They never had to sweat their primaries, so on Tuesday night Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis turned their attention to a fall election that is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested and closely watched Texas governor’s races in decades.
Davis, who was winning almost 80 percent of the vote in early returns, and Abbott, who was pulling in more than 90 percent at last count, both gave early victory speeches on a night when uncertainty and surprise shook up candidates in several other key state races.
Davis went first, focusing her remarks on job creation and education, saying Texas badly needed new leadership after years of uninterrupted Republican rule.
"I want you to know this: I am ready to fight for you and to fight for every hardworking Texan across this state," Davis said at her campaign headquarters in Fort Worth. "Now is the time to fight for our future. This is not a time to stand still."
But Davis' remarks quickly turned into an attack on Abbott. She criticized him for defending in court steep cuts made by the Legislature to public education in 2011 in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of school districts that say the state's education system is flawed and doesn't appropriately fund schools.
“He’s defending those cuts,” Davis said. “Cuts that laid off teachers and forced our kids into overcrowded classrooms."
She also mentioned the ongoing abortion debate in Texas — the issue that helped turn her into an overnight sensation last summer when she filibustered a restrictive abortion bill. Davis bashed Abbott for his stance on abortion, saying that he wants to “dictate for all women, including victims of rape and incest.” Abbott has said he believes abortion should be legal only when the mother's life is in danger.
“I will be the governor who fights for the future of Texas,” Davis said, adding that “Greg Abbott is a defender of the status quo.”
Abbott did not hesitate to criticize Davis during the primary race, but his victory speech did not include a single mention of her. The closest he came was when he described the stakes for voters this November.
"Now that the primaries are over, it’s time that we turn our eyes toward the general election. And the question arises: What direction will be the best direction for the state of Texas?" Abbott said. "Some answer that question by demanding more government." A predictable round of boos could be heard, after which Abbott warned that expanding government would trigger higher taxes and "the devastation of the economic miracle that Texas has created.”
Raising his voice, Abbott said, "I say no way to bigger government in the state of Texas.”
The Republican front-runner largely struck a tone of unity in his remarks, highlighting his wife's Hispanic origins and describing his family as a representative sample of the state's diversity.
"We are multicultural. We’re Anglo. We're Irish. We're Hispanic," Abbott said. "The blending of cultures in the Lone Star State works. We are one people. We are all Texans. And we unite on the common ground of faith, of family and of freedom.”
In the primary, Abbott faced three novice candidates. With almost 40 percent of the precincts counted, he was winning with almost 92 percent. His nearest challenger was Lisa Fritsch, a conservative activist and author, who received about 4 percent of the vote. Miriam Martinez, a former journalist, was in third place, and Secede Kilgore (who changed his name from Larry) was in last place.
Davis faced a single challenger, Corpus Christi Municipal Court Judge Ray Madrigal. With about half of the precincts reporting, the Fort Worth senator was leading him by a significant margin.
The unknown and unfunded candidate, hardly a blip in polls, nevertheless was giving Davis a run for her money in overwhelmingly Hispanic areas in South Texas, including populous Hidalgo and Webb counties. In Hidalgo, she lost to Madrigal by nearly 2,000 votes out of about 36,000 cast. In Webb County, she lost to him by almost 2,800 votes out of nearly 24,000 votes cast. South Texas is a region where Davis must run strong in November if she hopes to be competitive. She has made a big push to get her vote total up in the Rio Grande Valley, and was in Brownsville as recently as last weekend; she won in Cameron County by about 1,300 votes.
Abbott staged his victory celebration at Aldaco’s restaurant, about a mile from the Alamo in downtown San Antonio. His campaign said the site selection was no accident: He is promising to go hard after the Hispanic vote. Earlier Tuesday he said that his campaign would pose a “real threat” to Democrats who are counting on Hispanic voters.
Davis celebrated with her supporters at her campaign headquarters in south Fort Worth, where volunteers were making phone calls up until polls closed. The senator visited the phone bank earlier in the day to thank supporters and to call voters.
She has proven to be an adept fundraiser, pulling in small donations from around the country, and several large ones from trial lawyers and other traditional Democratic givers.
That has helped make the 2014 governor’s race, the first one without an incumbent since Ann Richards won in 1990, unusually competitive and attention-grabbing. It’s also given Democrats rare hope that they can break a 20-year losing streak in the fight for the Governor’s Mansion.
It’s still a steep climb for Davis. At last count, Abbott had three times more money in the bank, or about $30 million compared with $11 million. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll had Abbott up by 11 points.
Abbott has framed the race as a Texas-versus-Washington proxy battle, noting his many lawsuits against the Obama administration as attorney general and never missing the opportunity to associate Davis with the Democratic president.
“The more we see about the deep connections between the Obama administration and Wendy Davis’ campaign, the more we see our fellow Texans get very upset and concerned about that,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Because the last thing Texans want is anything involving Barack Obama to come in and hijack the future of the state of Texas.”
Davis has portrayed Abbott as politically extreme and out of touch with ordinary Texans. She has tried to hang unpopular education cuts around his neck, urging him to use his power as attorney general to settle an ongoing school finance lawsuit rather than fight it out in court.
She has also capitalized in recent weeks on Abbott’s campaign trail appearance with controversial rocker Ted Nugent, who has called for making undocumented immigrants “indentured servants” and referred to female politicians as “bitches.” Last month, Davis joined Texas Democratic Party leaders in criticizing Abbott for standing beside Nugent, who has previously acknowledged having sex with underage girls, and for calling the rocker his "blood brother."
The Abbott campaigned has brushed off Davis' remarks regarding Nugent and used the joint appearance with Nugent, a gun enthusiast, to emphasize Abbott a strong defender of Second Amendment rights.
Davis made no mention of Nugent during her remarks Tuesday, but she highlighted her plans to defend freedom for all Texans.
"I will be the governor who fights for all freedom — not just certain freedoms for certain people," Davis said.