EL PASO — Continuing a tour across the state after announcing his gubernatorial campaign, Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday lambasted the federal government and touted his conservative credentials during a visit to this Democratic stronghold.
Citing his defense of religious freedoms and support for the Second Amendment, Abbott promised to keep fighting Washington if elected the next leader of Texas.
"When the overreaching Barack Obama administration tried to take away your freedom, I fought back by filing 27 lawsuits to protect the Constitution," he said. "I did not invent that phrase 'Don't Mess With Texas,' but I have applied it more than anybody else."
Abbott's remarks to about 100 supporters at the Tony Lama boot factory didn’t stray much from other events this week. In addition to touting his pursuits to protect Texas' autonomy through lawsuits against the federal government, he discussed the fights he has led against abortion and human trafficking. He also highlighted his wife’s Latina heritage, and he touched on the 1984 accident that left him partially paralyzed, citing his adversity as a source of strength for him now.
The stop in El Paso was his ninth since he announced Sunday that he intended to succeed Gov. Rick Perry. He wrapped up his 10-city tour Friday evening in Austin. In El Paso, he promised that the state’s largest border city would not be forgotten if he is elected governor, touting El Paso as a symbol of Texas’ changing demographics and its burgeoning Hispanic population.
“I’ll shorten the distance between Austin, Texas, and El Paso by my several visits here to fully embrace the entire community,” Abbott said.
Outside the friendly confines of Thursday’s rally, however, Abbott may see a challenge to win the majority of the city’s votes next year. El Paso’s five House members and state senator are from the opposing party. The city’s representative in the U.S. House, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, is also a Democrat.
But the political leanings in El Paso didn’t hinder the attorney general as he called attention to a porous border and problems with immigration. Many residents along the border have expressed disapproval of beefed-up border security and support some version of immigration reform.
Speaking with reporters after shaking the hands of dozens of supporters, Abbott acknowledged that El Paso is considered one of the safest cities in the nation. But he said that through conversations he’s had, he knows people are still concerned about spillover violence. Ciudad Juárez, once considered the deadliest city in the Americas with a murder count that exceeded 3,600 in 2010, has seen a dramatic dip in homicides over the last two years.
“El Paso is one of the safest cities in the entire country; however, I know that talking firsthand to people in El Paso, people in McAllen, Texas, people in the interior part of the state of Texas, that drug cartel activity coming across the border is a very real concern,” he said. “I am going to be the governor that comes up with a plan to keep our citizens safe.”
On immigration, Abbott said the federal government was responsible for fixing a broken system, and he said he advocated first for legal immigration. He said he felt for those who came here legally only to potentially see people “cut in line” in front of them as they wait for legal or permanent status.
When asked if the 1.6 million undocumented immigrants who live in Texas should be deported or get a path to legal status, Abbott demurred.
“My expectation is that the United States government step up and solve a broken immigration system, and that’s what Americans demand and that’s what we expect them to do,” he said.
D. Tom Holmsley, the chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, conceded a tough battle in El Paso County but said Abbott is the state’s best chance at stopping the “liberal agenda.”
“He’s got a popular name in El Paso, there’s a good chance he’ll pick up a lot of votes,” said Holmsley.
Chris Combest, 41, an active duty soldier at Fort Bliss who is from Fort Worth, said the attorney general’s advocacy for the Second Amendment is what swayed him to support Abbott. He said that although Abbott may not win the majority of votes in El Paso, he’s confident the attorney general will compete here.
“It’s going to depend on how well the campaign communicates with the people,” he said. “I think they have a lot of shared values, like hard work and religion.”
Whether Abbott can sway blue-collar voters is uncertain.
Joe Silva, 54, a worker at the boot factory and a lifelong El Pasoan, said he would probably vote for Abbott despite not knowing a lot about him.
“He’s a good man, I heard. He went through that tough accident,” he said.
But when asked if Abbott’s opposition to the federal health care reform legislation or support for the voter ID law mattered to him, Silva paused.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” he said. “ I guess we’ll see what he has to say. I don’t know much about him.”