Why Greg Abbott Is So Desperate to Cut a Primary Deal

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So why is it such a big deal for Greg Abbott if he succeeds in keeping the primary on April 3, or as early as possible before the Republican presidential nomination is totally sewn up? Perry's not in the race anymore, so what does it matter? The answer lies in Abbott's own future ambitions here in Texas, and his desire to serve the wealthy big-money donors who fund pro-corporate Republicans here in Texas.

Abbott needs to keep a unified primary on the highest-turnout date possible, to make sure Dewhurst wins–as well as the incumbent Republican Congressmen and State Senators–to please the big-money donors that will likely back Abbott when Perry decides he's not running for Governor again.

The Texas Republican Party is primarily dominated by extremely wealthy corporate interests, who in turn want to keep Republicans in office that serve their wishes, rather than the whims of the Tea Party. It costs money to campaign in Texas, and whether you're playing by the FEC's rules or the TEC's, in a state this big if you can't raise real money you won't get too far. In the ongoing Senate primary, Dewhurst is clearly the candidate of the big-bucks donors who backed Rick Perry's gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. While Dewhurst and Cruz both raised similar amounts of money in the last quarter ($1.5M and $1.1M respectively), and both have raised close to $4 million overall, Dewhurst's average donation is over $2000 (and remember, donors are hampered by limits of $2500 per donor, meaning that most of The Dew's donors are maxing out). Meanwhile, Cruz's average donation is a much more modest $319. It's a testament to Cruz's support from the right-wing grassroots / Tea Party / YCT sector of the Texas Republican Party. The big donors are opening their wallets for Abbott as well, who has over $10 million in the bank and raked in $1.6 million during a 10-day period in early 2011, unfettered by individual donor contribution limits. The AG has made it quietly clear that he plans to seek the top spot in the state, but first he's got to dispatch with Dewhurst to be next in line.

So what does the primary date have to do with anything?

Find out below the jump.So what does the primary date have to do with anything?

One single, unified, high-turnout primary is the easiest path to victory for Dewhurst in the Senate primary, as well as just about every other Republican incumbent in Congress and the State Senate. Higher turnout electorates tend to be less partisan, and less obsessed with political minutiae. The voters tend to be less rigidly ideological, and in Texas, the Tea Party share of the vote will likely decrease. That's the best case scenario for Dewhurst, whose lead over Cruz shrank by 11 points in two PPP Polls conducted in September and January, respectively. The poll shows that Dewhurst has 60% name ID, which is what currently propels him to the lead over Cruz, who has only 29% name ID. Notably, however, those 29% break for Cruz, 34-31%. It's in the best interest for Dewhurst — and his big-money backers — to hold the primary on the highest turnout date possible, and use The Dew's own hundreds of millions of dollars to buy enough TV air time to shoot down Cruz. So that explains Abbott's quest to keep the primary unified. But why the rush? The ongoing litigation makes it clear that a unified primary is more likely to occur if we wait.

The earlier the primary is held, the more likely it is to happen before the GOP nominee is decided, and thus will generate higher turnout. If Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul are all still eagerly campaigning for delegates and no one has a clear lock on the nomination after Super Tuesday, then the Texas primary-precinct-conventions will matter, or at least appear to matter, enough to boost GOP turnout. Again, higher turnout favors Dewhurst. It might even be enough to get him over the hump and win without a run-off, a challenge given that there are currently ten candidates filed for the race. An earlier primary also benefits Dewhurst because it gives Cruz less time to get his name out to conservative groups, raise money, and basically campaign. Again, Dewhurst has unlimited personal funds — he spent $10M and borrowed another $13M to buy the Lt. Gov. race and has already tossed in a few million of his own to this campaign.

If the primary is split, or occurs too late to generate high turnout through Presidential primary excitement, then Cruz could beat Dewhurst, and as a result the big money could quite possibly turn on Abbott for failing to deliver a win for their boy. In that case, Dewhurst potentially becomes the strongest successor to Perry, and Abbott's left to consider jumping into a Lt. Gov. primary with the potential likes of Susan Combs, Todd Staples, or Jerry Patterson. After all it doesn't appear that Senator John Cornyn is going anywhere, unfortunately. So barring a Republican President being elected this November, what higher spot is left for Abbott to fill?

Many other Republican officeholders want a unified primary to avoid defeat at the hands of Tea Party insurgents. Incumbent State Senators and Congress members are petrified of Tea Party challengers dominating a smaller, split electorate. That's why 16 of 19 State Senators and every Republican Congressman up for re-election signed on to a letter to the San Antonio Court early on in the litigation process in favor of one primary date, not two. A second, split primary for Congress, State Senate and State House would result in a virulently more partisan electorate. Should any of those races go to a run-off then the voting pool becomes even more partisan and rigidly ideological. That's not only bad news for Big-Money Republicans, it's great news for Democrats, who can have an easier time defeating Tea Party extremists in swing districts, especially in a Presidential year.

Abbott's Also Fighting Tooth and Nail to Slow Democratic Growth at the Ballot Box

Note, of course, that the two main issues Abbott has taken up — redistricting and voter photo ID — are poised to erase Democrats' demographic gains in Texas and potentially slow our party's power at the ballot box for another decade. Obviously if you're following redistricting, it's clear that the Republicans in the Lege drew a gerrymandered map to suppress minority voters. Minorities amount for nearly all of the population growth in Texas over the past decade. Minority populations — by which I mean Hispanic, African-American, and Asian, all three — should see increased opportunities to elect the candidates of their choosing with our new maps. Republicans already admitted to a partisan gerrymander — now the DC Circuit is trying to decide if their gerrymander was actually a deliberate attempt to stifle minority voter participation in violation of the Voting Rights Act. (At the heart of the issue is the fact that minorities tend to vote Democratic, and Democratic districts tend to be heavily minority, but arguably that's just the natural result of the GOP's racist, divisive policies.)

Abbott is also pushing hard to enforce the Legislature's photo ID law, which is expected to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters — most of them minority, and thus most of them Democratic — and has been slowed down by the Department of Justice. As an added bonus, voter ID will also make it more difficult for students to vote, and since that's the one age bracket that trends most dramatically towards the Democrats, that's icing on the cake for the GOP. Abbott, frustrated with these delays, sued the DOJ to let the voter ID law go into effect. (He seemingly made no mention that it's the State of Texas that has taken its sweet time to deliver the data requested by the DOJ on who, precisely, the law disenfranchises.)

If Abbott succeeds in court and retains a map closely resembling the racist, partisan gerrymander passed by the Legislature, and manages to get voter ID enforced, then he will have done more to keep the Republican stranglehold on our government than any one else, arguably even Perry and Dewhurst themselves.

The gerrymandered map denies Democrats the opportunity to elect the Legislators and Congressmen we should based on our numbers and population distributions. Photo voter ID will disproportionately impact the populations most likely to vote Democratic in the first place. Combined, these measures will artificially retain Republicans' grip on state government in Texas for another decade, and slow the Democratic progress at the ballot box that our population growth will naturally generate. And it's a vicious cycle — cracked and packed districts often have lower turnout in November due to a decreased need to organize and GOTV in order to win.

Finally, Abbott Doesn't Want to Get Embarrassed and Lose — Repeatedly — in the Courts

Last but not least, Abbott's trying to avoid a series of embarrassing losses in the courts. First up is the pre-clearance trial, on which the DC circuit should rule at the end of this month. It looks bad for Abbott, chief advocate for the State in the redistricting lawsuits, if the State of Texas is found to have willfully and knowingly tried to disenfranchise minority voters. While it may rally his base, there are still a few voters who won't look too kindly on the kind of racism they try to pretend doesn't exist anymore. Furthermore, a loss in DC Circuit court means that the San Antonio panel gets another crack at drawing the maps. Their first effort started by tossing the Legislature's maps, and resulted in a set of districts that showed great growth potential for Democrats in 2012. The Supreme Court tossed that map, but should San Antonio get another crack at it–emboldened with the DC Circuit's ruling that the Lege map fails to meet pre-clearance standards–you can bet the results will be better for the Democrats than any “deal” or “settlement” Abbott's currently peddling the redistricting plaintiffs.

Abbott's also trying to rush through photo voter ID in time to get it applied to the 2012 cycle, which could help the GOP equalize the Democratic turnout bump that usually occurs in Presidential cycles. Again, Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder is taking a close look at the Texas law, as he made clear in a speech at the LBJ school this past December. The limited data the State has provided strongly suggests that the law will unfairly hamper minorities, particularly Hispanics. Abbott is suing to have the law granted pre-clearance since a similar Indiana law was held up by SCOTUS, but as potential SCOTUS swing-vote Justice Kennedy stated, “Texas is at a tremendous disadvantage” due to our status as a Voting Rights Act state, which is itself due to Texas's history of racial discrimination. So, good luck there, Abbott, trying to prove that a law that disproportionately disenfranchises minorities deserves pre-clearance.

What If Abbott Fails?

Honestly, it's probably just a bunch of “what if's” right now on the outcome for Abbott in his political career if he can't deliver the goods for the Texas GOP. If Abbott fails to prevent a map that's more friendly to Democrats and can't get photo voter ID on the books in time for the 2012 elections, it's unclear what the fall-out is. First off, if Dewhurst wins his Senate primary, that could still pave the way for Abbott to run for Governor in 2014. Who becomes the logical frontrunner if Abbott's career is halted and the money stops flowing from the big-money donors that have propelled Perry and Dewhurst this far? Could Dan Patrick or even Kay Bailey Hutchison take a swing at it? What about Roger Williams, or one of our Republican Congressional delegation members? If Dewhurst does lose to Cruz, however, Abbott's potentially halted in his tracks. And if it all falls apart for the GOP this cycle — if Democrats win more than the projected 3 or 4 Congressional seats and get back to over 70 State Reps, and possibly even score some major upsets elsewhere on the ballot — it's possible that the establishment Republicans turn on Abbott for over-reaching and failing to secure modest short-term gains for the party.

What is clear, however, is that Greg Abbott is using the Office of Attorney General as a political tool–a partisan political tool–to fight Republican battles in court.

And regardless of his success, Texans need to understand that the man they elected to be the so-called “People's Lawyer” is really just an arm of the Texas Republican Party, and a potentially strong arm at that. Abbott's not interested in fighting for the Little Guy here in Texas — he's too busy trying to take care of his big money backers.  


About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.


  1. The challenge is the date
    Once thing that's haunting conservative Republican is that their large block of delegates they usually wield on Super Tuesday will become irrelevant in the presidential race if the primary is held later in the year. Many want to stop the Romney freight train and know they have to give their other candidates momentum with a big win. If the TX primary is in May or June, any chance for momentum will be lost. I'm sure the pressure is on Abbott to get this deal done. Some may even be telling him “we'll fix it in 2013.”

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