For all of the frequently noted advantages that have lent the feel of an unofficial coronation to his candidacy for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott remains an undefined figure among many Texas voters, including as many as 40 percent of Republican primary voters. Who will fill in the blanks in public perceptions of Abbott — and when — will have a profound effect on next year’s governor’s race.
The wait for Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis to decide whether to seek the Democratic nod for governor — which she recently delayed for personal reasons — creates space for a relatively unknown Abbott to define himself to the electorate without competition. Should Abbott not take this opportunity, one consequence of a Davis candidacy is that Abbott will no longer have the liberty of introducing himself to voters in a vacuum. But whether Abbott introduces himself on his own terms, or lets his opponents do it for him, polling data make one thing clear: There is still work for someone to do.
His unthreatening primary opponents notwithstanding, prior to Davis’ ascent, Abbott was free to leisurely build on his existing record, knowing that, at worst, he would face a late-starting general election candidate with a smaller campaign war chest. Abbott has used the Attorney General’s Office to build a public record that has served to protect his right flank from a primary challenge while discouraging any other major contenders from the office he has been patiently waiting for. His record and his financial advantage formed a good foundation for a straightforward introduction to Texans who didn’t yet know him as their next governor, without any significant pushback.
This is, or was, a valuable advantage given Abbott’s lack of definition among large numbers of potential voters. While he is viewed positively by the groups that count in a GOP primary (strong Republicans, conservatives, Tea Party identifiers), several measures in the June University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll suggest that a good chunk of voters haven’t formed an opinion of Abbott:
- Overall, 51 percent of voters have no opinion of him
- Among Republicans, 46 percent had no opinion and among weak Republicans, 59 percent had no opinion
- Among Independents, 55 percent had no opinion
- Among self-described moderates, 64 percent had no opinion of Abbott
- Among those who describe themselves as “leaning conservative,” 55 percent had no opinion of him
- 64 percent of Hispanics, 46 percent of Anglos and 54 percent of African Americans had no opinion of him
- Even among Tea Party identifiers — those who know the most about Abbott and view him favorably — 38 percent had no opinion of him.
In any competitive election, campaigns balance defining themselves and defining their opponents; the timing of accomplishing these goals can have a significant impact on a campaign. In the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Rick Perry, finding himself trailing then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the early stages of the GOP primary, moved aggressively to frame the senator as a big spending Washington insider — “Kay Bailout.” The rest is history, and Hutchison was much more well-known than either Abbott or Davis.
The Red State blogger Erik Erickson jump-started the conservative labeling of Davis with his now infamous “Abortion Barbie” comment. A key question is whether Democrats or their allied groups have the strategic acumen, the resources and the organizational unity to define Abbott soon among the sizable number of Texans who know nothing about him — and whether they need to wait for Davis to do that, too.