* Editor's note: this story has been updated throughout
Attorney General Greg Abbott, presiding over another GOP sweep Tuesday night, crushed state Sen. Wendy Davis in the Texas governor’s race and helped usher in a whole new crop of Republican leaders up and down the statewide ballot.
In this first open race for governor in a quarter century, Abbott was leading Davis by a double-digit margin in unofficial returns. While it is too soon to know the exact margin of victory, and numbers can shift depending on where remaining votes are, with about 85 percent of the precincts counted, she was losing by around 20 points.
When Fox News called the race for Abbott at 8 p.m., a huge cheer went up at Abbott’s packed victory party in downtown Austin. Abbott finally spoke around 10 p.m., just as the local evening news casts were being aired, and the crowd went wild.
The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.
Abbott said Davis had called him to concede, prompting a few scattered boos when her name was mentioned. He vowed to work for all Texans, whether they voted for him or not.
"Tonight Texans sent a message," he said. "You voted for hope over fear, for unity over divison, for the majesty of what Texas is and what it can be. As Texans, the bonds we share transcend our differences.”
The defeat came so swiftly that some in the crowd at the Davis campaign’s Forth Worth election party — where the band had just picked up as early voting numbers came in — were unaware that media outlets had already called the race for Abbott.
When she took the stage, joined by her mother and daughters, Davis was visibly tearful at points, but upbeat, telling supporters they had not fought in vain.
“This wasn’t just a campaign for the governor’s seat. This was a fight to ensure that the state belongs to you,” said Davis. “We won because day by day and day after day you showed up."
"The only way we will have lost tonight is if we stop fighting," Davis said. "I am so proud of all that we have accomplished." As supporters slowly drifted out of the party, many could be seen wiping tears from their faces.
By contrast, Abbott's victory gathering provided a convenient and vivid demonstration of the changeover from one group of Republicans to another, as many of the old and new faces of the dominant Texas GOP came together under one roof — with several would-be 2016 presidential candidates sprinkled in.
Included in the gathering at the Moody Theater were U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican firebrand and potential White House aspirant who was elected with Tea Party backing in 2012; Land Commissioner-elect George P. Bush, the nephew and grandson of two presidents; outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is dousing his legs back into the presidential waters despite his 2012 disaster; and newly elected agriculture and railroad commissioner candidates Sid Miller and Ryan Sitton, respectively.
The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.
Bush’s father, former Florida Gov. and possible presidential candidate Jeb Bush, was also attending the celebration.
A giant Texas flag hung behind the stage where GOP luminaries old and new delivered speeches. Afterward, jubilant supporters munched on Bert’s BBQ and listened to a concert by country singer Pat Green.
Exit polls posted on CNN's website show Abbott beat Davis by lopsided margins with white voters (72-27), men (65-34) and women (52-47). Davis beat Abbott among Latinos (57-42) and African-Americans (93-7).
Abbott, paralyzed in a freak accident in 1984, will become the first Texas governor in a wheelchair while in office, according to research provided by the Texas Legislative Reference Library; he’ll also be the first U.S. governor in a wheelchair since Alabama Gov. George Wallace served his last term in the mid-1980s.
The attorney general referred to his disability in his victory speech, saying he was "living proof that a young a man can have his life broken in half and still rise up to be the governor of this great state.”
Another Abbott first: His wife, Cecilia, will become the first Hispanic first lady of Texas, according to Abbott’s campaign. Greg and Cecilia Abbott, married in 1981, have one daughter, Audrey, a high school senior.
A former state district judge in Houston, Abbott, 56, was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1996 and served on the high bench until 2001. He was elected attorney general in 2002 and served in that office for three four-year terms, longer than any occupant before him.
With legendary skill as a fundraiser and only token opposition in his two re-election contests, Abbott had amassed $20 million before the 2014 election even began. And he instantly became the prohibitive front-runner when Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, announced he would move on after an unprecedented 14 years in office.
The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.
Abbott went on to raise another $45 million, providing him with what’s believed to be the largest donated warchest in a statewide race since the advent of modern campaign finance reporting. (Democrat Tony Sanchez largely self-financed his losing 2002 gubernatorial campaign, which cost about $70 million.)
All told, the two candidates for governor spent upwards of $85 million, according to figures each side provided to the media.
During the campaign, Abbott made a series of new policy proposals — to improve education outcomes, spend more on the Texas-Mexico border and, notably, to introduce a major ethics reform package in the notoriously loose Texas Legislature.
But during campaign appearances he mostly stuck to the bread and butter of Texas GOP politics, promising to stay the course of low taxes and stingy budgeting while portraying the federal government as an ever-encroaching beast that threatens the Texas way of life.
Abbott took great delight in boasting about the more than two dozen lawsuits he’d filed against Uncle Sam, and in the final hours of his campaign he turned once again to Barack Obama, whom he treated as a sort of shadow opponent, warning that the unpopular president had teamed up with Davis to pump up turnout so they could inflict their “liberal agenda” on Texans and “hijack this state.”
"If you don't [vote], Barack Obama's liberal, pro-abortion agenda is going to be crammed down on the state of Texas," he told supporters in a late-night get-out-the-vote call.
The fed-bashing, tax-cutting, liberal-smashing rhetoric appears to have worked its magic, not only for Abbott but for every other Republican on the statewide ballot, starting with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and heading down to Land Commissioner-elect Bush, plus every statewide judge.
It wasn’t exactly unexpected. If the vote trends are confirmed, this was the 10th consecutive GOP sweep of the statewide ballot since 1996, half of them presidential elections and the other half mid-terms that feature races for governor and other executive-level offices that oversee state government.
Still, the 2014 election dealt a particularly harsh blow to the once dominant Democrats, whose roster of candidates once included heavyweights like former Vice-President John Nance “Cactus Jack" Garner, President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn.
After the Tea Party-infused sweep of 2010, Democrats looked to 2014 as their best shot in a generation to stage a statewide comeback.
For the first time in more than a century, there were no incumbent politicians running for re-election to any of the statewide executive positions on the ballot, so all those powerful jobs were up for grabs. According to the Legislative Reference Library, there hasn’t been a wide open ballot like this since at least 1906, when modern primaries and record keeping began. (Federal office and judicial posts weren’t counted.)
That alone gave Democrats a rare opening. But then as the contests unfolded, the sitting governor got indicted on corruption charges and the GOP candidate for attorney general was fined after admitting he violated state securities law — developments that might have given the party in power a bad headache in a competitive state.
It wasn’t even a leg cramp in Texas. In the only reliably Republican mega-state in the nation, the real competition now takes place in the spring primaries, where the chief worry for GOP incumbents is losing to a more conservative candidate.
Though the results were still coming in Tuesday evening, no statewide Democrat came even remotely close to winning.
It wasn’t supposed to be such a blowout, at least as far as the governor’s race was concerned. After rocketing to fame with her 11-hour-plus filibuster of a restrictive abortion bill, Davis was said to have at least an outside chance of becoming the first Democrat to inhabit the Governor’s Mansion since Ann Richards, who scored an upset victory against the gaffe-prone Republican Clayton Williams in 1990.
Davis raised millions and aired a series of harsh attack ads. She partnered with Battleground Texas, a tech-savvy group started by former Obama operatives, with an aim toward boosting the often lackluster Democratic vote.
And she ran an aggressive race that often put the Republican candidate on the defensive. She attacked him over his decision to campaign alongside smash-talking rocker and activist Ted Nugent, criticized his stand on equal pay for women and made the most of the controversy over Abbott’s decision to block release of information about the location of dangerous chemicals in Texas.
The way Davis pollster Joel Benenson sees it, Davis did an admirable job in very difficult circumstances, and he blamed the loss largely on Abbott’s spending advantage and the inevitable uphill climb any Democrat would face in a conservative state in the sixth year of a Democratic presidency.
“This race starts with Wendy Davis as a significant under dog in a state that is a solid red state and has been for 20 years,” Benenson said. “And Wendy’s running against someone who starts with more than $20 million in the bank. And that’s the reality about the race that we had to deal with.”
But Abbott’s chief strategist, Dave Carney, said the Democrats put up a flawed candidate with a flawed message, and he dismissed Battleground Texas as a “fraud” that didn’t live up to all their acolytes' incessant bragging about its efforts to turn Texas blue.
“They ran a horrible campaign. It would be hard to tell what their message was, other than being a victim,” Carney said. “It was just a totally incoherent campaign strategy.”
Texas Tribune reporter Morgan Smith contributed to this story.
Videos courtesy KXAS-TV.