In the early seventies, when he was a lanky, long-haired teenager, Greg Abbott was a runner. He was a member of the high school track team in Duncanville, about eleven miles southwest of downtown Dallas, and he was determined to be a winner. As he would do so many times as he moved forward in life, he set a goal and had a plan to achieve it.
Early in his freshman year, after his family had moved to town from East Texas, Abbott sought out an accomplished high school runner, Keith Bibb. Abbott introduced himself and asked Bibb, who was two years older, to be his running partner. “We ran every single day for a solid year together,” said Bibb, who still considers Abbott a friend. “We would put in right at about four and a half miles to five miles each day.” There were several routes they could take, but Abbott usually got a mile in first, by jogging from his modest ranch house on Cherry Street to Bibb’s, on Oriole. Then they’d run through quiet residential streets, along the green edge of Lakeside Park, and past Duncanville High’s sun-washed parking lot, their feet slapping the asphalt, their thighs pumping, their lungs burning. “Greg and I ran in all kinds of weather, every holiday,” Bibb said. “He would be at my front door, saying, ‘Okay, you ready to go?’ It would be freezing cold, raining—it didn’t matter. I mean, he was steadfast.”
Duncanville was then a quiet town of about 14,000, the kind of place where no one locked their doors. Even as newcomers from Longview, two hours east, the Abbotts easily fit in. Like many of their neighbors, they were raising their boys, Greg and his older brother, Gary, on a steady diet of Boy Scouts, church, and sports—the rites and rituals that taught white, middle-class Texas boys how to take their place in the world. But Gary and Greg had to grow up faster than most.
When Greg was sixteen, his father, Calvin, died suddenly of a heart attack. To pay the bills, his mother, Doris, went to work for a real estate firm, eventually becoming an agent. To help out, Greg took odd jobs: stocking groceries, mowing lawns, hauling steel in a nearby factory, yes-ma’aming and no-sirring his way from sunup to sundown. Busy as he was, he kept on running with Bibb. “My junior and senior year I would wake up in the middle of the night, and something would be bothering me. I would run three or four miles, and it would calm me down,” Bibb recalled. “Greg did that too.” Abbott later reflected that running and racing—pushing himself to his limits—helped him build his ability to see things through. “The challenge of running, and the physical exertion,” he writes in his 2016 memoir Broken but Unbowed, “always gave me a renewed vigor.”
After he stopped running competitively, Abbott continued to test himself in new ways. His relentlessness served him well, right into young adulthood, when, at age 26, he graduated from Vanderbilt Law School and landed a job at a prestigious firm in Houston. Then, on a muggy July afternoon in 1984, while he was running in a wealthy neighborhood shaded by massive oaks, one of the trees split from its base and fell on him. It crushed his spine, leaving Abbott paralyzed from the waist down.
Bibb, who visited his friend in the hospital, was astounded by Abbott’s optimism. “I’ve told people that know me best that if I lost the ability to run, I think I would die inside, I really would,” Bibb said. “But Greg didn’t do that. He just turned down another road.”
It was that other road that took Abbott to McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley, on January 8 of this year, speaking to a strategically chosen audience at the Hispanic Leadership Summit. On a stage adorned with a phalanx of U.S. and Texas flags, he declared his candidacy for a third term as governor. The familiar figure in the wheelchair—a handsome, silver-haired, square-jawed man of 64 with narrow eyes, crinkly crow’s-feet, and a mouth that settled more readily into a frown than a smile—spoke his carefully prepared remarks in a comforting accent, pronouncing the state “Tex-is,” giving the word a lyrical bounce every time he said it. He presented himself as a righteous defender of the state’s traditions, a man unbending amid the shifting winds of political fashion.
In reality, though, Abbott’s road had led him a long way from his political beginnings in the nineties, when he presented himself as a moderate Bush-era Republican. Now his rhetoric, if not his delivery, bore more resemblance to that of Donald Trump. “We cannot let big government liberals redesign our state with the progressive agenda that is destroying some parts of America,” Abbott warned. The destroyers, he said, included “radical liberals making calls to defund the police,” the “leftist promoters of the Green New Deal,” an unnamed but nebulous government cabal that was preventing parents from being “decision-makers over their children’s education and health care,” and advocates of “a woke radical agenda” that might remove the tax-exempt status of churches and destroy freedom of religion. Guns? “I signed more than twenty laws to protect your Second Amendment rights,” Abbott told the crowd.
At the time he delivered his speech, Abbott was facing two noisy Republican primary opponents, Don Huffines and Allen West. Though they never threatened him in the polls, he took them seriously enough to adopt some of their farther-right positions on issues including COVID-19 vaccine mandates and border policy. Soon enough, he would trounce both candidates in the March 1 primary, with help from the tens of millions he had already raised in campaign cash. Now he faces a Democratic nominee for governor who alienated many Texans by vowing, during a misbegotten run for president, to seize semiautomatic firearms. Most polls have Abbott leading Beto O’Rourke by margins of 5 to 15 percent. It doesn’t seem to matter that Abbott, the former white-shoe lawyer, has metamorphosed into a right-wing standard bearer. He is doing what he’s always done. He’s running for the win.
Say what you will about the politics of George W. Bush, Rick Perry, or Ann Richards, but each of Abbott’s predecessors had a gift for connection, as well as a certain consistency of belief and a few specific goals by which they hoped to better the state. Abbott, by contrast, has always been something of a cipher. He has seldom seemed to want to accomplish anything specific as governor. By and large, he’s concentrated instead on what he’s against: the “radical liberal” agenda. He has focused most of all simply on being governor, devoting his energies to doing whatever is necessary to stay in office.
Much of the talk about Abbott over the past few years—among old friends, current and former supporters, pundits, and GOP moderates—has revolved around the political shifts he’s made since he became governor in 2015, transitioning from a somewhat patrician Republican to an eager, far-right competitor to Florida governor Ron DeSantis in the race to inherit the Trump mantle. The old Abbott garnered support from many Democrats when he ran for state Supreme Court back in the nineties. The Abbott of today has essentially outlawed abortion while instituting some of the most draconian voting restrictions in the country and dispatching thousands of National Guard troops to the border. “I’ve talked to any number of Texas businesspeople who have supported Abbott in the past, and they have no clue what he’s become,” said Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, who briefly campaigned for lieutenant governor as a Democrat last year before dropping out of the race. “He’s not the guy they supported or wanted.”
Some who know Abbott describe him as a chameleon who changes his positions—on everything from COVID restrictions to animal-welfare protections—to fit the politics of the moment. Others see a governor who has managed to survive as something of a closet moderate while surrounded by ever more far-right legislators, answerable to a Republican primary electorate that skews in the same direction. “I think Greg is ambitious, and I want my governor to be ambitious,” said John T. Montford, a former conservative Democratic state senator and an Abbott loyalist. “In his heart I think he’s a good man.”
There is a public Abbott and a private Abbott. Friends describe a man with a sly wit and a steely intellect. He’s known for making light of his disability in a way that puts others at ease. “I remember having a big party at my house in Houston,” said Lana Shadwick, a former assistant Harris County attorney. “It wasn’t handicap-equipped. He just went over the step that was there and just maneuvered into this tight entryway. He always had this smile on his face, like Tom Cruise in Risky Business.”
On one thing everyone agrees: Abbott is a fund-raising wizard. If governing is Abbott’s job, raising money is his passion. While most pols find trawling for donations to be a chore, Abbott delights in it. And he does it surpassingly well, building the kind of war chests that stop serious challengers before they even start. Referring to Abbott’s disability, an Austin politico observed, “When you have to eliminate a bunch of things from your life because you just can’t do them anymore, the things you do you are going to g—damned do them well. Practice makes perfect. He’s smooth. He’s congenial. But he’s a tough guy underneath, make no mistake about it.” Abbott is so tough, in fact, that many close to the governor refused to talk about him on or off the record, for fear of reprisals—the not-so-accidental death of a legislator’s beloved bill, for example, or the denial of a contributor’s coveted appointment to a state commission. (Abbott never responded to interview requests for this story.)
The Texan public gets a different Greg Abbott: a man who delivers wooden speeches in front of supportive audiences or alone, from behind a desk in his private studio. In times of crisis, he sports military-style garb—khaki shirts and navy blue windbreakers with various official seals—like an actor playing a governor. He’s never been a happy-to-see-ya backslapper like Bush or Perry. And a scene of Abbott gleefully sparring with the press in the style of Trump or DeSantis is almost impossible to envision. The governor grants interviews to only a handful of friendly journalists, most of them news anchors from local TV stations. Family? You won’t find many warmhearted photos of Abbott with his brother, Gary, who exhorts readers of his blog to prepare for the return of the son of God. “Jesus is coming back! Are you ready?”
Unlike Gary, Greg seems preternaturally averse to any big reveal. His memoir is about as enlightening as a dishwasher instruction manual. He devotes three chapters to his accident and legal career (“I became one of the youngest lawyers to be elected as a judge in Texas history”; “I became the longest serving attorney general in Texas history”) and then swiftly moves on to explain, for nearly two hundred pages, how the Obama administration desecrated the U.S. Constitution and how he fought back. He offers shout-outs to his wife, his mother, and his daughter for their unflagging devotion, but other than thanking a handful of best political pals in the acknowledgments—Senator Ted Cruz among them—Abbott stops short of sharing much personal history.
With his reelection considered highly likely, politicos are wondering what new challenge will animate the governor. If Trump doesn’t seek the presidency in 2024, will Abbott pursue it? If Trump does run and win, might Abbott angle for a Cabinet post? Either way, the Texas governor will be a player in the national conversation, with more and more folks wondering: Who is Greg Abbott, and what’s his vision for America?
“I’ve always thought of him as a guy who is in public service not to do anything but to show how far he can go,” said a former Republican officeholder who worked with Abbott. “He’s always trying to push further, but for no real reason other than to show everybody what he can do. How far he can go.”
Abbott’s life has long been viewed with his injury as the focal point, which makes his story an indisputable one of triumph over tragedy. But the way Abbott would chart his path after the accident had everything to do with the life he had lived before, in a Texas very different from the complex, diverse, modern state he currently governs.
The old Texas defined Abbott’s early life. It was a place controlled almost entirely by white Christian men; the racial and cultural power shifts to come were barely perceptible, if at all, when he was born, in 1957. His father, Calvin, was a dark-haired, nattily dressed insurance agent, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin whose own father, A. G. Abbott, was a pastor in Electra, near Greg’s birthplace in Wichita Falls. Calvin’s wife, Doris, was a homemaker who had attended Hardin College prior to marrying. The couple’s wedding announcement appeared as a news story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1949, containing the kind of breathless reporting reserved for those of some means or social standing. The bride wore “a navy-blue dress of Italian wool with a V neckline and full skirt, with navy opera pumps and bag, a gray velvet picture hat with a wreath of ostrich feathers around the brim, and gray gloves.” The refreshment table, the story continued, “was laid with white satin, overdressed with a Normandy lace cloth made by the bride’s grandmother.”
If the Abbotts weren’t wealthy, they were sturdily middle class. Politically, they were hard-line conservatives, supporting the 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who championed states’ rights and opposed the Civil Rights Act. The Abbotts were churchgoing Christians who believed in independence, self-reliance, and keeping the government out of your business.
When Abbott’s mother died, in 2002, he issued a statement crediting her for “instilling in me the drive and determination to deal with the obstacles I had to face in life.” Indeed, Doris was a crucial role model for her son, determined to keep her life and that of her family on an upward trajectory. After the Abbotts moved to Duncanville, she met with the high school’s track coach, trying to ensure that Greg “got in with a solid group of people,” recalled his friend Bibb.
That solid group populated a world that was representative of the Texas that many conservatives recall with nostalgia today. Duncanville in the sixties and seventies was shifting from a small town into a growing exurb where white families fled to escape the desegregation of schools and neighborhoods in Dallas. A reunion photo of Abbott’s 1976 high school graduating class consists almost entirely of white faces. Duncanville wasn’t a place to learn about the larger world; it was a place to take comfort in the status quo.
In Broken but Unbowed, Abbott writes about the death of his father almost as a footnote. Details are scant. What grief he suffered is papered over with the character-building aspects of the family’s recovery. (In those days, boys, especially Texas boys, didn’t cry.) The experience would have been, for Abbott, an early lesson that life could change in an instant, and you’d better be ready to pick up the pieces and move on.
Abbott was not going to be deterred by loss; if anything, it spurred him on. “I was the student who received the letter sweater for history,” he recalls in his book, adding drolly, “An academic letter sweater is not exactly the kind of thing a teen wears around the neighborhood. It never left my closet.” High school friends recall Abbott as an excellent and driven student. As a colleague, former state Supreme Court chief justice Tom Phillips, would later remark in a tribute, Abbott was “all everything, including president of the National Honor Society and a two-sport letterman.” Abbott might not have been the most gifted runner on the track team, but he kept at that too. “I would say he was an average athlete but someone that was very determined to be as good as he could possibly be,” his track coach, Lynn Dobbins, told me. Bibb put it another way: Abbott “had a drive and hunger to be the best at anything that he tried.”
As a student at UT-Austin, Abbott certainly looked like a winner: rangy, muscular, and twinkly-eyed, with a strong jawline and fashionably shaggy hair. He graduated in 1981 with a degree in finance. A scholarship from the Duncanville Police Department had helped to see him through, but he’d also worked as a busboy, a waiter, and even a disco DJ to make ends meet. Abbott networked, too, joining both the Young Republicans Club and the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
In 1978 Abbott fell in love with a fellow student, Cecilia Phalen, a delicately pretty young woman from San Antonio who was of Irish and Mexican descent. Both lived in the then-tony Castilian dorm, where Cecilia practiced piano in the lobby. They courted for three years and married the same year Abbott graduated. He had decided to go to law school. After he was turned down by UT, he and his new bride packed up and headed for Texas Tech, but soon enough Abbott had transferred to the higher-ranked law school at Vanderbilt, in Nashville.
One of his new friends there was Mark Phariss, from Lawton, Oklahoma, just fifty miles from Abbott’s birthplace of Wichita Falls. The two differed politically—Phariss was more liberal—and would debate politics over Friday night drinks. “We didn’t agree on a lot, but we always enjoyed the banter,” Phariss told me. “I always thought he was rational and reasonable. He was outgoing, gregarious, always had a smile—all in all a genuinely nice guy.”
During his final year of law school, Abbott secured a job with Butler & Binion, one of the more prestigious and politically connected law firms in Houston. “This position was exactly what Cecilia and I were aiming for as a young couple. The future we had dreamed of was on the brink of becoming a reality,” Abbott writes in Broken but Unbowed. He doesn’t define that dream in the book, but by then he had told Phariss that he intended to be governor of Texas one day.
Butler & Binion provided entrée into the local and state power structures. Its lawyers represented some oil and construction companies, along with other major local organizations, such as the hospitals in the Texas Medical Center—which meant plenty of introductions to future political donors. In his memoir, Abbott mentions a formal dinner in the summer of 1984 at the Houston Country Club: “I remember dancing with Cecilia, smiling and marveling at how wonderfully this new chapter of life was unfolding.”
The next hurdle he had to clear was the bar exam. On July 14, a hot, breezy Saturday, Abbott suggested to his study partner that they go for a run. As always, he hoped the exercise would help him relax and focus. The pair took a scenic route, from the Abbotts’ modest apartment near Allen Parkway through the posh environs of River Oaks.
At one point during their run, the sidewalk narrowed, and Abbott pulled ahead of his partner. Suddenly, he heard a crack that sounded as if “a bomb had exploded about ten feet away.” A seventy-five-foot oak with a trunk about three feet in diameter snapped near its base and began to fall. Abbott didn’t have time to jump forward or backward. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground, still conscious but in terrible pain. He couldn’t breathe, and he couldn’t feel his legs.
In the hospital, a doctor told him he would never walk again. “A life once filled with confidence was now suddenly riddled with self-doubt,” Abbott writes. He worried about whether he would be able to work. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to take care of himself, his wife, and the children they hoped to have. But soon he rallied in a way many could not. Abbott underwent excruciating surgeries and rehabilitation with the same determination his friends had seen him exhibit while racing for the finish line in high school track meets. “In one sense, my world was forever changed in an instant,” Abbott writes. “But I came to realize that I hadn’t changed. And, I began to think, my dreams didn’t have to change either.”
One of the higher-ups at Butler & Binion was a canny litigator named Pearson Grimes. (Disclosure: I worked as a paralegal at Butler & Binion from 1976 to 1979, before Abbott arrived.) Grimes persuaded Don Riddle, who was then considered one of the best personal injury lawyers in Houston, to represent his young associate in a potential lawsuit. Abbott had been hurt during the heyday of the plaintiffs’ bar in Texas, with wily lawyers regularly winning jury awards and settlements in the seven figures for injured clients. Riddle knew, however, that a tree falling did not necessarily indicate negligence on someone’s part—and negligence had to be shown in order to recover damages. But Abbott made for a sympathetic plaintiff, struck down just as his professional life was beginning. And the owner of the property where the accident occurred was a wealthy divorce lawyer, Roy W. Moore. (He died in 2018.) According to one person who heard the story from Moore, he visited Abbott in the hospital and promised that he would insist that his insurance carrier pay Abbott the highest amount the policy would allow, negligence or no negligence.
Moore was covered for $1 million or so in his homeowners policy, Riddle recalled. “A million dollars didn’t stretch that far if you were damaged for life,” he said. But he discovered that Moore had paid a tree company that was part of a large national chain to do some work on the oak. Riddle could then assert that the repairs might have been done improperly—that more attention had been paid to caring for the tree’s canopy than to protecting and stabilizing the roots. Now Riddle had not one but two deep-pocketed defendants. Through what was then known as joint and several liability, a plaintiff could recover damages from multiple parties so long as some responsibility was established.
By 1986, Abbott had completed his rehab. He wasn’t walking, but he was moving forward in other ways. Riddle had negotiated an impressive settlement that would support his client for the rest of his life. The estimated total of $3 million (about $8 million today) began with an initial lump-sum payment of $300,000 (about $770,000 in today’s dollars), followed by another lump sum of $100,000 in 1989. Abbott would continue to get lump-sum payments every three years, with the last payment of $740,020 scheduled for November 1, 2022—a nice supplement to his $153,750 annual governor’s salary. Additionally, in 1986 Abbott started receiving $5,000 a month (almost $13,000 today) with a built-in annual increase of 4 percent for the remainder of his lifetime. It was all tax-free.
As Abbott has often said, he would trade any sum for the chance to walk again. Still, his payout was not only unexpectedly generous but also instructive: Abbott had seen how the levers of power could be made to operate on his behalf.
If he was angry or frustrated by his circumstances, he never showed it in public. Instead, Abbott was intent on proving his worth to Butler & Binion to display his gratitude. At first, as he later recalled, “the work I was doing at the law firm probably wasn’t bringing in any revenue.” But he made himself valuable in less tangible ways. “When other lawyers arrived in the morning, I was already there,” he writes. “If they wanted to go home early, they’d have to walk past me—the guy in the body cast recently discharged from the hospital. When they considered calling in sick, they pictured me wheeling myself into the office. Slow and steady wins the race, as the saying goes, for turtles and attorneys.”
Over the next six years, Abbott became known as a mentor to young lawyers and a steady hand for clients such as Metro, the City of Houston’s bus company. He defended Metro in cases involving traffic accidents and personal injuries.
Some who suffer hardship or loss become more empathetic. Others believe that if they can overcome personal tragedy, those who suffer similar fates should be able to do the same. Abbott seemed to fall into the latter category. Certainly, he had no qualms about representing the powerful against the disadvantaged. In Broken but Unbowed, he displays little sympathy for plaintiffs in personal-injury lawsuits. (And he never mentions his own settlement.) He also discovered that his disability could give him an edge defending clients in such cases. “It was during those early years in my career that I realized a few unique advantages of practicing law in a wheelchair,” he writes. It was easier to connect with jurors, he found, because he wasn’t standing above them but meeting them at eye level. When one plaintiff appeared at trial with a cane, asserting that he couldn’t work because of his injury, Abbott wheeled up in front of the jury and successfully shot down the man’s claim. “Another win,” he writes. “I was on my way.”
Where he was headed was clear: being a successful lawyer, yes, but also a successful member of the establishment. Abbott was considered a charming companion at dinner parties among the wealthy and prominent in Houston. He hosted Christmas fetes for the firm at his home in the comfortable Tanglewood area, where he enjoyed a custom-built pool with a ramp that allowed him to enter via his wheelchair.
“The accident taught me how strong you can be when you have to,” Abbott would later tell the Houston Chronicle. “The doctors told me I was never going to walk again, so I focused on how good I could be without walking. My life has been better since the accident than before. It’s given me a much greater appreciation of life.”
There is some debate about whether Abbott was on the partner track at Butler & Binion in the early nineties, as he approached the eight-year point at which lawyers generally move up or out. The portents weren’t all positive. By his own admission, Abbott wasn’t a flashy practitioner or a rainmaker who brought in lucrative new clients. Still, when well-liked attorneys weren’t going to make partner, Butler & Binion would often help them find work as in-house counsel for a client or help organize a campaign for a judgeship—the better to extend the firm’s influence.
Whatever the reason, Abbott announced a bid for district judge in 1991, seeking to preside over cases in the Harris County civil courts. He attacked the campaign with typical relentlessness, personally calling on anyone and everyone who might help him. At the time, Abbott struck prospective supporters—Democrats as well as Republicans—as a solid, thoughtful, fair-minded Republican in the mold of then-president George H. W. Bush, who was deeply popular in his adopted hometown of Houston.
Even so, victory was not assured for the political novice. A GOP contender for a different judgeship at the time remembers going to Abbott headquarters on election night, after her own victory seemed assured, and finding the candidate sitting alone, devastated. “The rest of us had won, and he was losing,” she recalled. “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Greg Abbott look defeated.” But when the late ballots came in, Abbott pulled out a victory “by the skin of his teeth,” as she put it. “From that moment on, he was unstoppable.”
On the bench, Abbott became known as a measured, well-prepared jurist who continued his tradition of making his colleagues look like shirkers. “He worked all the time,” said Lana Shadwick. “I would be there on a Friday night, and he would have his specially equipped Cadillac parked on the corner of the street. At ten o’clock on a Friday night.”
He also began to display a sense of entitlement that might not have stood out among other preening lawyers at big defense firms. Even before he was sworn in, Abbott had begun advising his new colleagues on how they should make rulings. “He was mansplaining,” one of the female judges recalled. While still new to the job, Abbott appropriated the chairs from the jury box of an unsuspecting judge because he liked them better than the ones in his own courtroom. Abbott, the judge said, “had been there a week or ten days.”
Circumstances well beyond the Harris County courthouse would help Abbott muscle ahead of his peers. George W. Bush defeated incumbent governor Ann Richards in 1994, and the dominance of Texas Republicans in the state’s political life began apace. The job of identifying candidates to fill judicial openings fell to Bush’s consigliere, Karl Rove. When a vacancy on the state Supreme Court arose, Rove told me, he noted the absence of justices from Houston. And Abbott had been voted Trial Judge of the Year by the Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists. “He’s young, he’s Republican, and he’s in a wheelchair,” Rove told Bush. “Isn’t that interesting?”
“Get him up here!” Bush replied. Soon after Abbott arrived at the governor’s office, Bush asked a characteristically blunt question: “What’s it like to be in a wheelchair?” Abbott responded with a well-prepared answer, one free of self-pity and radiating the kind of optimism that would connect immediately with Bush: “I’ve got a great wife, a beautiful daughter. I enjoy being a judge and I love the law, and the only thing I miss is I’m not able to play golf or go for a run.”
Rove told me, “I knew when he finished, he was the guy Bush was looking for.” So, after serving as a district court judge for just three years, Abbott found himself on the Texas Supreme Court in 1996. He would stay there until 2001, hewing mostly to Bush-style conservatism. Abbott pleased environmentalists by voting to uphold the constitutionality of the Edwards Aquifer Act and Austin’s water pollution control ordinance. Most notably, however, he became a judicial champion for Bush’s war on “frivolous lawsuits.”
Under the banner of tort reform, Bush and other Republicans were painting themselves as defenders of small businesses, saving them from the ruination of huge judgments that might result from someone, say, tripping on the front steps of a hardware store. Most of the financial support for the elimination of consumer protections, though, came not from shopkeepers but from large homebuilders, hospitals, and insurance companies. Further, the biggest opponents to the Bush policies were plaintiff’s lawyers, who also happened to be among the Democratic party’s most generous backers.
“This was a court that decided it would dismantle tort law,” one medical malpractice lawyer told me. “And Abbott went along with it.” Sometimes he did more than that. In one prominent case, a Texas woman sought to sue the Kirby vacuum-cleaner company for damages after she was brutally raped in her home by a contractor working as a salesman for the firm. Six justices agreed that the victim should be able to file suit against Kirby, but Abbott dissented with two others.
“There is a seething anger in him that reveals itself in really hateful ways against the weakest people,” said a former Democratic state legislator who tangled with Abbott. Some plaintiff’s attorneys have a simpler way of describing Abbott’s rulings: hypocrisy salted with expediency. After the accident that paralyzed him, Abbott had hired an attorney to win him a big settlement. But now he was helping to prevent others from receiving the same type of compensation for their misfortune.
“No evidence of any kind was ever established that somebody did something to cause that tree falling, other than wind and rain,” said a Houston attorney who frequently discussed the case with Don Riddle. (Some of the case file was purged as part of a routine courthouse cleaning, a fact that one plaintiff’s lawyer described as “convenient.”)
Judges typically keep low profiles and take care to avoid any appearance of partisanship. Abbott took a different approach. “You have a governor who makes his agenda tort reform and then appoints Abbott to the Supreme Court,” said one longtime plaintiff’s lawyer. “If you want to go anyplace, you’d better be the judicial tort reformer. And he did it. When he saw what he could do on a political issue with his activism, he could use that to go somewhere else.”
Politics was never far from Abbott’s mind. He sent out a newsletter to keep supporters abreast of his accomplishments. When the high court held out-of-town hearings, Abbott scheduled meetings with current and potential supporters in each locality. In a speech to honor Abbott upon his departure in 2001, former chief justice Tom Phillips recalled that Abbott appeared on the front page of the Lubbock newspaper, with the caption “Justice Abbott will hear three arguments today, assisted by other members of the Supreme Court.” Phillips affectionately described how “Greg played a special though unofficial role as the court’s envoy to the public.” Like a socialite who can’t resist appearing at every luxury store opening, Abbott became ubiquitous as a speaker before civic groups and school assemblies, turning himself into a Republican party stalwart.
A fellow jurist recalled how Abbott took an uncommon joy in fund-raising; it energized him, in contrast to most judges, who find that aspect of the job distasteful, not to mention an ethical gray area. Around this time, he warned a potential state Supreme Court candidate to turn down campaign contributions from plaintiffs’ lawyers because it could be a career-killer. (In Texas, where judges are elected, most take contributions from all comers as a sign of their nonpartisan approach to the law.) Abbott also used judicial fund-raising to build a political base, extending his circle of supporters to the likes of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a collection of homebuilders, insurers, physicians, retailers, and others determined to break the power of the plaintiffs’ bar. “He was just very ambitious,” said a fellow jurist. “As a judge, you knew he was interested in higher office—at least governor, if not senator or president.”
Those lofty ambitions became even more evident after Abbott was elected attorney general in 2002, serving as what’s been called “managing partner of the largest law firm in Texas.” Abbott’s campaign against plaintiff’s lawyer Kirk Watson, a Democrat who would go on to rankle Abbott as a state senator, had proved that his political instincts and fund-raising acumen were paying off. Twenty-six percent of the funds Abbott raised for his campaign came from powerful groups such as Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Association of Business; combined, they and others gave Abbott nearly $8 million, outpacing Watson’s $5.4 million. The fund-raising edge helped Abbott defeat Watson handily, by a margin of 57 percent to 41 percent.
In the beginning of his term, Abbott seemed relatively indifferent to the political winds, frequently exhorting his staff to “do what’s right.” Several of those who worked for Abbott recall the attorney general’s office as a congenial place where the boss listened to arguments from all sides before making a decision. Abbott, they said, welcomed pushback. “We were very serious that you only have four years to achieve something,” a former member of Abbott’s team recalled. “There was purpose.” The office instituted programs to collect more child support from errant fathers, combat domestic abuse, and enforce consumer protections under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Abbott was even willing to cross the secrecy-prone Rick Perry. In 2003 he ruled that the governor’s office couldn’t withhold certain documents related to the state budget, which did not endear him to the governor. (“Why are we trying to cover Perry’s ass?” one staffer remembered asking at the time.)
During those years, Abbott’s idea of protecting the border aligned with that of his Republican predecessors. His office defended the rights of immigrants, who, after all, gave Texas businesses a steady supply of cheap labor. Allying with a network of immigration attorneys and Catholic charities, Abbott’s staff worked to protect the undocumented against fake immigration lawyers who promised help with citizenship. “Hispanic consumers must know that the doors of our justice system are open to everyone, regardless of where you may live, regardless of where you may be born, regardless of what language you speak or what your last name is,” Abbott declared at a 2005 forum. Immigration enforcement, he said, was “not Texas’s job.”
During the 2007 Legislature, Abbott opposed the anti-immigrant agenda promoted by some GOP lawmakers. They wanted to tax money transfers that immigrants sent to their families in Latin America and sought to sue the federal government to compensate Texas for its spending on border security. The most extreme group also wanted to deny citizenship to Texas-born children of immigrants. Abbott told lawmakers that many of the measures were unconstitutional. None of them passed the Legislature.
But those who now claim that Abbott was a moderate Republican during his time as attorney general have not looked very deeply at some of his appointments or accomplishments. It was Abbott who plucked Ted Cruz from relative obscurity to be solicitor general, the state’s chief litigator, in 2003. Abbott was also an enthusiastic investigator of alleged voter fraud. In 2006 his office established a $1.5 million “Special Investigations Unit” to hunt down players in what Abbott called “epidemic” voter fraud. Abbott’s investigators found almost nothing, but not for lack of trying. One case involved a 69-year-old woman from Fort Worth, Gloria Meeks, who had helped an elderly, housebound neighbor vote by mail. Abbott’s investigators harassed her at home—even spying on her when she bathed—after it was discovered that Meeks had made a mistake by failing to include her name, address, and signature on the back of the ballot she mailed in for her friend.
The attorney general’s office also developed a PowerPoint presentation for law enforcement training that repeatedly depicted people of color as potential offenders. One slide showed African Americans standing in line to vote, under the heading “Poll Place Violation.” Another recommended that investigators inspect “unique” postage stamps used by those who voted by mail, including a stamp designed to raise awareness of sickle cell anemia, which disproportionately affects African Americans. A pleading in a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Washington, D.C.–based Campaign Legal Center said the slideshow “communicates the message that minority voters should be the focus of election fraud investigations and prosecutions.”
Abbott’s growing immoderation became more apparent after 2010, when, during the backlash to Barack Obama’s election as president, Republicans—many of them tea partiers—gained 22 seats in the Texas Legislature and demanded that top state officials rebel against the Democrats in Washington. For Abbott, a former staffer said, “that was the beginning of the political grandstanding.”
The passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act may have been a gift to many in desperate need of health care coverage, but it was also a boon to Republicans who labeled it socialism, an affront to individual rights, and a dangerous expansion of government control. In a major political upset in 2012, the tea party favorite for an open U.S. Senate seat, Cruz, defeated Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
Abbott declined to issue an endorsement, which had to be a blow to Dewhurst (who never responded to interview requests). Not only had the lieutenant governor been a supporter of Abbott’s, he’d been an ally. But now Abbott distanced himself from Dewhurst and grew chummier with Cruz.
Dewhurst wasn’t the only friend or colleague to suffer abandonment. In one of those weird coincidences that would seem foolishly contrived in a movie, one of Abbott’s closest law school friends came back into his life in a new way: in 2013 Mark Phariss filed the lawsuit that would successfully overturn Texas’s ban on gay marriage. Opposing the suit was Abbott, in his role as attorney general.
Phariss and Abbott had kept in touch over the years: Phariss had flown to Houston the minute he’d heard about Abbott’s accident, and Abbott had helped Phariss, who was a year behind Abbott at Vanderbilt, get an interview at Butler & Binion that turned into an offer. (He took another job.) As early as Abbott’s first campaign for a full term on the state Supreme Court, however, Phariss had witnessed a change in his old friend. At a fundraiser at the home of a rich donor, Phariss recalled, “there was a lot of bashing Democrats, anti-education—whatever it was struck me as ‘I’m not on board with that, and this is the last time I’m donating to Greg.’ And it was the last time.”
Still, the two continued to exchange Christmas cards every year—until Phariss sued the state for the right to marry the man he loved. The cards started coming again after Phariss prevailed. But when Phariss ran for state Senate for District Eight, which includes parts of Collin and Dallas counties, in 2018, the Christmas cards stopped for good. “He hasn’t sent me one since,” Phariss said. “Presumably he thinks there’s a political cost for sending a Christmas card to a marriage equality plaintiff or someone running for office as a Democrat.”
The attorney general had more pressing priorities—specifically, challenging the Obama administration. “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home,” Abbott famously said in 2013. Two years later, when he would leave the attorney general’s office, he had filed more than thirty suits against the feds, spending millions in taxpayer dollars.
The cases weren’t just about the Affordable Care Act. One of the most expensive was Abbott’s million-dollar-plus fight in support of Texas’s voter ID law. (The law eventually went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.) Abbott spent almost $1 million to defend Republican-friendly congressional maps the Legislature drew in 2011.
More than half of Abbott’s lawsuits—nineteen of them—involved opposition to regulations put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of them failed. But they sent the political signal that Abbott intended. As he boasted in a 2012 speech to the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, “Texas is picking to side with the business leaders in this state.”
Abbott’s overall won-lost record in litigation against the Obama administration is subject to debate. The attorney general’s office at one time claimed eight wins and eight losses, saying other cases were pending. But a 2017 Texas Tribune tabulation showed seven wins and eleven losses, with eight withdrawals and five suits still pending at the time. Aside from protecting and advancing Republicans’ political power in Texas, Abbott’s headline-grabbing lawsuits had little tangible effect. But for Abbott, the suits were always wins, helping to paint him as a champion of right-wing values and business interests in Texas and beyond.
The attorney general was not lawsuit-happy in every circumstance, however. In 2010 Abbott’s office built a substantial case that Donald Trump and Trump University had cheated Texas enrollees out of $5.4 million, money they had paid in fees and textbooks for bogus real-estate classes. “The ‘free workshops’ are merely a selling ground for the Defendant Trump U’s 3-day seminars and offer little useable content,” investigators from the AG’s office wrote. “The training materials we have reviewed indicate that Trump University 3-day seminar attendees are taught to prey upon homeowners in financial turmoil and to target foreclosure properties.”
Even so, no suit was ever filed after Trump University agreed to quietly leave the state. In 2016 the Associated Press uncovered $35,000 in Trump contributions to Abbott’s first gubernatorial run. “I felt it was political then, and I feel it was political now,” John Owens told me. A retired lawyer, Owens was an assistant attorney general for twenty years, the last seven of them as deputy chief of the Consumer Protection Division, under Abbott. “It left a bad taste in my mouth when they didn’t file suit,” he said. “The only reason we didn’t do this one was because Trump was beginning to be a mover and shaker in the Republican party.”
In 2014, as he was making his first run for governor, Abbott ruled that chemical manufacturing and storage facilities could keep their contents secret, framing his action as a way to protect them from terrorist attacks. The decision stood out, coming on the heels of a 2013 disaster in the town of West, Texas, in which hazardous ammonium nitrate stored on private property exploded during a fire, killing 15 people and injuring 160. Abbott told reporters that anyone who wanted to know what chemicals were stored where could easily find out. “You know where they are if you drive around,” he said. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not.”
A Dallas Morning News investigation subsequently showed that five months after the explosion in West, the attorney general had received a $25,000 contribution from Chase Koch, the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division and the son of the libertarian billionaire Charles Koch. The Kochs owned a chemical plant in Sweetwater and had refineries in Texas too, at least one of which had been cited for violations by the EPA. Representatives of Abbott and Koch denied any quid pro quo. But Abbott’s close ties to the Kochs would only grow. By 2014, the family’s contributions already totaled around $175,000. In 2013 Abbott was a guest at a private Koch gathering of big donors at a luxury resort near Albuquerque, at the foot of the Sandia Mountains. He got there courtesy of a Koch jet.
Critics said Abbott also failed to aggressively represent Texas homeowners in their decade-long suit against Farmers Insurance for discrimination and deceptive practices. Abbott’s predecessor as attorney general, John Cornyn, had estimated that the company owed its policyholders close to $140 million. Abbott settled the suit for $117 million. As the case moved toward settlement in 2014, the Farmers employees’ political action committee contributed $50,000 to Abbott’s first gubernatorial campaign.
“Why would you take money from anybody you’ve investigated?” Owens asked. “Why not just say ‘I don’t want your money. I don’t need your money’?”
But Abbott believed he did need money, and lots of it, to achieve his next goal.
When Abbott was elected governor in November 2014, his victory speech rang with optimism: “Tonight, Texans sent a message,” he said. “You voted for hope over fear, for unity over division, for the majesty of what Texas is and what it can be. As Texans, the bonds we share transcend our differences.” But anyone who had closely watched his bitter, bruising campaign might have heard those words with some skepticism. Abbott, then 56, had raised $55 million to defeat Wendy Davis, the up-by-her-bootstraps feminist who became a national star when, as a state senator in 2013, she filibustered valiantly if unsuccessfully against a bill limiting access to abortion. With a quick wit and enviable blond tresses, Davis had looked initially like a formidable candidate, but she proved no match for an opposition that labeled her “Abortion Barbie.”
Davis’s team tried to expose Abbott as a hypocrite by using his post-accident
settlement against him. Medical malpractice awards in Texas had been capped at $250,000 to $750,000 for noneconomic damages in 2003, and few lawyers were even willing to take cases like the one that had brought Abbott millions. The Davis campaign aired a TV commercial that opened with a close-up of a wheelchair, recounted Abbott’s award, and then highlighted others who could no longer recover significant damages after being hurt by hospitals and or on the job. The ad ended starkly: “Greg Abbott: He’s not for you.”
The attack backfired. Abbott had long declined to exploit his injury, preferring instead to normalize it as much as possible. Now he weaponized it, branding Davis as a cruel enemy of disabled people. He released a powerful commercial that showed him in a T-shirt, drenched in sweat, using his arms to power himself up floor after floor of an eight-story parking garage at night. “After my accident, I had to rebuild my strength,” he said in a voice-over. “With each floor, it got harder and harder, but I wouldn’t quit.” In a well-timed appearance on Fox News, Abbott told prime-time host Sean Hannity, “If she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair, that’s her prerogative.” It was a shrewd bit of jujitsu. Not long after, Abbott pulverized Davis 59 percent to 39 percent.
So, it was time to party. The governor’s inauguration was a two-day extravaganza. There was a parade down Congress Avenue, an F-16 flyover, and a barbecue for 17,000 that, according to one estimate, required four tons of brisket and more than two tons of potato salad. The musical lineup for the Future of Texas black-tie inaugural ball included the country stars Lady Antebellum and Pat Green. Onstage, amid a shower of confetti, Abbott and newly elected lieutenant governor Dan Patrick took selfies. The $4.7 million bill for the festivities was picked up by generous donors, including Tim Dunn, the oilman who founded Empower Texans, an enforcer of right-wing orthodoxy in Texas Republican politics. Big energy donors included Chesapeake, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron. AT&T and H-E-B contributed $100,000. Koch Industries chipped in $50,000.
“I’ll never forget how lavish it was and how out of step it was from anything I had ever attended in Texas politics,” recalled longtime TV reporter Doug Miller, who covered Texas politics for decades. “The scale was grandiose. A security sweep for a governor’s event? Come on. It said, right away, where was this guy aiming to go?”
That question would be asked more frequently as Abbott made himself at home in the governor’s office. His GOP predecessors had policy priorities: Bush had championed education and tort reform, while Perry had emphasized subsidies and regulatory relief for businesses while recruiting new ones from out of state. Within months of taking office, Abbott made it clear where his own priorities would lie.
“My first indication that he’d become something different was that Jade Helm thing,” said Matthew Dowd. “I thought, ‘This is not the guy I thought he was’ when he completely waded into that conspiracy with no evidence, just responding to the crazies of the Republican party.”
Jade Helm was a routine federal military training exercise that, thanks to alt-right web hysteria fueled by a Russian disinformation campaign, came to be seen—at least by the tinfoil-hat crowd—as a nefarious Obama plot to establish martial law in Texas and beyond. (Dissidents, they claimed, would be jailed in abandoned Walmarts.) Instead of laughing off the conspiracy theorists, Abbott called out the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. military and, for his trouble, was lambasted in the national media and mocked on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.
But if the rest of the country—and a lot of Texans—thought the governor was a dunderhead, they thought wrong. Out of the starting gate, Abbott was signaling his intention to win the loyalty of the right wing of the Republican party. The calculus was simple. Of almost 30 million Texans, nearly 22 million are eligible to vote. Only 2 million typically vote in Republican primaries—and those voters tend to be on the far right. That means 1 million voters plus 1—just 3.4 percent of the state’s population—can determine the winner of statewide elections. And that winner is a virtual lock to triumph in the general election. As a result, no matter how much money candidates raise, they can’t hope to win a Republican primary without the support of the far-right base, who reliably vote in primaries that the vast majority of Texans sit out.
Regardless of who Greg Abbott had been or what he had supported in the past, he had not just adopted but embraced the playbook of right-wing political tactics, where you didn’t have to be a true believer to win. “They get the benefit of the headlines for their base, but they could care less whether their policies actually pass or not,” said a former Republican member of the Legislature.“That’s where the cynicism is.”
Abbott’s cynicism was accompanied by a profound lack of interest in the legislative process and the people involved in it. While Perry’s door had been open, Abbott’s was closed. Perry was often seen on the floor of both houses, hobnobbing, joshing, reading the room. What do you need? What are your priorities? he would ask new members, and he would give honest answers about whether he could or would help with a piece of legislation. “Rick Perry was a little shady, but at least he knew how it worked,” said a former Republican House member. “He was shrewd, and he had Democrat friends, and he knew how to literally massage shoulders. Abbott never had that touch.” Instead, he surrounded himself with loyalists, while avoiding much contact with lawmakers.
Within a year of taking office, Abbott took a cue from the despised Obama administration by issuing executive orders to get around the Legislature. Meanwhile, lawmakers from Abbott’s own party received no notice that their bills were going to be vetoed, until they were. (Perry had always been specific about changes he wanted in exchange for his signature.) These actions supported the growing opinion that Abbott was governing like the judge he had been years back. “He’s not a king, he’s a governor,” said representative Lyle Larson of San Antonio, a conservative Republican who would soon face the governor’s wrath for occasionally bucking him. (Abbott campaigned for Larson’s primary challenger in 2018, though Larson survived.) “He takes a more autocratic approach that goes against everything our state and national constitution is about.”
While Abbott demanded loyalty from his staff, he didn’t seem to understand its value in his dealings with the Legislature. Early in his tenure, he endorsed a $130 million program for pre-K classes to give an early lift to Texas’s poorest, most vulnerable children. But the bill lacked Democratic support; the party’s lawmakers didn’t think it went far enough. Meanwhile, the measure was vehemently opposed by tea party Republicans, many of whom would prefer that more Texans attend religious schools and other private institutions. They called it “an affront to parental rights.”
Abbott had some moderate Republican support but not enough. “We got called into a caucus, and the governor literally begged us to pass the bill,” said one of the GOP legislators who was present. To ensure its success, Abbott promised Republicans who voted for the bill that he would support them in the next election. The measure passed, but Abbott failed to keep his promise. “Motherf—er didn’t return a single phone call” when the campaigns came around, the legislator said. “Republican members felt like he had abandoned them.”
Abbott focused instead on his own campaigns. “Money is the political currency he understands most,” said Jonathan Stickland, a Republican who recently retired from the House after serving since 2013. Stickland was a tea party acolyte from Bedford active in the right-wing Freedom Caucus. Yet his sense of Abbott’s priorities jibes with that of many liberals and moderates.
If he didn’t have time for legislators, Abbott has always had plenty for his major donors—especially those who’ve given, say, $500,000. A sizable chunk of his campaign cash—more than $11 million in 2014 alone—has come from energy companies. (In 2014 oilman Ray Hunt chipped in $552,110; S. Javaid Anwar, the Pakistani immigrant who founded Midland Energy, ponied up $533,342. Companies such as Exxon, Occidental Petroleum, and Valero Energy weighed in with five-figure contributions.)
During his regular check-ins with his benefactors, Abbott always makes sure to ask about their spouses and kids. “Every time he talks to them, he’s talked to them three times about something else, and that’s a very effective strategy,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project. “I wish Democrats raised money like that.”
Sometimes, the governor might also ask for advice on energy policy or water conservation or border security, even when he already knows what he’s going to do. (“Let me know if you have any thoughts. Been great talking to you!”) Other times, he’ll bring up some new initiative he thinks a contributor will want to join to burnish his or her image. (The most obvious example came in 2020, when, in the wake of the first phase of the pandemic, Abbott formed an advisory committee of 39 Texans that included 25 members who had been contributors since 2015 and given a combined total of $5.8 million.)
What if donors drag their heels or write a check that falls short of expectations? The governor might try his standard gambit of reminding them that they’re among Abbott’s “hundred most important advisers”—a savvy tactic, because he knows that competitive people want to be a lot closer to the center of power than that and will ante up to do so. Conversely, the implied threat of exile from the center of power would be as terrifying to these donors as, say, flying commercial.
Over time, Abbott has become more direct about his expectations for a donation, with a reminder of what he’d done for the donor recently; either an aide or the governor himself would mention a special legislative or regulatory move Abbott had made on the donor’s behalf. Two loyal donors to Abbott’s campaigns said that he doesn’t hesitate to link his solicitations to favors that he has done for their industries. “He’ll say, ‘I’m sure you saw the news about that action we took that’s going to save your company millions a year,’ ” one said. “Then he’ll add, ‘That shows the value of you continuing to be one of my top supporters and advisers, and I need to know whether I can count on you to step up your giving.’ ”
Many politicos sensed that a new goal motivated Abbott’s accelerated fund-raising and right-shifting during his early years as governor. “The plan all along was Abbott thought Hillary would win the election and he would run against Hillary” in 2020, said Stickland. But then “Trump won, which messed up his plans completely.”
Suddenly, Abbott had to prove, even more powerfully than before, his right-wing bona fides—as defined by a new president about whom he’d been lukewarm in the beginning. “I may not agree with everything that Donald Trump says—I didn’t agree with everything that Mitt Romney stood for or that John McCain stood for,” Abbott had told CNBC’s Squawk Alley in May 2016, after his preferred candidate, his protégé Cruz, was chewed up and spit out by Trump. “But here’s what I do know . . . Hillary is far worse for America than Donald Trump would be.”
Trump and Abbott were not a natural fit—the brash, crude Republican nominee bore no resemblance to Abbott’s sense of himself as a Texas gentleman and former judge. And one might think that Trump’s public contempt for Americans with disabilities would have given Abbott pause. But for someone of Abbott’s ambition, those were just matters of style that could be worked around. Besides, he was playing catch-up: Dan Patrick, who had been challenging Abbott both behind his back and to his face since their election in 2014, had enthusiastically endorsed Trump and served as his Texas campaign chair.
Patrick had been elected to the Senate in 2006 and, as a former sportscaster turned right-wing radio shock jock, had honed a gift for rabble-rousing. He was a my-way-or-the-highway guy, and once voters put him in charge of the Senate, Patrick set about immediately bending his colleagues to his will, with retribution on the menu for those who refused to comply. The Republican base loved him, but Abbott was never a fan.
The feeling has been mutual. Last summer, when Patrick was agitating for a special session of the Legislature, Abbott said, “That’s pretty goofy because everybody knows there’s only one person with the authority to call a special session and that’s the governor.” He went on to declare, “Not only am I the only one with the authority to call a special session, I get to decide when and I get to decide what will be on that special session.” Meanwhile, Patrick, it was later reported, tried to convince Rick Perry to run against Abbott in the GOP primary this year.
Still, the two collaborated on key issues, including their shared desire to undermine the authority of Democrats who had been elected to lead most of Texas’s major cities and urban counties. Abbott and Patrick developed what Jim Henson and Joshua Blank, who run the Texas Politics Project at UT, have called “the clearest and most persistent articulation yet of a sustained attack on the autonomy of local governments.” When Houston mayor Sylvester Turner refused Trump’s demand to have law enforcement officers check the immigration status of those arrested for minor crimes and report the undocumented to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Abbott—who’d once fought to protect immigrants from bogus legal advice—sided with the president, signing a bill to ban so-called sanctuary cities in Texas.
As he abandoned the conservative principle of “local control,” Abbott even got involved in micro-issues in several cities—nixing local ordinances governing tree removal and the addition of bike lanes and wider sidewalks to urban streets by executive edict. “As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifleshot approaches at overriding local regulations,” he said in a Q&A session with the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute in March 2017, “I think a broad-based law by the State of Texas that says ‘Across the board the state is going to preempt local regulations’ is a superior approach.”
For a time, Texas’s top two politicians managed to keep their enmity under wraps, often through their use and abuse of House Speaker Joe Straus. A well-liked moderate Republican from San Antonio, Straus had served in the Legislature since 2005. He was famously caught in the middle over the notorious “bathroom bill” of 2017, which would have required transgender Texans to relieve themselves in public restrooms based on their assigned sex at birth. Patrick pushed hard for the legislation, as did Abbott—at least in public. Behind the scenes, however, the governor was getting strong blowback from the state’s business leaders, including some who were major campaign contributors. A similar bill that passed in North Carolina in 2016 had incited boycotts of the state by major conventions and the loss of an NBA All-Star game in Charlotte.
As the bathroom bill made its way to a vote, Abbott kept assuring concerned members of the corporate community that they needn’t worry, because “Joe won’t let it pass.” Abbott was correct about that. But Straus soon announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018. Moderates in the Legislature and the business community had lost their strongest bulwark against the right—and so had Abbott.
Abbott’s desire to placate one group of supporters without offending another could be viewed in somewhat comical fashion during last year’s legislative fight over a bill that would have prevented pet owners from chaining their animals outdoors amid extreme heat or cold. As the Safe Outdoor Dogs Act worked its way to passage in the House and Senate, its sponsor—conservative Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr., who had frequently bucked his own party leadership to support Abbott’s policies—kept the governor’s office apprised of its provisions and heard of no concerns. When the bill reached Abbott’s desk, he not only refused to sign it, he publicly lambasted it. “Texas is no place for this kind of micromanaging and over-criminalization,” he declared.
Abbott probably thought that was that. But almost immediately, #AbbottHatesDogs started trending on Twitter. The governor got an earful, including from donors and other supporters. Realizing that he had stepped in it, the governor slipped the bill back on the agenda during a special session last September, where preventing pet abuse was suddenly on par with redistricting. The bill passed again, with negligible changes, and this time Abbott signed it—with no public statement.
The tortured journey of the Safe Outdoor Dogs Act would be easy to write off if it didn’t contain so many of the hallmarks of Abbott’s leadership: his shifts with the political winds, his betrayal of loyal colleagues, his decision-making by fiat, and his disdain for the legislative process. In that way, it serves as a paradigm for his handling of crises such as the coronavirus, which has so far killed more than 87,000 Texans, and the blackouts of February 2021, which left 11 million without power in freezing temperatures and killed as many as 700. In both cases, Abbott’s political priorities were never far from his policy choices.
COVID-19 presented a challenge to every leader, of course, including those in Washington. The two health experts I interviewed said that during the early stages of the pandemic, Abbott kept up with the science and tried to do what was best for Texans. But politics kept getting in his way, as when Dallas hairdresser Shelley Luther was jailed in May 2020 for reopening her salon, which was supposed to remain closed—under Abbott’s decree—as a nonessential business. When the right-wing media started giving Luther the star treatment, Abbott reversed himself. “I join the Attorney General in disagreeing with the excessive action by the Dallas Judge, putting Shelley Luther in jail for seven days,” he said in a statement. “Compliance with executive orders during this pandemic is important to ensure public safety; however, surely there are less restrictive means to achieving that goal than jailing a Texas mother.”
In the summer of 2021, Abbott banned government agencies, cities, counties, and school districts from imposing vaccine mandates—but vowed that he wouldn’t interfere with businesses that required vaccinations for their workers or customers. “Private businesses don’t need government running their business,” his spokesperson said. But after Abbott’s right-wing primary opponents squawked, the governor again reversed himself, issuing a new executive order that banned all “vaccine mandates.”
When Texans suffered widespread blackouts last year, Abbott didn’t flip-flop so much as obfuscate. His first instinct, played out on Fox News, was to blame the disaster on windmills. (In fact, the outages would have been worse if not for Texas’s abundant wind energy.) The big winter storm struck a swath of U.S. states from the Pacific Northwest to New England, but only Texas suffered widespread outages—because the state had refused to require winterization of power plants and the natural gas supplies that fuel most of them. Texas had suffered similarly in 2011, and postmortem studies made clear what state officials needed to do to prevent a repeat disaster. Little was done. And little has been done since the catastrophe of 2021.
Abbott and the Legislature have taken their marching orders from the state’s natural gas industry, which is one of the biggest contributors to political campaigns. Several gas companies scored billions of dollars in windfall profits during the blackouts, especially after regulators appointed by Abbott kept energy prices at extraordinarily high levels for more than three days.
One of most prominent donors was Kelcy Warren, executive chairman and chairman of the board of directors of Energy Transfer LP, based in Dallas. His company pocketed $2.4 billion from high prices during and following the blackouts, after which Warren gave $1 million to Abbott’s campaign. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and the largest shareholder of Comstock Resources (and a loyal Abbott contributor since 2010), spent $115,000 on a lunch for Abbott’s reelection campaign in 2018. Comstock’s chief financial officer called the 2021 blackout a “jackpot” for the company. Kinder Morgan, the pipeline giant, posted record profits of $1.4 billion during the first quarter of 2021, causing Forbes magazine to label it “Texas’ Freeze Winner.”
Rich Kinder, the executive chairman, has been a dependable and generous Abbott supporter since 2001. Kinder’s wife, Nancy, was a member of Abbott’s pandemic task force. In 2019 alone, the couple gave a total of $250,000 to Abbott. (Asked for comment on any quid-pro-quo, Warren’s representative responded that the libel lawsuit he has filed against Beto O’Rourke for that allegation serves as his response. Kinder’s representative declined to comment, while Jerry Jones’s representative did not respond.)
Over the next thirty years, Texans will have to pay about $5.7 billion in higher electricity bills to cover the costs that utilities incurred for expensive natural gas during the 2021 blackout. This past winter, many worried—none more than Abbott—that another storm might knock out the lights and heat again. Texas dodged that bullet, however, and so did the governor.
After his presumptive reelection in November, what race will Greg Abbott, the striver from Duncanville, run next? There is only one political goalpost left, and he is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024—if Donald Trump doesn’t run, that is. The governor has been busy amassing his most sizable war chest yet, raising $93.3 million and counting for the current cycle, far more than he likely needs to dispatch Beto O’Rourke, who had $6 million in the campaign till as of February 1.
On paper, reaching the presidential finish line first seems plausible. But if Abbott guns for the ultimate political prize, he will find himself pitted against a large field of skilled Trump imitators led by the vigorous 43-year-old press magnet Ron DeSantis. In that race, Abbott would not be able to maintain the iron grip on his public image that he has long enjoyed in Texas. There could be no more hiding in plain sight, donning quasi-official costumes while issuing empty pronouncements to friendly crowds. There could be no more dodging debates. To become an appealing national candidate, Abbott would have to open himself up. He would have to become, for the first time, a full-fledged public personality.
Abbott’s record as governor would also provide ample fodder for his opponents—on the right and the left. Yes, Abbott can soothe corporate donors, as previous Texas presidential candidates have, by claiming that his state has done miraculous things; Texas adds 3,800 residents each week, after all, and has attracted the likes of Oracle, Tesla, and Charles Schwab. And Abbott can compete with DeSantis when it comes to his right-wing policy record: blocking immigrants, banning abortion, encouraging handgun proliferation, tormenting transgender youth and their families, and restricting how teachers instruct students in matters of race and gender and history.
But other parts of Abbott’s record would get more attention in a national campaign than they do in his home state—particularly if he manages to win the GOP nomination and enter a general election. Under his leadership, Texas has ranked in the bottom half of the states in health-care measures that include diabetes rates, child immunizations, and maternal mortality. Texas has the highest proportion of uninsured citizens in the U.S., 18.4 percent.
Educational attainment has dropped on Abbott’s watch; in 2015 the state ranked thirty-ninth in the nation in fourth grade reading proficiency; by 2019, Texas had fallen to forty-fifth. Scott McClelland, the president of H-E-B, has stated publicly that his company has had to shift the reading level of its training manual from eighth grade to fifth grade.
So far, Abbott has largely skirted the blame for such problems and received considerable credit for the state’s economic successes. Some wonder what fresh policy goals Abbott might set for his third term. “What,” one veteran Republican lobbyist asked, “does he really want to accomplish?”
But that question misses the point. Abbott’s benchmarks of success are purely political and largely personal. He wants what he always has wanted: to run and run, just to see how far he can go.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kinder Morgan posted record profits of $1.4 million during the first quarter of 2021. The correct figure is $1.4 billion. The article has been updated.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “What Drives Greg Abbott?” Subscribe today.