By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN — 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 flirting with possibly faring no better than the last Democrat who ran for Texas governor in 2010. Her lopsided 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.
Early returns showed Abbott, the state attorney general since 2003, soundly beating Davis by a 3-to-2 margin.
“Texas is standing its ground,” said Andrea Anderson, 31, who voted for Abbott in Davis’ hometown backyard of suburban Fort Worth.
Final turnout figures were not expected to be in until as late as Wednesday, but steady Election Day showers across Texas may have deterred some voters to depress the number of ballots cast despite a record 14 million registered voters.
Four years ago, Gov. Rick Perry won his final re-election bid by 13 points over a Democrat with far less name recognition and resources than Davis. Perry did not seek a record fourth full term but is still mulling another White House run in 2016.
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 crucial 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 strident conservative talk radio host and founder of the tea party caucus in the Texas Legislature, who voters easily elected lieutenant governor despite shunning reporters and confrontational rhetoric that even other Republicans have condemned.
In many ways, the outcomes farther down the ballot said more about the state of 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 and coveted 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 also 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 Texas Democrats would wheeze to Election Day and 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 and catapulted her own political career on a new trajectory.
Nearly a quarter-century after spitfire Ann Richards was elected Texas’ last Democratic governor, the party saw similarities in Davis: a charismatic candidate with the ability to energize a sagging base and fund raise prolifically nationwide. But the race with Abbott was never really close.
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 that made even some Democrats wince. She kept Obama at arm’s length for nearly a year then welcomed him in the final stretch in hope of energizing Democrats.
By the end, Abbott had a 3-to-1 advantage in cash to bury whatever hopes remained of Davis’ chances.
“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.”