It resulted after Abbott was asked at a campaign stop in Plano on Tuesday about the $5.4 billion in budget cuts enacted by lawmakers in 2011. The leading Republican candidate declined to condemn the Legislature's action, instead saying he would "ensure that we adequately fund public education." As attorney general, Abbott has challenged a lawsuit against the state brought by more than two-thirds of its school districts as a result of the cuts — and in Plano he asked his audience whether Davis, if she was elected, would ask her attorney general not to defend the laws passed by the Legislature.
Davis, a Democrat who has made her support for Texas public schools a centerpiece of her campaign, quickly issued a public statement saying that as governor she would have vetoed the budget bill enacting the cuts.
“This is one of the very few paths the Democrats have to make this a competitive race,” said Daron Shaw, a University of Texas at Austin political scientist and Republican pollster. “And I think the Abbott people know it and want to get out there and to prevent Davis from defining the race as ‘mean Republicans want to starve our children’ versus a Democrat who has a strong and positive vision for educating Texas.”
Engaging on education has an appeal specific to Davis beyond party identification, too. In her years as state senator, she has a strong record of involvement in public school policy, including a 2011 filibuster of the budget cuts Abbott's office is now defending in court. An education-oriented discussion could also have the advantage of diverting attention away from her more polarizing — and more famous — position on abortion that gave her the momentum to run for governor.
Almost a year before the general election, Abbott, who has had limited contact with public education issues in his time as attorney general, has decided to challenge Davis in her own territory. He recently launched a series of education roundtables around the state, which are expected to culminate in a detailed policy rollout in January.
So far, Abbott’s focus appears to be online learning and charter schools. Davis has largely stayed away from those topics in her work in education policy — giving Abbott the chance to generate his own brand. And they have the potential to be palatable in both the Republican primary and general election.
But he could be pushed to go further than that. A faction of conservative voters is likely to want his support for a version of private school vouchers, and navigating that issue could prove complicated. The policy is overwhelmingly supported by Republicans, according to a February University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, and strongly opposed by Democrats.
Davis is sure to continue raising the issue of public school funding even if Abbott does not approach it directly himself. The issue could play in her favor: a UT/TT poll released in December 2012 showed that 52 percent of Texans believe the state underfunds its public schools. Beyond clarifying his role in the school finance lawsuit, Abbott will also probably have to decide how much he will contradict the statements of other Republican leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, who claim the state has actually increased funding for public schools over the years.
But with the absence of a strong Tea Party challenge to Abbott in the primary, Shaw said he still saw limited risk for Abbott in his foray into education policy — even if that means having to talk about funding.
“I think this is an issue that has potential for the Democrats," he said, "but I don't know that they are tapping into a sentiment that is strongly felt."