Davis, Abbott ready to square off in general election

Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent

After an already stormy prelude, the 2014 general election battle for Texas governor officially unfolded Tuesday as Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis blew past obscure primary opponents to easily secure their parties’ nominations. The outcome of Tuesday’s gubernatorial primaries was never in doubt as Abbott, the Texas attorney general, and Davis, a Fort Worth state senator, effectively ignored their intra-party rivals to batter each other over the past several months in the build-up to their general election confrontation. But with the primaries out of the way, the race to succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry will get even nastier over the next eight months as the two candidates burn through millions of dollars and ratchet up the rhetoric in competing bids to win the Nov. 4 general election. The race is the first since 1990 without an incumbent governor on the ballot and the stakes are enormous for both parties. With Abbott as Perry’s perceived GOP heir-apparent, Republicans are hoping to extend their hold on an office that has been in their grasp for nearly two decades.

Conversely, Democrats have been more energized and united than they have been in years as they rally behind Davis in the hopes of putting one of their own back in the governor’s chair. The last Democratic governor was Ann Richards, who stepped down in January of 1995 after being defeated by future president George W. Bush. ““I am ready to fight for you an d to fight for every hard-working Texan across this state,” Davis told throngs of supporters at her state headquarters in the 200 block of South Main. “ Now is the time to fight for our future. This is not a time to stand still.” With 88 percent of precincts reporting, Davis had 77 percent of the vote over her lone primary opponent, Reynaldo “Ray” Madrigal, a magistrate in Seadrift, near Corpus Christi. Madrigal has also run unsuccessfully for Texas Land Commissioner, mayor of Corpus Christi and state representative.

Chants of “Wendy, Wendy, Wendy” erupted among the approximately 100 supporters packed into the ground floor of the decades-old building, which opened as a hotel in the early 20th Century. “I know we are going to do this,” Davis told the crowd, noting that she had just become the second female since Richards to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. With a combined effort, from her supporters, Davis declared, “come November, we will celebrate an even greater victory than the one we’re celebrating now.” Portraying Abbott as a “defender of the status quo,” Davis vowed to “give our kids a 21st education,’’ to be a voice for “all hard-working Texans and to create the “kinds of jobs that that we need foer tomorrow, that keeps Texas moving forward.” Abbott celebrated his triumph over three Republican opponents at a watch party in San Antonio after voting in Austin. Speaking at his victory party in San Antonio, Abbott accused his opponents of trying to expand state government. He said, “I say no way to bigger government in the state of Texas.”

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Abbott pledged to fight for low taxes and prioritize education. The 56-year-old Abbott has been attorney general since 2003 and is a former Texas Supreme Court justice. His ambitions to succeed Perry were no secret while spending years stockpiling more than $20 million in campaign cash for a gubernatorial run. Abbott was opposed by Miriam Martinez, an Edinburg businesswoman and former television personality; Lisa Fritsch of Austin, a conservative activist, author and former radio show host; and Larry SECEDE Kilgore. Kilgore, an Arlington telecommunications contractor who officially changed his name to underline his goal of withdrawing Texas from the union, also made a bid for governor in 2006. Abbott’s most visible competitor – former Texas GOP chairman Tom Pauken – dropped out before the November filing deadline, saying he had been unable to raise money and gain traction to make a serious race. With nearly 90 percent of precincts reporting, Abbott had 91 percent of the vote.

One of Davis’ goals in the primary was to help activate a vibrant Democratic turn-out to show that the party is ready for warfare in the general election battle. Battleground Texas, which was launched by former Obama political operatives to bolster Democratic fortunes in red-state Texas, has been working side-by-side with the Davis team to register voters and expand the party’s base. Although Davis has been cast as the underdog and trailed Abbott by 11 points in the latest poll, she has emerged as Texas Democrats’ biggest political star in years after waging a filibuster against a Republican-backed abortion regulation bill that was later signed into law. The June filibuster put Davis in the national spotlight – even drawing a supportive tweet from President Obama – and fanned the statewide push for her to enter the governor’s race. She announced her candidacy in early October from the Haltom City stage where she received her high school diploma.

Abbott, who has been the state’s attorney general since 2002, has been steadily been building his political base in a years-long effort to succeed Perry, the state’s longest serving governor who took office in December of 2000. A paraplegic who has used a wheelchair since he was struck by a tree in a jogging accident three decades ago, Abbott announced his candidacy in mid-July by portraying himself as a fighter with a “spine of steel.” The race has already been marked by sharp differences over substantive issues such as education and the economy, along with brush-fires over questions about Davis’ up-by-the-bootstraps resume and Abbott’s judgment in choosing to campaign alongside shock rocker Ted Nugent. Analysts say those earlier exchanges are likely to pale in comparison to what is likely to surface in the race to November. “What we’ve got are two campaigns in the shakeout phase headed to a general election that should be a knock- down, drag out fight,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The campaign is expected to steadily escalate in tempo, ramping up sharply after Labor Day. A February poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune showed Abbott with 47 percent and Davis with 36 percent, while 17 percent remained decided. Jillson said the campaigns aren’t likely to “engage full-on” for several months although Abbott, with his three-to-one cash advantage, has the ability to step out early with costly television ad buys in any or all of the state’s 27 media markets to put Davis on the defensive. Both candidates will need at least $40 million apiece to wage a competitive fight, say analysts. “For Abbott, I think we’ll see business as usual where he’ll try to maintain a relatively even keel, not commit any unforced errors and just keep pushing forward his message,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. Davis, trailing in both the polls and fund-raising, may try “shake things up a bit” as she works to keep Democratic activists energized while reaching for moderates and conservative independents who often support Republicans, said Jones.