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Analysis: Abbott Aims Big on Education Reform, but He Must Aim Carefully

Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott says he's looking “to make Texas the No. 1 education system in the United States within 10 years.” He has to find a way to suggest improvements while not criticizing his ally Rick Perry.

Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks to press after voting in the primary on March 4th, 2014 at South Austin church. Abbott is running for the Republican nomination for Governor of Texas

It’s hard to campaign against the status quo — to do what Sarah Palin might call “that hopey-changey stuff” — when the leader of that status quo is an ally.

Consider the case of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott — this year’s Republican nominee for governor — trying to make a moon-shot proposal about public education. Looking for a big idea, Abbott has decided “to make Texas the No. 1 education system in the United States within 10 years.”

You can’t win the trophy for most improved unless you start somewhere below the ideal. And it's hard on political allies like Gov. Rick Perry if Abbott says they’ve been doing mediocre work for more than a decade.

Abbott can defend the "Texas Miracle” against Democratic opponent Wendy Davis’ attacks, backing up the governor whenever he says Davis and the Democrats are running down the state’s reputation. It’s an appeal to Texas exceptionalism — or Texas patriotism — that has worked for the GOP for years.

That will give Abbott some insulation when he takes exception to the state’s achievements — or lack of them — in public and higher education. Davis is hoping to win the public education fight, leveraging her 2011 filibuster against school budget cuts. If Abbott makes a successful claim to education reform, he could undercut an important part of her pitch.

He could undercut Perry, too, assuming the governor is pitching a healthy education system as he finishes off his 14th year in the state’s top office.

State Sen. Dan Patrick doesn’t have this problem — he’s running against an incumbent, which allows him to rage against the machine in a way that many other Republicans cannot. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has been in office since 2003; challengers can blame any problems they see on the current management.

Ken Paxton or Dan Branch, who are in a Republican primary runoff for attorney general, could get a little of what Abbott is getting, if Democratic candidate Sam Houston is able to draw the GOP nominee into a November fight. The winner of the GOP runoff will, in a sense, be running for Abbott’s fourth term as attorney general. Houston might be more willing to talk about changes than his Republican opponent; Abbott, first elected in 2002, compiled a strong enough record there — at least with Republican voters — to make him their pre-emptive favorite for governor. Campaigning against Abbott’s record in front of that same crowd would put a fellow Republican in an awkward position.

Kind of like the position Abbott himself is in right now.

The attorney general candidates have an easier time of this. The race for governor is different. Even with U.S. Senate and congressional races above it on the ballot, the governor’s race is the main event in Texas in nonpresidential election years.

It is the contest most likely to get attention inside and outside the state. If Perry is testing public interest in another run for president, everybody else who is doing the same thing will be particularly interested in anything negative about his tenure at the top of state government, especially if it’s coming from another Republican.

Reform might be a great and popular idea. Both gubernatorial candidates are looking at education, and both have found some political obstacles. Davis is trying to find a way to talk about improvements without talking about higher spending. That is bringing some heat from Abbott, who unveiled an ad this week razzing her for not putting price tags on her proposals.

He will have the same issue as he unveils his own proposals, if he doesn’t price them as he goes (he has been, so far), or if the price tags are bigger than voters would like.

And he has an obstacle that Davis doesn’t. She is completely comfortable campaigning against Perry’s record on education and a number of other issues.

Abbott has to act carefully, finding a way to suggest improvements interesting and dramatic enough to get voter attention while making sure he isn’t blasting the government built by his ally, the current governor.

If they thought there was nothing wrong with it, neither of the two candidates would be talking about reform. Both have to find a way to talk about the costs involved, but only one has to worry about what the current governor thinks.

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Politics Public education 2014 elections Education Greg Abbott Rick Perry Wendy Davis