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Tuesday, March 4, 2014 - 8:15am

The 'Blue-ing' Of Texas Is Unlikely To Start At The Top

Updated: 9 months ago.

The process of electing a new governor in Texas begins in earnest Tuesday, when Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis are expected to easily dispatch their primary opponents and move on to the Nov. 4 battle.

As if they hadn't already.

Both Abbott, 56, the state's attorney general and a former state Supreme Court judge, and Davis, 50, a state senator and former Fort Worth City Council member, have been amassing money and press since at least last fall.

That's when Davis, after a headline-grabbing 11-hour June filibuster that delayed approval of a newly-restrictive abortion bill, announced she'd run to replace three-term Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

But it's the reality of Texas politics, more than Davis's own missteps (she put a bit too much frosting on a life story that didn't really need it), that will likely propel Abbott into the office held by Republicans for the past two decades.

Here's a look at that reality:

Presidential Lock

It has been two decades since a Democrat, Ann Richards, held the governor's office. But you'd have to reach back to 1976 to find the last year Texans voted for a Democrat for president when they helped put fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter in the White House.

Carter four years later lost Texas in his unsuccessful bid for reelection, and the Democrats have kept falling in the Lone Star state, including Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton, twice. More recently, former Texas Gov. George W. Bush walloped Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

In 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama lost Texas to Republican John McCain by nearly a million votes out of the 8 million or so that were cast; and Mitt Romney buried Obama by even more four years later.

Polls Have Been Consistent

Excitement about Davis's candidacy among Democrats, both in Texas and nationally, and a spate of high-profile media hits and positive coverage, gave her a late 2013 bounce in state polls.

But even with the surge, Davis still trailed Abbott by an average of six to eight percentage points. After questions were raised about whether she embellished her legitimate single mom-to-Harvard Law School story, Davis's numbers settled back down.

Abbott has run consistently ahead of Davis in state polls, leading by an average of just over 11 percentage points. The Real Clear Politics poll average has Abbott as the choice of 42 percent of Texans, and Davis the favorite of 30.7 percent.

After the recent release of a University of Texas poll that showed Abbott with a comfortable double-digit lead, Jim Henson, the poll's co-director, told the Texas Tribune that while there had been talk about whether this race would be different, that's not how it's playing out.

"We're seeing," he said, "something of a reassertion of the normal pattern." It's a pattern that bodes well for Abbott, who has been a paraplegic since 1984 when he was injured by a falling tree while out for a post-storm run.

The Texas poll showed that 17 percent had yet to make up their minds.

Money Race

Texas is big, and candidates raise big money. Both Abbott and Davis are expected to pull in around $40 million each before the last vote is counted.

Davis's celebrity, and help from Emily's List, the national organization dedicated to getting pro-choice Democratic women elected, led to her haul of more than $8.7 million in the last six months of 2013. She also has access to about $3.5 million raised for her race by Battleground Texas, the political action committee formed by a former Obama operative to promote Democratic candidates and mobilize voters.

But Abbott, who hauled in $11.5 million during the same period, also reported having $27 million on hand, to Davis's $9.5 million balance. And the Houston Chronicle reported that Davis's money-raising acumen may rouse more big conservative donors to get behind Abbott.

Kerfuffles

Both sides have weathered some pretty unflattering press.

Davis is only now moving out of damage control mode after a Dallas Morning News article reported that she had mischaracterized or fuzzed some of her background: she'd divorced at 21, not 19; she lived in a trailer for a shorter period of time than alluded to; and her second (now ex-) husband helped pay for her college and law school education.

But Abbott is on his own rocky ride after recently campaigning with aging rock star Ted Nugent, 65, a pro-gun advocate who has called Obama a "subhuman mongrel," and once sought to become the legal guardian of a 17-year-old girl who was too young to marry.

Nugent also has publicly used profane, derogatory terms for women when referring to Hillary Clinton and other female leaders. And Davis's supporters have made a point of highlighing a Nugent song from 1981 called "Jailbait," about a 13-year-old girl.

As Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News noted in a column, both Abbott and Davis are courting suburban women voters, and one of Abbott's efforts at attorney general was to "fight sexual predators who target young girls."

With no polling completed since Nugent's star turn in Texas, it's unclear whether or how his effect will wear on Abbott. But, given the political reality, it will take more than an old rocker's rants to derail the likely next Republican governor of the state of Texas.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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