Austin. Greg Abbott’s tenure as governor of Texas was marked by crises.
Since taking office in 2015, he has had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, a 2021 winter storm that killed 246 people, several mass shootings, including the Uvalda massacre, and other emergencies complicated by political polarization.
“His legacy now will be that he is a proven governor,” said Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano. “He has survived significant disasters, pandemics, tragic shootings and more. He got stronger after that, and the state of Texas got stronger after all those trials.”
But Abbott wants to be known for more than just a crisis manager.
After he is sworn in to a record third four-year term on Tuesday, he will offer his vision for Texas for the next four years and beyond. His inaugural address is expected to focus on keeping Texas an economic powerhouse while reducing the real estate tax burden on residents.
He will also discuss empowering parents to influence their children’s education. And he will vow to stand up to city district attorneys, whom he called scammers for implementing progressive criminal justice policies, such as refusing to prosecute certain petty crimes.
“He’s going to focus on the things he talked about last year, like property tax reform, parental rights, including giving parents a say in their child’s education,” Abbott chief political strategist Dave Carney said during an interview last week. week with the Dallas Morning News.
“He will also deal with the ongoing border crisis and other things like fentanyl poisoning. And he’s dealing with the easy bail issue that we have in some major counties and major cities.”
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick will also be elected to a third term.
Unlike the start of his first two terms, Abbott is not saddled with an immediate crisis. And lawmakers have a nearly $33 billion surplus, which the governor calls a “generational opportunity.”
“We are blessed with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead our state on a path of undeniable excellence for generations to come,” he told the Texas House last week.
Carney said figuring out how to use the surplus will not be easy.
“Everyone has a $32 billion spending plan and they are not always the same,” he said. “But it’s a good challenge, and it gives us the opportunity to really think outside the box creatively on how to do it in a way that doesn’t waste it.”
Although Abbott was easily elected governor three times, Democrats have a different view of his accomplishments. And they want the longtime governor to focus on pesky shortcomings like improving access to healthcare, where Texas is at the bottom.
“I expect to hear pretty much what he has been saying during his campaign, but we need more,” said State Senator Royce West, Dallas. “He probably won’t do it, but we still need to expand Medicaid in the state of Texas.
“I also want to hear about what he plans to do in terms of school safety. He has to deal with grid issues because the growing population of Texas requires more power.”
Democratic Party consultant Colin Strother predicted that Abbott would not offer sweeping policy proposals.
“He has built his entire career on inertia and most of us expect him to double down and break new ground,” he said. “You won’t hear him talk about fixing some of the education funding and infrastructure problems we’ve had for the past 35 years.”
Strother said Abbott is looking beyond the legislative session and may be running for president.
“It doesn’t make sense politically for Abbott to make big moves,” he said. “What makes sense for Abbott is to look both ways, cross that road and very carefully and deliberately maintain his position and his trajectory in the Republican presidential primaries.”
When asked if Abbott thought about his legacy, Carney replied, “No.
“It will be in the fourth term,” he said with a chuckle.
Past inaugural speeches
Elected governor after serving as Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice, Abbott is one of the most accomplished politicians in Texas history.
But for all his electoral successes, he hasn’t developed a bold or audacious political agenda, analysts say.
In 2015, after beating former state senator Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points, Abbott vowed to tackle issues related to transportation, water and education.
“As great as Texas is, we need to do more,” he said. “More for families stuck in traffic. More for scorched cities thirsty for water. More for parents who fear their child is falling behind in school. More for employers who are looking for skilled workers. More for our veterans who return broken from battle.”
He also promised to “do more for the millions of Texans who are tired of seeing our state sovereignty and the rule of law ignored by a federal government that refuses to guard our border.”
In his 2019 inaugural address, Abbott again insisted that Texas leaders redouble their efforts to move the state forward.
“We can do more to educate the next generation and keep them safe at school,” he said. “Most of all to advance our universities to keep up with the changes that are taking place in the 21st century. More to curb the tax burden on our citizens.”
Many of these issues remain a priority for Abbott, although Carney, his consultant, says a lot has been accomplished in eight years, including “doubling the number of first-tier research institutes in Texas,” which was one of his first goals. Carney said there was more money under Abbott’s watch for highway transportation, higher teacher salaries and more money for public education, though Democrats say much more is needed on those fronts.
“Texas has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country and has done a lot of things,” Carney said. “There are a lot of things that he did that would be hereditary type of things, but we never discussed it. He’s focused on what’s on the Texans’ minds and what he’s going to do for them in this session.”
But Democrats say Abbott should look beyond expanding Medicaid to expanding the use of gambling and medical marijuana. Abbott is open to more gambling, as is Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.
“Independent observers will be watching and waiting to see if he extends any kind of olive branch to these two important issues,” Strother said.
Shaheen, a Plano legislator, is optimistic about Texas.
“We just have such an exciting future as a state,” Shaheen said. “We are developing the next generation and a new workforce. We have almost $33 billion in surplus. There is a shortage in California. Our bright future.”
Abbott’s third inaugural address comes as he became a national figure, especially in connection with his border security policy, which included bus transportation of migrants to Democratic Party-led cities, including Washington, DC, New York and Chicago.
And he’s the governor of Texas, which almost automatically puts him in the conversation about the 2024 presidential election. The last two governors of Texas, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, ran for president. Bush was elected in 2000, while Perry lost the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.
Former President Donald Trump has already announced another attempt to run for the White House. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now a darling of national conservatives, would be considered a leader if he joined the GOP presidential primary. A potentially large field could include former Vice President Mike Pence, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
“There’s something in the Texas Constitution somewhere that says if you’re a governor, you should be considered for the presidential lotteries,” Carney joked.
He said that Abbott has been invited to events in states where the presidential campaign took place, but he continues to politely apologize.
“He doesn’t want to be distracted,” said Carney, who did not rule out Abbott exploring options for a 2024 presidential campaign after the legislative session. “He’s focused on the legislative session.”
Republican consultant Vinnie Mincillo, who worked on the campaign for Utah Senator Mitt Romney, said Abbott was not yet mentioned as a serious presidential candidate.
“I’m a little surprised that he is not mentioned in the presidential lotteries,” he said. “He’s definitely not a rock star politician, and maybe that’s his choice, so he’s really out of this conversation.”
Mincillo said he expects Abbott to enjoy his term without an immediate crisis or primary campaign threats from rivals to his right.
Rumors that Patrick would challenge Abbott during the GOP primary never materialized. The governor’s bid for re-election in 2022 did run into Republican opposition from former state senator Don Huffins of Dallas and former Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West. Abbott easily won the GOP primary and defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the general election.
“He doesn’t have the ghost of Dan Patrick breathing down his neck that threatens him to be in charge,” Mincillo said. “It kind of went away. Now he can actually run his own game. I expect to hear a lot about bread and butter issues. I expect to hear a lot about property taxes and a lot about immigration.”
Mincillo said Abbott’s inaugural address was not a prelude to national politics, but the history of Texas. If Abbott wins another term, he will have the chance to become the longest-serving governor in Texas history. Perry holds the record for 14 years as governor.
“Unless some incredible changes happen, I expect him to run again,” he said.