Worrisome Days Ahead for GOP in Texas
Now that Texas state senator and pro-abortion "darling" Wendy Davis has officially entered the governor's race, the question must be asked, is front-runner Greg Abbott the right man for the job?
The Republican establishment is confident that Abbott, Texas' current Attorney General, is the man for the moment, that his $25 million campaign war chest is more than enough to beat Davis and the now energized Democratic Battleground Texas movement.
But having a lot of money isn't always enough. Ask Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, the multi-millionaire who lost to Ted Cruz. Ask Linda McMahon, the wrestling magnate who has lost repeatedly in Connecticut.
The question stands. Is Abbott the right man for Texas?
Abbott has made his name in Republican circles by leading the state's attorney general's office in lawsuits against the Obama Administration and by his personal triumph over an accident that left him paralyzed and wheelchair bound. That's the core of his campaign so far.
But what is worrying some about Abbott is that he's never had to fight a hard-charging opponent in his political career. He's been advanced up the ladder through political appointments. His elections have been cakewalks against unqualified opponents.
Some may deem Wendy Davis similarly unqualified, but in a country which elected a community organizer to its highest office, who is to say what qualifies as "qualified" these days?
Given recent events, it's entirely possible that Abbott, when he inevitably feels the heat from the liberal Davis, will become "squishy" and run to the middle, in Mitt Romney and John McCain style. Abbott is tied very closely to at least one political consultant with a record of advising "conservative" candidates on political capitulation.
Already something has happened to call Abbott's political acumen, and even his political orientation, into question.
It started in August, when out of the blue Abbott's office announced it was joining Democrat Eric Holder in the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the American Airlines merger with US Airways. Abbott claimed the merged American Airlines would drop its regional feeder lines from Texas' far-flung smaller cities.
Virtually the next day, those cities' economic development directors and mayors said they didn't think that would happen based on their discussions with American. So Abbott changed his argument, saying the merger had to be opposed based on anti-trust concerns, that an 'oligopoly' was being created in the Texas market. He touted 'smoking gun emails' his office had obtained from top executives boasting about the pricing power they could gain from increased baggage fees.
The episode marked the first time some conservatives came to doubt their understanding of who Greg Abbott is.
On August 19, Dallas talk show host Mark Davis had a heated exchange with Abbott on his interference in the free market operations of the airline industry. Their conversation was so disturbing to Davis he endeavored the next day to unpack their broadcast tête-à-tête. Davis ran the tape and pointed out a 'bizarre' part of their conversation where Abbott had lashed back, telling Davis he was being 'offensive.' Observing Abbott's thin skin, Davis commented on how "He is developing an annoying propensity when I ask him challenging things to get really ugly."
Fast forward to last week.
Two days ahead of Wendy Davis' announcement, Abbott held a press conference with the smiling and polite CEO of American Airlines at DFW airport in attendance, informing Texas as to how disaster had been averted because his office had secured agreements from American Airlines to retain their headquarters in Texas. Oddly enough, this had never been at issue. In fact, it was widely known that US Airways was going to relocate its Arizona HQ's employees to Fort Worth. And Abbott claimed he'd secured agreement that the regional feeders would be left alone. Again, this was another item that was never in doubt. The evening television news reports showed Abbott looking somewhat stressed, dazed, and confused.
The entire episode has been bizarre. Why did Abbott join with Holder in the first place? The merger has been in the works for years -- why now? If, as Abbott claimed, his upholding of his oath of office was at stake, how could he so easily reverse course? Why didn't Abbott similarly get involved in the Houston-based Continental deal with United Airlines, a merger which did move Texas jobs to Chicago? Was Abbott making some political gamble, that once past the primary and facing the populist campaign of Davis, he could point to his advocacy on behalf of Texas consumers against baggage fees? Was he trying to demonstrate his ability to work with Democrats, even arch-enemy Eric Holder, despite his having sued the Obama Administration so many times? Was this the beginning of Abbott's run to the middle?
And a harder question is this: given that American Airlines wasn't going to move its HQ nor reduce its feeder lines, why did Abbott use the threat of power of his office to secure the agreement with American Airlines? Is that how he will use his power as governor, essentially forcing businesses in Texas to do his will? Does Abbott love the power of office as much as Obama and Holder seem to?
Texas conservatives should take a hard look at Abbott in the runup to their March primary. At this point it's clear he is a candidate who can become disoriented on issues. No clear principles of political conduct are easily discernible. Will the big government wing of Texas' Republican Party use Abbott to take Texas back from Governor Rick Perry now that Perry is stepping out? (Remember that these same interests supported Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in her 2010 primary bid against Perry.)
Texas sent the true conservative Ted Cruz to the Senate. It would be a shame to see this staunch red state have to suffer through a meandering governorship; but it appears that will happen if Abbott's campaign prevails, or if Wendy Davis succeeds in the general election.
Skip Reynolds is an attorney in Fort Worth, Texas, and a close observer of Texas politics. Prior to and during law school, he was a college-level teacher of both Texas and American government.