What Greg Abbott’s decisive win over Beto O’Rourke portends for his future

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a Site Selections Governors Cup award announcement at the Texas Governor's Mansion in Austin on March 1, 2022. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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An unprecedented pandemic that shut down the state economy and killed thousands of Texans. A power-grid failure that left millions freezing in the dark. The deadliest school shooting in the state’s history. The end of a 50-year constitutional right to get an abortion. A restless right flank. And then Beto O’Rourke.

Gov. Greg Abbott is emerging from the most tumultuous two years of his governorship with a decisive reelection victory in hand. His win was among the brightest spots for Republicans nationwide on election night, as the party underperformed expectations of a “red wave.”

After defeating O’Rourke — Texas’ most promising Democrat in recent history — Abbott begins his third term in a strong position, with a rising national profile and a governing mandate in the eyes of fellow Republicans.

Still, Abbott faces high expectations for the next legislative session, unsettled pressures from inside his party and questions about his own political future. Not to mention he is still dealing with the ongoing — and politically fraught — responses to major events of the past couple of years, like the Uvalde massacre that left 19 school children dead.

“He clearly won by double digits,” said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, referring to Abbott’s 11-point margin over O’Rourke. “I think the people of Texas have spoken and believe in his agenda, and so if you want to call that a mandate, I believe it is.”

Yet this is not the same Greg Abbott who won reelection with ease in 2018. The last two years saw Abbott’s once-impressive approval rating hit its lowest point ever and then recover partially, with the latest University of Texas polling showing a narrowly positive net rating.

It is against that backdrop that Abbott approaches his third term with perceived ambitions for a bigger spotlight. He has shown no signs of slowing down his at times unprecedented efforts to secure the border, and he continues to keep open the possibility he could run for president.

Democrats say the election should have been humbling for Abbott. While he won, they note he had to spend massively to defeat a challenger in O’Rourke, who argued Abbott had become too extreme.

"Governor Abbott's only mandate now is to govern with a steady, bipartisan hand and address issues that actually impact Texans’ everyday lives — not to sprint further down the rabbit hole of culture war extremism that the ever-shrinking far-right base wants him to,” the Texas Democratic Party’s executive director, Jamarr Brown, said in a statement.

Abbott’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview or comment for this story.

His office is set for a post-election shakeup, and he announced Thursday that his chief of staff for over five years, Luis Saenz, was departing. Saenz will be replaced by Gardner Pate, who chaired Abbott's campaign.

The governor steered the state further to the right over the past two years than he has in his entire tenure. And as he faced controversy after controversy along the way, he made some risky bets — that the power grid would not fail again, for example. And while O’Rourke attacked Abbott as too extreme on abortion and guns — with polls showing voters agreed — Abbott remained intractable, refusing to consider any measures to restrict firearm access or rethink the state’s abortion ban.

Instead, he kept his messaging laser-focused on border security and the economy. Even O’Rourke’s aides admitted afterward that Abbott did a good job keeping the focus on issues that favored him.

Abbott’s campaign did not meet expectations on all fronts, however, with exit polling showing that he failed to achieve his goal of winning a majority with Hispanic voters statewide.

Campaign promises and the next session

Abbott made some specific promises in his campaign that set the stage for the next legislative session, which starts Jan. 10. Chief among them was setting aside at least half of the state’s $27 billion budget surplus for property tax relief, which Abbott pitched as the “largest property tax cut in the history of the state.”

He also emphasized giving parents more of a say in their kids’ education. Most notably, he declared that state funding should follow students regardless of what kind of school they attend, a statement that was a boon to supporters of school vouchers.

“He’s been very clear and very bold in what he expects or what he wants to see done, and I think voters responded to that, and so I think we are ... very hopeful that we see some movement on both of those items,” said Greg Sindelar, CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based conservative think tank.

Abbott is also poised to continue prioritizing border security in the next session. That could mean maintaining — or expanding — Operation Lone Star, the $4 billion program that at its height deployed nearly 10,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border or other parts of the state to curb migrant crossings. Abbott also initiated a state-funded border wall and grabbed national headlines by sending thousands of migrants by bus to cities run by Democrats.

While Abbott has taken unprecedented action on the border, he continues to elicit griping from some fellow Republicans that he is not doing enough. That was on full display this week, as Abbott reiterated the action he took this summer to treat the situation as an “invasion” under the U.S. Constitution and authorize state authorities to return apprehended migrants to the border. Just like when Abbott announced the move in July, some in his own party said this week it was insufficient because he was not letting state authorities send the migrants back across the border to Mexico.

Abbott did catch a break with Republican Kari Lake’s loss in the Arizona governor’s race. Lake had vowed to fortify the border more aggressively than Texas, and Abbott’s conservative critics, some of whom openly campaigned for Lake, were prepared to pit Abbott against her.

Abbott will also face intraparty pressure over the Texas GOP’s legislative priorities, which include some common ground but also some causes that Abbott has been more reluctant to embrace. Among them: banning “gender modification of children,” or medical treatments for transgender kids. That pressure has intensified on Abbott since Florida recently passed such a ban.

“After double-digit Republican victories in every statewide race, Gov. Abbott returns with a governing mandate,” Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi said in a statement, mentioning Abbott’s promises on property taxes and school choice. “Now Republicans need to deliver.”

Burrows, who chairs the agenda-setting House Calendars Committee, said he expects Republicans to be unified on the “big issues,” like property taxes and parental rights.

Unresolved issues

Abbott’s reelection race was animated by a host of calamitous events Texas has endured since early 2020. Just because he won does not mean the fallout from those events is over.

In Uvalde, questions persist about the widely panned law enforcement response to the May shooting, where police took more than an hour to take down the shooter. Throughout the campaign, Abbott leaned heavily on the fact that special committees were crafting legislative recommendations related to the shooting — recommendations that are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

Another question is the fate of Steve McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety whose agency has been among those faulted in the Uvalde shooting response. Abbott has not given any indication publicly that he has lost faith in McCraw, but the stalwart Abbott ally has faced calls for resignation in the Uvalde shooting aftermath. He has also been through an exhausting two years as the top agency head overseeing Abbott’s border-security initiatives.

The Democratic state senator who represents Uvalde, Roland Gutierrez, has repeatedly said Abbott should ask McCraw to step down. Abbott unsuccessfully sought to defeat Gutierrez in the Nov. 8 election, endorsing his opponent and tapping his own campaign funds to run attack ads against Gutierrez on TV. But Gutierrez won by a comfortable margin in his Democratic-leaning district, and he has vowed to keep up the pressure on Abbott and McCraw.

On the power grid, Abbott famously declared that everything that needed to be done to fix the grid was done in the 2021 regular legislative session. But one fellow state leader — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — has consistently signaled disagreement, including throughout his reelection campaign.

In TV ads and on the campaign trail, Patrick bragged about successfully pushing for the resignation of Abbott’s appointees who oversaw the grid. One of Patrick’s final TV ads promised that he would “continue to strengthen our grid.”

And the on abortion — arguably the No. 1 issue for Democrats in the election — some Republicans in the Legislature have expressed support for adding rape or incest exceptions to the state’s near-total ban. But Abbott has said only that he wants to revisit exceptions to save the life of the pregnant person, and Democrats are deeply skeptical Republicans meant what they said during their campaigns.

More broadly, Abbott will have to navigate an especially tense dynamic among the “Big Three” — the governor, lieutenant governor and state House speaker. Patrick’s loathing of Speaker Dade Phelan has become well-documented, and Patrick is entering the next session more emboldened than ever. The election produced his most loyal GOP caucus yet, and he said Tuesday he is prepared to hit the ground running with the “most conservative Senate ever.”

2024?

As all these issues brew, questions remain about Abbott’s political future. Will he run for president in 2024? Is this his last term?

Abbott has not ruled out a White House bid. However, his chief political strategist, Dave Carney, downplayed the prospect on a post-election call with reporters, noting Abbott has a “huge session” coming up in January.

“We’ve never discussed it,” Carney said of Abbott running for president. “We just focus on our knitting in Texas.”

Like many prospective 2024 candidates, Abbott’s decision could be influenced by former President Donald Trump, who announced his long-anticipated comeback campaign Tuesday. Abbott has been silent on Trump’s announcement.

Abbott campaigned on Trump’s endorsement in his primary but kept him at a distance in the general election, skipping a Trump rally in Texas on the weekend before early voting.

In a post-election podcast interview, Carney said Abbott’s campaign is already analyzing data to better position him for a 2026 reelection campaign. But he said that is “if the governor decides to run again.”

If Abbott seeks — and wins — a fourth term, it would set him up to be the longest-serving governor ever. His predecessor, Rick Perry, holds that record with his 14-year tenure.

Brown, the Texas Democratic Party executive director, noted Abbott barely registers in early 2024 polls for president and said he should focus on doing a better job in his current position.

“I’m not going to make any decisions for the governor,” said Burrows, the GOP state representative. “I certainly think he’s been a phenomenal governor and could do many great things for not only Texas but other places as well.”

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.