroots contributions, folks giving 5-50 bucks at a time who can be tapped over and over again. It’s a brilliant cash flow strategy for campaigns, and O’Rourke’s dedication to growing that grassroots donation base has paid dividends for Democrats up and down the ballot. 

No Unforced Errors

To be human is to err, but in politics, it’s the unforced errors that get you every time. Any Democrat even thinking of running for governor needs to remember the most cautionary tale of the 2018 election cycle.

As Texas Democrats were boldly declaring 2018 as a cycle they could win, they ended up with an underwhelming candidate in Valdez, who made one crucial misstep that poked a hole in that narrative. 

Valdez, who stepped down as Dallas County Sheriff to run for governor, had misplaced her service pistol. It was eventually recovered on department property, but in one moment, Texas Republicans had all they needed to say: Texas Democrats nominated the sheriff who lost their gun for governor.

That’s a high profile and unusual example, but in an era where Democratic elected officials have worked hard to stop the spread of coronavirus and with every interaction a tweet away from virality, it is essential to maintain discipline and not give anyone an easy opportunity to discredit you.

Define Yourself and Own Your Narrative 

Whether or not O’Rourke joins the race, any Democratic candidate needs to hear this advice. Abbott hitting O’Rourke’s policy positions is a transparent play to define who Beto is in the context of this race. 

Abbott needs to define O’Rourke because of his unique standing among Texas Democrats as the best-known person statewide. O’Rourke brought new people into the political process and had Republicans crossing over. Texans know O’Rourke and an awful lot of them like him. 

Abbott will try to do the same thing to any other possible candidate for governor, like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo or El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar. To be clear, neither of those women have signaled an interest in the race, but let a Democrat dream.  The only way to stop him is to reframe the debate early, tell voters who you are and why you’re running, and then remain a steadfast disciple of that message. 

This brings us to our next point:

Define Abbott

For years, Greg Abbott has hidden behind the power of the Texas economy and been largely immune to criticism. That all changed in 2020, when out of fear of being eclipsed by more steadfast conservative ideologues, Abbott badly botched his coronavirus response, creating challenges that still persist as Texas lags behind in vaccine distribution. 

Abbott has never had an opponent with the ability to grab headlines or capture eyes on social media and clearly articulate his foibles and failings and the genuine human impact of it. That was the beauty and genius of the O’Rourke tweets. Abbott thought he was starting a knife fight with O’Rourke, and in a matter of minutes, O’Rourke had reduced the governor’s arsenal to a box of thumbtacks. 

While Abbott has the financial advantages of incumbency and enjoys easy access to the Texas press, the impact of poking these holes is evident. It takes the mystique away from Abbott and exposes the great and powerful Oz he would like to be a little more than a man hiding behind a curtain. 

O’Rourke, Hidalgo, or her Dallas County counterpart Judge Clay Jenkins and any Democratic member of Congress or the state legislature have plenty at their disposal to make the case against Abbott and an authentic record of accomplishment.

As for concerns about Abbott painting Democratic candidates in a negative light, it’s time for Democrats to get real. Democrats could build a statewide ticket that espouses the most moderate policy orthodoxy possible, and Republicans would still call them socialists. The only antidote is to fully embrace who you are, have honest discussions about who you are and what you believe, and leave it in the hands of Texas voters. Anything else would feel dishonest, and the deep distrust of establishment politicians felt by many Texans would be channeled toward that dishonesty.

It’s still the economy, stupid. But which one?

Texas Republicans love to brag on what a great state to do business in Texas is. Low taxes and even lower regulation, more businesses choosing Texas year over year. What’s not to love?

Well, what’s not to love is what’s not seen, at least by those Republicans. As Covid-19 has ravaged Texas, it has plunged working-class Americans deeper into financial insecurity, hunger, and homelessness, effects of which are plainly seen if you drive around Austin any afternoon.

How many times do we need to see hours-long lines at food banks before we ask if this economy is really working and who it is and isn’t working for?

Despite these economic pains, more companies are announcing moves to Texas by the day, but those companies aren’t choosing the supposed red wall in rural Texas to build their Lone Star dreams. Those jobs are coming to Austin, Dallas, and Houston, exasperating a housing crunch that is sending costs soaring and putting considerable financial stress on those Texans and families.

And what about those rural Texans that the GOP gives lip service to? Have they seen the new jobs? Do they see new construction for factories or office space popping up across their county? They do not. Texas Republicans don’t even fight to help Texas farmers and ranchers increase their sales volume, and those folks have had to watch while 21 rural hospitals have closed in Texas, forcing them to travel hours for potentially life-saving care. 

Remember: Time is On Your Side

The first two decades of the 2000s have not been what you could call a growth period for Texas Republicans, intellectually or electorally. Between 2004 and 2018, Republican participation remained flat while Democratic vote share exploded. 

Democrats have nearly doubled their turnout in presidential cycles over the last 16 years, and all the trends for the future of Texas politics indicate Democrats remain ascendant. 

The trends are so powerfully in Democrats’ favor that the party has now had its best election cycle ever three cycles in a row. To win in 2022, Republicans are counting on replicating their best performance in two decades but are likely to stay moored in the same stagnation that plagued them in previous years.

There is obviously a lot more to beating Greg Abbott than what I’ve outlined today, but that’s our point. This is just the start, a jumping-off point for the biggest race in Texas in 2022. We’ll have a lot more to say about it. 

(Full disclosure: in the past, Joe Bowen has consulted for Mike Collier and managed Lina Hidalgo’s 2018 campaign for Harris County Judge. Neither person was contacted for this piece, and the opinions above are those of the author only.)

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