There’s a small crowd munching on tacos and tortilla chips here at El Pato, a local chain restaurant in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. We’re a short drive from the Mexican border, in a part of the state that’s nearly 90 percent Hispanic. The folks here are noticeably whiter (or more Anglo, as Texans would say) than that, but plenty of Hispanics have shown up, too. Fifty-six-year-old Greg Abbott, the powerful attorney general and Republican nominee for governor, is discussing how years of incredible economic growth are transforming Texas. He makes sure to mention the state’s fastest-growing demographic group.
“People are streaming across the border every single day,” he says. “And you know who they are.” The room falls uncomfortably quiet. Where’s he going with this? “They are Californians,” he deadpans, breaking out into a big smile.
The tension releases, and everyone laughs. It’s a carefully planned joke, part of a carefully planned campaign. Abbott tells me that he likes to make jokes that disarm voters, to make them think he’s going one way before he veers off in a different direction. He’s got another one he tells often, and it definitely doesn’t start off funny.
It was 1984, and Abbott had just graduated from Vanderbilt Law School. He and his young wife Cecilia had moved back to Texas, where Abbott was about to start a plum job at a firm in Houston. On a jog with a friend one day, he ran slightly ahead down a leafy street. Abbott heard a crack, and he was suddenly pinned down to the ground by a fallen tree. The tree had crushed a car parked nearby. It had also crushed his back.
The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He’ll tell crowds about his recovery. “The doctors helped me piece my life back together by literally piecing the fragments of my vertebrae together, gluing them together, and then fusing them together and then inserting steel rods in my back,” he says.
Voters may have heard politicians say when it comes to the tough decisions, they’ll have a spine of steel. “I really do have a steel spine,” Abbott counters with a grin.
The jokes reveal how assured Abbott is in his bid to become the first new governor of Texas in 14 years. And why shouldn’t he be? The state has become increasingly Republican over the last few decades. The GOP has held the governorship for 27 of the last 35 years, and without interruption since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994. Most polls show Abbott with a double-digit lead over the Democratic nominee, state senator Wendy Davis. “He’s gonna win,” says the incumbent, Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in state history.
Even the act of coming down to the Rio Grande Valley, just two days after winning the GOP nomination, is a sign of confidence from Abbott. The Valley remains the Democrats’ strongest nonurban redoubt in Texas, thanks to the overwhelmingly Hispanic population. In Hidalgo County, where Edinburg is located and the largest of the four-county region, George W. Bush won 53 percent of the vote in his 1998 landslide reelection win. Like the rest of Texas, Hidalgo County has grown incredibly since then, but unlike the rest of Texas, Hidalgo’s grown more Democratic. In 2010, Perry earned about the same number of raw votes in Hidalgo as Bush had, but by then that was just 32 percent of the electorate.
Bush and Perry didn’t need those votes in the valley to win in Texas, and neither will Abbott. Still, an interesting thing happened in the March 4 primary. Both Abbott and Davis sailed easily through their respective contests, but the buzz among reporters and political types alike was how poorly Davis performed in the valley. She lost three of the four counties, including Hidalgo, to a perennial also-ran Democratic candidate. The Fort Worth-based Davis had all but secured the Democratic nomination after a headline-grabbing filibuster last year of a bill that included a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. (The bill later passed in a special session and was signed into law.) Davis’s filibuster earned her a great deal of fawning media coverage from national outlets, who wondered if she might be the one to finally “turn Texas blue.” The message just didn’t seem to make it down to the border.
Or maybe it did. One Abbott supporter in Edinburg, former state representative Aaron Peña, is a Democrat-turned-Republican with strong ties to the valley. He says his fellow Hispanic Texans may vote Democratic, but they are traditionalists on cultural issues, including abortion. Davis may be popular with the liberal set in Austin, but she doesn’t offer much to Peña’s constituents, he says. And that’s what makes Abbott’s bold pronouncement in Edinburg sound almost plausible.