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As Year Begins, Texas Governor's Race Heats Up

Welcome to the marquee political contest this year in Texas, where the gubernatorial primaries are all but decided and both candidates are looking toward a November showdown with knives drawn.

Greg Abbott, then a candidate for governor and now the governor-elect, spoke at a NE Tarrant Tea Party meeting at Concordia Lutheran Church in Bedford on Nov. 12, 2013. State Sen. Wendy Davis, who was also running for governor, spoke to veterans at Luby's in Forest Hill the day before.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, who got off to a slow and often rocky start in her race for Texas governor, will ring in the New Year with a much bigger bank account and an aggressive new strategy designed to keep front-running candidate Greg Abbott on the defensive. 

For Abbott, a three-term attorney general, it’s steady as she goes: He’ll keep unveiling carefully crafted policy initiatives and tying Davis to President Obama while remaining hyper-cautious in his own dealings with the news media — lest he become the first Republican in nearly a quarter-century to blow a governor’s race.

Welcome to the marquee political contest this year in Texas, where the gubernatorial primaries are all but decided and both candidates are looking toward a November showdown with knives drawn.

“I’m looking for both of the campaigns to get very aggressive as soon as they find it strategically sound,” said Jim Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “I would expect that ethics and character are going to be big parts of both of those efforts.”

For the Abbott campaign, that means making the most of Davis’ private dealings as a lawyer, particularly her partnership with Gov. Rick Perry’s former chief of staff, Brian Newby, and their long list of public-sector clients who have interests before the Texas Legislature.

The Davis campaign, meanwhile, is hammering Abbott over his role — or lack thereof — overseeing the troubled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, whose former chief commercialization officer was indicted over allegedly lax vetting procedures related to a cancer research grant.

Polls show it's still Abbott’s race to lose. But the Republicans are facing something Texas hasn’t seen in years: a Democrat who is about as recognizable to Texans as their own standard-bearer. Davis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, became an instant celebrity after waging an 11-hour filibuster of a restrictive abortion bill over the summer.

Her stardom didn’t change the conservative leanings of the Texas electorate, of course. But it gave her a head start because one of the most important tasks for any campaign is boosting name ID, and for Davis that was accomplished literally overnight.

Her status as a feminist icon and Democratic hero also turned her into a fundraising powerhouse. The day after her announcement on Oct. 3, the campaign exceeded a 24-hour goal of $500,000, Davis said, and she has spent much of her time crisscrossing the country raising money in California, Washington, D.C., and the East Coast, according to press reports and Abbott supporters who are more than happy to emphasize her out-of-state dough.

The public will get a better sense of the resources the candidates have at their disposal in mid-January, when the next campaign finance reports are due. In the summer, Abbott reported more than $20 million in the bank, compared with about $1 million for Davis. With so much money piled up so far and plenty of GOP donors anxious about a Democratic resurgence, the attorney general is expected to maintain a financial advantage in the race, and probably a significant one.

But one Democratic ally familiar with Davis’ fundraising operation says her campaign is “satisfied” with the haul. 

“It’s going to be a big number,” the ally said.

It hasn’t been all roses for the titan in pink tennis shoes, though. Her launch was rocky literally from the beginning, when aides told the media not to leak word of the location of her Oct. 3 announcement but then proceeded to profusely leak it to supporters and donors.

Then within days of the announcement, a round of thank-you emails to donors listed the wrong website for her campaign, directing people instead to an anti-Davis site that’s running a flattering video about Abbott. Her campaign also listed the wrong address to an event at around the same time in San Antonio, causing some reporters to show up late.

As winter set in, Davis began racking up some unflattering headlines in the news media.

“Wendy Davis is not ready for prime time,” blared a highly critical column in the McAllen Monitor, which faulted the campaign for a logistically glitchy South Texas event and the candidate’s seemingly hands-off approach to the issue that made her famous — the “A-word: abortion,” as the columnist put it.

Others, including Texas Monthly's Paul Burka, wondered out loud — in blog posts titled “Where’s Wendy?” and “Where’s Wendy (Part II)?” — why Davis wasn’t hitting Abbott harder on the issues, from energy pricing to education.

“The perception came together that they were sort of not being aggressive enough,” said Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak. “I think that probably started to hurt them.” 

Henson, the UT political scientist, said Davis was saddled on the one hand with sky-high expectations — ultimately impossible to meet — and an atrophied Democratic Party infrastructure on the other. As a result, Abbott mostly got a “free ride” and valuable time to boost his profile while she was trying to build a campaign from scratch, get people in the field and put money in the bank, he said. 

More recently, though, the Davis campaign has been striking a decidedly tougher tone, a development some insiders are attributing to newly installed campaign manager Karin Johanson, a veteran of difficult, high-stakes political contests.

When Abbott began touring Texas to tout ideas for education reforms, for example, Team Davis pounced with attacks on the attorney general’s role as the lawyer who’s defending $5.4 billion in education cuts made by the Legislature in 2011.

Abbott says he was just doing his job, but Davis aides and surrogates have repeatedly pressed him to either embrace or repudiate the cuts. Abbott says he can't talk about the cuts and then defend them in court in the ongoing school finance trial. The Davis camp has also hit Abbott for refusing to take a position on major issues, from school vouchers to immigration and threatened or endangered species protection.

Like Davis, the Abbott campaign also had some early boo-boos. In September, Abbott distanced himself from a Tweet of a top adviser, who re-broadcast the suggestion that Davis was “too stupid to be governor.”

Earlier, he had faced criticism for thanking a supporter who, in a Twitter message praising the attorney general, had called Davis a “Retard Barbie.” Abbott said the tweet was accidental and called the language his supporter used “reprehensible” and “completely unacceptable,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

None of the mistakes, on either side, have changed the fundamentals of the race. Texas was and is a Republican state, and for those who like to handicap political races, this one leans rather heavily in favor of Perry’s heir apparent. Like Perry, Abbott can draw on the GOP’s well-oiled turnout machine, a long list of supportive officeholders and the deep pockets of dozens of pro-business donors. 

But as Democratic consultant Glenn Smith likes to point out, weird and unexpected things can happen in elections — as they did in 1978, when Democrats ruled Texas similar to the way the GOP does now.

“Wendy is an underdog,” said Smith, a former aide to Gov. Ann Richards. “So were the Republicans when Bill Clements got in. And he won.”

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Politics 2014 elections Greg Abbott Rick Perry Wendy Davis