Texas overwhelmingly elected Republican Greg Abbott as the first new governor in 14 years on Tuesday night and elevated tea party leaders to powerful statewide offices in a forceful rejection of the most optimistic and heavily funded challenge from Democrats in decades.
Wendy Davis, whose national political star power outshined her flickering performance as a candidate, was on track to fare even worse than the last Democrat who ran for Texas governor in 2010. The loss was a sobering reality check for Democrats and delighted Republicans, who relished running up the score on a high-profile opponent whose campaign was co-piloted by the architects of President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Abbott, the state attorney general since 2003, was carrying more than 60 percent of the vote with more than half the ballots counted.
“I’m thinking there’s a whole lot of the country that’s looking to be more like Texas tonight,” said Gov. Rick Perry, warming up the crowd for his successor at an Austin victory party.
Perry did not seek a record fourth full term but is mulling another White House run in 2016. Two other potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush — were also on hand to toast Abbott, who didn’t rub in the landslide victory in his acceptance speech.
Four years ago, Perry won his final re-election bid by 13 points over his Democratic opponent — who lacked the name recognition, nationwide book tour and record-breaking fundraising that Davis generated.
Davis’ appeal to women voters fell short, as they were divided about evenly between the two candidates, according to preliminary results of an exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. She had the edge with Hispanic voters, but whites overwhelmingly sided with Abbott.
Abbott, 56, will become the first elected governor in the U.S. to be in a wheelchair since 1982. Paralyzed from the waist down after being crushed by a falling tree during a jog as a law student, Abbott made his biography the cornerstone of a campaign that aggressively courted Hispanic voters with an emphasis unmatched by a Texas Republican since George W. Bush left for the White House.
Abbott will be sworn into office in January, carrying an agenda of bare-knuckled Texas conservatism.
He will govern alongside Dan Patrick, a conservative talk radio host and founder of the tea party caucus in the Legislature. Patrick was easily elected lieutenant governor despite shunning reporters and using confrontational rhetoric that even other Republicans condemned.
In many ways, the outcomes farther down the ballot said more about Texas politics than the marquee and near-record $83 million race between Abbott and Davis at the top.
Ken Paxton, another tea-party fixture who got a rare endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, coasted to victory in the attorney general’s race despite the prospect of a criminal investigation into his work as an investment adviser. Republican Sid Miller hired shock rocker Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer in his run for agriculture commissioner — the job where Perry got his start — and beat a cattle rancher who was the Democratic nominee simply because the party didn’t put up any other candidate.
It helps explain why Texas Democrats haven’t won an elected statewide office in 20 years, the longest such losing streak in the nation. Yet that they would not measurably close the gap seemed inconceivable just 17 months ago when Davis became a national sensation with a nearly 13-hour filibuster over Texas abortion restrictions.
“Tonight I know that you are disappointed,” Davis said. “And being disappointed is OK. But being discouraged is not, because what we have before us is an opportunity to remake this state in your image.”
Davis struggled with strategy and the press early, changed campaign managers during the summer and aired risky television spots come fall, including one that highlighted Abbott’s use of a wheelchair. She kept Obama at arm’s length for nearly a year then welcomed him in the final stretch.
“This whole flipping Texas blue thing sounds good. I would love that,” said Russell Dreyer, 33, a former firefighter near Austin who voted for Davis. “But this is Texas.”