McALLEN — Gov. Greg Abbott defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke in Texas governor’s race on Tuesday, convincingly earning him a third term.
Abbott grabbed an early lead as he and about 300 supporters waited for the votes to be counted in a hacienda-converted bird sanctuary in McAllen.
At every turn of their struggle over the past year, Republican incumbent O’Rourke has associated with President Joe Biden, who is unpopular in Texas.
Abbott offered himself as a tried and true defender of Texas’ low-tax, light-regulatory governance style—and of law and order and traditional values.
O’Rourke, a former presidential candidate and congressman from El Paso, had alleged that the state was underperforming under GOP leaders such as Abbott. and it was time to “turn the table” on that era.
But Tuesday’s results indicate Texas voters were happy with the state’s direction under the two-term governor.
Scott and Nancy Hommel said they drove 9½ hours from Paris in northeast Texas to attend Abbott’s election night watch party.
“He stands for America,” says Scott, 58, an Ohio native. “The Democratic Party has lost its way — and the goodwill of the American people.”
Celeste Huff, the Edinburg-born small business owner, said she appreciates Abbott’s “addressing parents’ issues related to school choice and border security.”
Also, “He stands for our law enforcement,” said Huff, 37, who brought her son George, 5, with her. [police].”
Early on, the race attracted national attention — and donations from coast to coast.
Both men boasted that they had enlisted small armies of knocking volunteers. Breaking records, Abbott and O’Rourke have collectively spent $202.5 million since July 1, 2021, 65% of which is from the two-term GOP incumbent’s spending. In those 16 months, Abbott raised $83.6 million; and O’Rourke, $77.3 million.
In the latest public polls going into effect Tuesday, Abbott enjoyed an average lead of 9.2 percentage points among likely voters, according to Real Clear Politics.
The rivals took few blows in a match that was fought to the limit on Tuesday.
Abbott, 64, who has been in the state election for more than a quarter of a century, praised the state’s prosperity but gave little detail about what he wants to accomplish in four more years as governor.
Instead, he warned in particularly stark terms that Texas’s identity as a bastion of freedom was being jeopardized by O’Rourke’s liberal views. He said O’Rourke is in step with liberal National Democrats.
“Wrong Way O’Rourke wants to kill the energy industry in Texas,” read the subject line of an email from Abbott last winter.
On the eve of Tuesday’s vote, the Abbott campaign revised the moniker for O’Rourke, but stuck to long-standing accusations that O’Rourke as governor would jeopardize economic gains and public safety.
“Every Way Beto Will Destroy Texas,” it said in a press release, ticking off O’Rourke’s stances on taxes, energy, immigration, criminal justice, abortion and cultural issues.
For his part, O’Rourke shied away from his heartfelt endorsement of Biden in 2020, even criticizing the president’s handling of the Texas-Mexico border.
Last weekend, however, O’Rourke welcomed a robocall of support from former President Barack Obama.
In a fundraising email on Monday, O’Rourke said that “we are up against the worst governor in the United States of America.”
O’Rourke, 50, repeatedly called Abbott a failure. He cited a troubling exodus of public school teachers, closures of rural hospitals, a February 2021 winter storm that severed Texas’ power grid, and the governor’s advocacy last year for “extreme” legislation banning abortion and gun-carrying permits. abolished.
But most Texans had other things on their minds, says Allan Saxe, a retired political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“Today we are in a different world,” he said. “People are concerned about crime, concerned about education. They are concerned about immigration. They also believe the economy is in trouble.”
Kenneth Bryant Jr., a political scientist at the University of Texas at Tyler, noted that Texas Democrats failed to break through in national competitions “with tailwinds in 2018 and 2020.” This year proved to be a “buzz saw” for them, he said.
“Even more than the national climate, [O’Rourke] ran into a relatively popular incumbent governor with a massive war chest,” Bryant said. “Whereas the Democrats were competitive this year in ‘red’ and ‘purple’ states, there are places with weak Republican candidates. Beto wasn’t so lucky.”
Unlike his first two campaigns for governors, this year Abbott shoved his entire pile of money in the middle of the table.
At the end of his 2014 race against then-Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, Abbott withheld $12.5 million. Four years ago, against former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, he saved $17.5 million. But in 2022, with 10 days to go before the election, he reported a cash balance of just $3.7 million.
This cycle saw Abbott face two critical moments in his bid for reelection.
The first was a week-long period in the fall of 2021 when Fox News personality Tucker Carlson reprimanded him for not sending enough National Guard soldiers to the Texas-Mexico border. Carlson invited the GOP challengers of Abbott, former Allen West Republican Party chairman and former Dallas State Senator Donald Huffines, to appear in front of a large audience on his show. That forced Abbott to be late to explain to Carlson his state efforts to secure the border.
Following the mass shooting in May at an elementary school in Uvalde and the decision of the US Supreme Court in June to overrule Roe vs. Wade, Abbott also made some casual mistakes and suddenly saw the Democrats on fire.
As Bryant of UT-Tyler pointed out, Abbott made some blunders.
“The comment after Uvalde ‘it could have been worse’ was used as a weapon against him this summer,” Bryant said. “But a combination of timing [it was months ago] and give conspicuousness [gun reform is not a top priority for voters this cycle] saved him from a more consistent political backlash.”
Abbott’s right-wing course in the 2021 legislative sessions apparently didn’t cost him much, as the race was “nationalized” by concerns about inflation and the border and Biden’s unpopularity, said University of Houston professor Brandon Rottinghaus.
“Abbott first campaigned for office as a right-wing moderate, but political trends forced him to move to the right,” Rottinghaus said. “He is a smart politician and knew that if he moved just far enough to the right he could keep his base but not alienate moderates.”
Some longtime Abbott advisers said he was again heeding a time-validated “Rose Garden” strategy, in which incumbents minimize debates for challengers, avoid media scrums and appear in public in controlled environments.
“Abbott took a page from the Rick Perry playbook, avoided the media and diminished the importance of the debate. Even his modest blunders… didn’t gain traction in a pretty nasty negative race in general,” Rottinghaus said.
In a closing ad broadcast on TV during the final 13 days of the campaign, O’Rourke spoke to the camera in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, framed by two Texas flags.
Abbott “failed us” by doing nothing to prevent school shootings, high property taxes and the catastrophic failure of the state’s main electrical grid last year, O’Rourke said. The Democrat promised to address those issues, “pay our teachers” and restore women’s ability to decide whether to have an abortion.
“Let’s turn the table for Greg Abbott and move Texas forward,” he concluded.
Abbott’s last spot returned to footage of his devastating spinal injury in 1984. A tree fell on him when the future judge and attorney general, then a young employee of a Houston law firm, studied in front of the bar jogging in a residential area.
The ad also reprized shots the Abbott team used in 2014 of him training late at night in a Dallas parking garage, propelling his wheelchair and sweating through a gray T-shirt.
“Thirty-eight years ago his back was broken, but his mind was not,” says one narrator. “It’s that same determination that drives Greg Abbott to keep Texas strong.”
Amid video clips showing Abbott touring a factory, appearing at a crime scene and pointing to the banks of the Rio Grande River in a state speedboat, the ad visually shows the lines of attack the incumbent has used to determine O Rourke to question: jobs, full funding of police forces, a wave of migrants on the Texas-Mexico border.
“Greg Abbott, securing the future of Texas,” the narrator concludes, against a backdrop of Abbott surrounded by 11 adorable youngsters.
Staff writer Yamil Berard in Dallas contributed to this report.