You would think a blue demon is chasing Governor Greg Abbott in his reelection bid. He has two largely unknown candidates running against him in the Republican primary, but Abbott is hammering the tea party base like his re-nomination is in question and his reelection is in doubt.
In the first sixteen days of this year, Abbott announced that he had raked in a record amount of cash for a Texas candidate, and yet he continues to plead with contributors for more. He outlined a proposal to restrict the growth of spending by local governments and school districts that would be almost two times more restrictive than a proposal he could not get the Legislature to pass last year. He is endorsing Republican candidates while not hesitating to mislead voters about the records of an incumbent he opposes. And with the expectation that he will face a weak Democratic opponent in the fall general election, Abbott already is bragging that he is going to run up the score.
In the upcoming February print edition of Texas Monthly, I review Abbott’s first three years as governor, so today I am going to look at Greg Abbott the candidate, rather than as the office holder. That candidate is a man on fire, willing to burn anyone who gets in his way.
In the Republican primary, Abbott faces Barbara Krueger of Plano, a retired high school chemistry teacher. On Facebook, after she filed against Abbott in December, Krueger wrote: “People of God rise up! We can create a spiritual revolution in Texas! Let’s make Texas the prototype for America! The radical Islamic extremist want to wipe us out! Let us stand for God’s will & let our voices ring out! Let freedom ring!” Abbott’s other GOP opponent is Larry SECEDE Kilgore, a perennial candidate since 2004 who legally changed his name in 2012 to include his secessionist sentiments. Kilgore ran against Abbott in the 2014 Republican primary and received 1.46 percent of the vote.
Even with such light opposition, it was not surprising that Abbott on Tuesday filed a campaign finance report showing he had set a record for fundraising for a Texas statewide candidate, ending 2017 with $43.3 million in cash in the bank. He’s raised more than $52 million since taking office in January 2015. More than $276,000 of his spending last year went to advertising on Facebook and Google. As we noted when he signed SB4—the sanctuary cities bill—into law on Facebook Live last spring, his viewership exceeded the combined circulation of three of Texas’s largest newspapers.
Looking forward to the fall, the Democrats most likely to face Abbott are former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, Houston businessman Andrew White, and Dallas nightclub owner Jeffrey Payne. Valdez had raised $46,498; White had raised $175,407 and loaned his campaign $20,000; and Payne had loaned his campaign $46,000 and raised about $10,000.
Despite this substantial financial advantage over all of his opponents, Abbott’s campaign on the day the report was filed, emailed a fundraising plea to his supporters that coincided with a news conference he held to outline proposals for reducing the growth of property taxes. The donation button read, “Support Property Tax Reform!” and the text blamed local governments: “Property owners shouldn’t be renting their land and their homes from local governments, but entities that can tax and spend at the local level continue to blatantly disregard private property rights with rampant overreach.” It is a continuation of Abbott’s war on local governments that deflects from the fact that he and the Legislature last year passed on an opportunity to fix the biggest driver of property taxes in Texas, the public school finance system.
As an ice storm gripped Texas, Abbott slid into Houston for a news conference to outline his plan to hold the line on property tax increases: Local governments and school districts would not be able to spend more than 2.5 percent above what they had spent the previous year from property taxes. To spend more than that, the local government would have to present a spending increase proposal to local voters, and it would only take effect if two-thirds of the voters—67 percent—approved it. To put that vote into perspective, no president of the United States has ever won with two-thirds of the vote. Even though Abbott beat Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points in 2014, he still only got 59 percent of the vote. In three winning elections as attorney general, Abbott never received two-thirds of the vote.
Under current law, a school district that exceeds 8 percent growth must have an automatic election to ratify the tax increase. In 2015, there were 41 districts that held rollback elections. The rate increases passed by a simple majority in 38 of the districts. In other local governments, citizens must petition for the rollback election to be held.
Abbott’s proposal miffed Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who once served in the Legislature. “You talk about poor timing,” Emmett told me. “He comes to town when we’re in the middle of a weather emergency, doesn’t call to say, ‘Gee, what can the state do to help you in your emergency,’ but instead has a press conference that’s kind of critical of the county. To say there was some irritation, that would be a gross understatement on my part.”
Emmett said there are some good aspects of Abbott’s plan, such as preventing unfunded state mandates on local governments and putting more money into the public schools, which account for most property taxes in Texas. But Emmett said it is ridiculous to talk about capping expenditures for a county like Harris, with two million people living in unincorporated areas. He said there are more than 2,700 miles of road in just one commissioner district, and a quarter of the county’s budget is spent on indigent care at the Harris Health System.
At almost the same time Emmett was feeling besieged by Abbott’s media avail attack on local governments, he received the governor’s fundraising plea. “This is just politics plus,” Emmett said.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman disputed Emmett’s assertions. “Contrary to Judge Emmett’s fact-flawed comment, the state of Texas offered any and all assistance needed by any city or county to respond to the winter storm. That was offered when Governor Abbott activated the State Operations Center the night before he arrived in Houston. To this day, no request for assistance has been received from Harris County. Even without request from Harris County, the State provided TxDOT crews to help clear roads and bridges in Harris County in addition to assistance from the Department of Public Safety.”
Wittman said other fast-growth Texas counties, such as Fort Bend and Tarrant are able “to meet their constituent’s needs” without raising more than 2.5 percent revenue. “The Governor believes that taxpayer money belongs to the constituents, not to government, and that taxpayers deserve a bigger say about their property taxes,” Wittman said.
Of course, those county governments are run by elected public officials.
Emmett is not the only local official that Abbott has angered lately. When the U.S. Department of Education ruled last week that Texas had violated the rights of special education students with enrollment caps, Abbott was quick to blame local school districts rather than take any responsibility himself. “The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students, and the failure of TEA to hold districts accountable, are worthy of criticism,” Abbott said in a statement.
The Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education responded by calling Abbott’s statement “offensive and inaccurate,” noting that years of problems have been made worse by state budget cuts to school districts as well as to the Texas Education Agency. The Texas School Alliance is an organization that represents school districts with large populations of students from low-income families. The group put out documents to show the Legislature first saw caps on special education populations as a cost-saving feature in 2004 and said districts were only doing what the state told them to do. “We were not derelict in our duties. We were doing what we were told to do. For the agency to claim that they never were trying to enforce some kind of hard cap is just not true,” Alief Superintendent H.D. Chambers told the Dallas Morning News.
Wittman said “past actions” by the state education agency led to special education services being underfunded. He said Abbott signed legislation last year to increase funding.
What more could happen on the Greg Abbott friends and family tour of the first sixteen days of 2018? He attended a Kingwood Tea Party fundraiser for Texas House candidate Susanna Dokupil and made misleading statements about her opponent, incumbent Republican Representative Sarah Davis. Admittedly, Davis is the Republican farthest to the left in the Texas House, but she also won reelection last year in a district carried by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The district includes Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. Davis, though, is in the crosshairs of Texas Right to Life, Texans for Vaccine Choice, tea party activists, and the governor. Dokupil once worked for Abbott when he was state attorney general.
The Kingwood event was prime territory for Abbott to attack Davis over Hurricane Harvey. Many homes in the area flooded. The Texas Tribune got quotes from Abbott from people who attended the event.
“Just a month before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, she engineered an effort to convince the Texas House of Representatives to cut [$70 million] of the Texas Disaster Relief Fund,” Abbott said at the fundraiser for Davis’ opponent, Susanna Dokupil. “Now, fortunately, the Senate was wise enough not to go along with her. But, imagine where we would have been had … Sarah Davis’ wisdom had prevailed.”
Davis carried House Bill 25 to tap into the state’s so-called rainy day reserve fund to pay to restore children’s therapy services. Over Davis’s opposition, the bill was amended by Fort Worth Republican Matt Krause to take the money out of the governor’s disaster relief fund instead. The bill died in the Senate. Abbott said rescues conducted by the Texas National Guard would not have been possible if Davis’s bill had passed.
“That is nothing more than petty politics above the greater good of her very own constituents, some of whom could have lost their life because of her decision,” the Tribune quoted Abbott as saying. “It is time that the Republicans who live in [House District 134] get to vote in a primary for a real Republican who will represent real Republican interests, like Susanna Dokupil.”
Emmett is supporting Davis for reelection and called the governor’s comments “a totally false accusation.” If Abbott’s tax plan had been in place, Harris County would not have had the search and rescue capabilities that were so crucial during Hurricane Harvey, Emmett said. He likened it to the time in 2015 when Abbott aligned with far-right conspiracy theorists who believed the U.S. military was about to take over Texas in an exercise called Jade Helm. “You can’t give in to this far right conspiracy about Jade Helm, and you shouldn’t find yourself aligned with the anti-vaxers candidate in a district that includes the Texas Medical Center,” Emmett told me.
Wittman said the dispute over disaster funding is just one of the problems Abbott has with Davis’s reelection. “As Governor Abbott explained when he questioned the wisdom of Representative Davis’s vote to cut disaster relief funding, he also noted that she is characterized as the most liberal Republican in the Texas House, that she supports abortion, that she didn’t support the governor’s proposal to cut property taxes, and that she seemed to take credit for tanking the ethics reform bill that would have ended the revolving door for legislators to become lobbyists,” Wittman said.
At an Arlington event to roll out his tax plan, Abbott told Gromer Jeffers Jr. of the Dallas Morning News that he wants to run up the score in his election victory by adding African-Americans and Hispanics to the Republican column. “As you probably know, we aim to increase the percentage of votes that I got among Hispanics,” Abbott told Jeffers after the Arlington event. “I’ll tell you what early information shows, that I hope to cement, that I’m getting increasing support in the African-American community. I’ve been reaching out, and the outreach is paying off.
Abbott’s wife is Hispanic, and in 2014 he captured more than 40 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote. But his attempts to crackdown on border crime have created some resentment in South Texas because of the frequency of highway patrol traffic stops for minor violations. And the Legislature passed the sanctuary cities bill at his insistence. Two state surveys last fall found that about 39 percent of Hispanics support having jails hold undocumented immigrants accused of crimes until federal immigration authorities can pick them up, but far fewer supported provisions in the bill giving police the power to ask someone who is detained to prove their legal resident status.
The question is why is Abbott looking forward to running up the election total? Does he want to make himself the undisputed leader of Texas, or is this about setting the stage for a rumored presidential run. Former governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry used reelection campaigns to set up runs for president. It worked for Bush and gave Perry an initial momentum that faded quickly when he was forced to debate.
Whatever his future, Abbott for now has aligned himself with the far right base of tea party activists, voucher advocates, anti-vaxxers and those who hate taxes. At a time of extreme political polarization, perhaps the middle really is–as former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower liked to say–just for yellow stripes and dead armadillos.