Abbott is collecting résumés and assembling a gubernatorial campaign team. He’s shaking hands, giving speeches and edging his way onto the covers of small-town newspapers across the state. He also just opened a new campaign headquarters — an entire floor of the Texas Association of Broadcasters building in downtown Austin, according to a Republican consultant familiar with Abbott's campaign.
And he’s building up his grassroots infrastructure online, collecting supporters via email blasts, web petitions and increasingly partisan and vociferous social media messaging.
“He’s waited probably longer than he ever wanted to,” GOP political consultant Matt Mackowiak said of Abbott. “He’s methodically going through all the steps you have to go through to build the kind of organization, to earn the grassroots support, to put in place a fundraising infrastructure to become the leader of the state party.”
Publicly, the attorney general remains mum about his plans.
Abbott “is focused on his current duties as attorney general, whether it is assisting Texans placed in harm’s way, responding to Texans’ demands for changes in our education system or defending our state against the federal overreach of the Obama administration,” said his spokesman Eric Bearse, who is also on Perry’s campaign payroll — an indication that the two GOP powerhouses may not be headed for a primary face-off. “There will be plenty of time for political speculation after the legislative session has concluded.”
Privately, people close to both the governor and the attorney general say they don’t expect Perry to seek another term, though he has surprised them before. If he does run again, it’s no sure thing that Abbott would back away, though Perry said in January that the attorney general wouldn’t run against him.
Abbott is “walking a tightrope between not pushing Perry out but also not allowing anyone else to jump in,” Mackowiak said. “We can only presume that the two of them have had serious, personal, one-to-one private conversations … that are informing each of them in terms of what actions they’re taking for the future.”
While Abbott is waiting for Perry’s decision, expected to come in June after the gubernatorial veto period ends, he isn't biding his time.
He’s sitting on an $18 million war chest — trumping Perry’s at last count.
He has used Twitter to brandish campaign mailers depicting handguns in holsters — aimed at staunch Second Amendment advocates — and to document his gubernatorial-style visits to the scenes of the West fertilizer depot explosion (he was the first statewide elected official there, surprising even his own staff) and the Granbury tornado.
On his Facebook page, Abbott implores supporters to sign a petition to “save religious liberty from the IRS’ wrath” and another to demand answers from the Obama administration on the “truth surrounding Benghazi.” Those were just two of many he has posted in recent weeks to collect email addresses and build a viral grassroots network.
He’s pressing the flesh in person, too, hopping from Tea Party meetings to ladies' luncheons, from Fort Bend County to Beeville.
Of late, every pronouncement and ruling from the attorney general seems to be a campaign battle cry.
Last month, Abbott issued an opinion arguing that the Texas Constitution prohibits government entities from recognizing domestic partner insurance benefits. He told a crowd in Waco that he would sue the Obama administration to protect Texans’ gun rights if the U.S. joins a global United Nations arms treaty.
This month, he called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status. He also threw the weight of his office behind grassroots activists concerned with an alleged “anti-American” slant in the lesson plans of CSCOPE, the state-developed curriculum management system used by many Texas public schools.
The Republican consultant familiar with the Abbott campaign said the wheels are in motion and the campaign train is moving out of the station. The attorney general is planning a “big run,” he said, and his actions are part of a concerted strategy to mobilize his base and become a familiar face ahead of the 2014 election.
“He can’t spend money on TV, on radio yet,” the source said, “but he can build an organization, make a calendar to get out to cities and generate local media.”