Cover Story
Abbott speaks to the press outside Western Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas.
Erich Schlegel/Getty Images
Abbott speaks to the press outside Western Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas.

Wheeling onto the national stage

Politics | Barring an election earthquake Greg Abbott will be the next governor of Texas and the Republican charged with frustrating Democratic plans to turn the biggest red state blue—and give liberals a long-term lease on the White House

Issue: "The GOP’s Greg Abbott," May 31, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas—I spent much of April 29 sitting next to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott aboard a nine-seater Citation XLS that took us from Austin to Lubbock air space to Abilene to Gainesville and back to Austin. We missed the centerpiece of the day, a planned Abbott press conference on education at Lubbock High School, because as the plane approached the West Texas city a dust cloud, propelled thousands of feet high by 60-mile-per-hour winds, forced the pilot to land in Abilene instead.

That’s when Zac Petkanas, spokesman for Democratic pro-abortion candidate Wendy Davis, publicly speculated that Abbott had purposefully avoided Lubbock because he feared answering reporters’ questions. But while Petkanas tweeted—“Greg Abbott too chicken to follow through on press conference at Lubbock”—Abbott was talking with Lubbock reporters by phone.

You can tell a campaign is going your way when a missed campaign stop turns into a public relations victory.

Soon KCBD, the NBC affiliate in Lubbock, was reporting that the dust storm had given passengers on another plane a “white knuckle ride” filled with “heart-stopping moments.” It quoted a more laid-back Abbott saying “the air got denser and denser—so much so that we couldn’t even see.” And the local newspaper, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, gave positive coverage to Abbott’s education platform, which proposes “more local control for school districts as well as greater transparency to promote more parental involvement.”

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Abbott had accurately described the eerie brownout, with dust surrounding the plane leaving only a few feet of visibility. Pilots have compared landing during brownouts to parallel parking a car with eyes closed.

AN EVENT LATER IN THE DAY went off as planned. In the cavernous hanger of Orteq Energy Technologies in the North Texas town of Gainesville, with gigantic fracking machinery as a backdrop, Abbott won applause from 95 men and women (some in suits, others wearing jeans and ball caps, many holding or wearing Abbott campaign material) by describing his job as “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”

He threw out other red-meat lines: “You can count on me to keep the boot of government off your backs. … I’ve brought 30 lawsuits against Barack Obama and his overreaching federal government,” which is looking to “crush the growing energy sector. … I’m glad to get back with salt of the earth people [and] get out of the People’s Republic of Austin.”

He’s given a variant of that speech before and will probably keep giving it until Nov. 4—and most Texas Republicans could give similar rousers. It’s like a “compulsory figure” in figure skating, where until the 1990s top skaters had to do figure eights on the ice again and again. Only after tracing perfectly round circles with no wobbles, flats, bulges, or inward curling would they have a chance to win the free skating competition with its exciting but hazardous triple axels and lutzes.

Skating competition has eliminated the compulsory figures, but politics has not. Campaigners, whether Democrat or Republican, must still offer “red meat” speeches to carnivorous constituents. Abbott showed he can do what is mandatory, both in speaking and in shaking hands with voter after voter and mixing small talk with occasional tall talk on battling Obama. He also unites the personal and the political with a line he uses in every campaign appearance: “Lots of politicians say they have a steel spine, but I really have one.”

THAT SPINE IS A CENTRAL PART of his appeal, in several ways. Democrats, borrowing from their last Texas governor, Ann Richards, like to characterize legacy Republicans as folks born on third base who thought they hit a triple—but Abbott, from humbler stock, worked hard, hit a line drive, and was rounding first when a terrible accident forced him to go back to home plate.

Abbott’s dad sold insurance and stocks until he died while Abbott was a high-school sophomore. His previously stay-at-home mom went to work in a real estate office, while Abbott mowed lawns and stocked store shelves. He was a track star in high school, where his class voted him Most Likely to Succeed. Abbott jogged in Austin at The University of Texas, in Nashville at Vanderbilt Law School, and in Houston as a young lawyer—until an oak tree fell on him while he was running past live oaks and magnolias near the corner of Inwood and Chilton in Houston’s über-affluent River Oaks neighborhood.

It was quiet there on the first Saturday morning of this month, except for the sound of gardeners edging a lawn. It was steamy on July 14, 1984, when Abbott heard “an explosion, like a bomb going off,” as an oak snapped at its base. The next second he was on the ground. Broken bones in his vertebrae pierced his spinal cord. Fractured ribs poked into his organs. He almost died, then went through months of rehabilitation, and has been imprisoned in a wheelchair ever since.

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