Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott set their first debate in the Rio Grande Valley, where Abbott has visited more than a dozen times.
EDINBURG — From billboards on high featuring his Latina mother-in-law to the ground game of knocking on doors, Greg Abbott this weekend is continuing an unprecedented Republican push in South Texas.
It is not just the need of now, for this campaign for governor, but the effort to build a future Republican majority as well.
Throughout the campaign, Abbott has placed an emphasis on the Rio Grande Valley. It’s designed to blunt not only Democrat Wendy Davis’ support this year but also Democratic efforts to turn the state blue in the future.
“This is not about beating Wendy Davis. This is about beating Battleground Texas,” an Abbott adviser said.
Democrats scoff at the idea that Republicans can win Hispanics over, given the heated immigration rhetoric of some on the right, cuts to education funding and opposition to Medicaid expansion and a boost in the minimum wage. But Abbott and some other Texas GOP leaders hope to make a connection on issues ranging from abortion to economic opportunity.
And there’s a more basic starting point, too — showing up in their communities and asking for votes. Abbott has visited the Valley more than a dozen times, and in Friday’s debate with Davis, a first for the region, he emphasized his efforts to offer an inclusive tone.
Four years ago, Democrat Bill White won 42 percent of the vote against Gov. Rick Perry, largely by garnering 61 percent of Hispanics’ ballots, according to exit polls.
Battleground Texas, a group headed by veterans of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, has set up shop in Texas with the intention of boosting Democratic voter turnout, especially among Hispanics.
By actively competing for Hispanic voters, Abbott and his GOP allies hope to hold down Davis’ vote total. If she fails to do much better than White, their hope is that Battleground Texas’ efforts would be called into question and money aimed at boosting Democratic fortunes in the state in 2016 and beyond could dry up.
Davis campaign officials dismiss Abbott’s contention that he could win an unprecedented 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas. They don’t think he will even match the high-water mark of 44 percent earned by President George W. Bush in the state in his 2004 re-election campaign.
The chances that could happen? “Zero,” said James Aldrete, who is heading the Latino media effort for Davis.
“It’s not that Hispanics in the Valley are yellow-dog Democrats, but when you look at which party they’re welcomed in, it is overwhelmingly Democratic,” Aldrete said.
He pointed to issues that Davis raised Friday night in the first governor debate ever held in the Valley — issues that the campaign will remind voters of again and again.
Among them, Abbott has defended the Legislature’s $5.4 billion cut in school funds and has favored dismantling parts of the Voting Rights Act. The state Republican Party platform contains harsh language denouncing immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
“It’s hard to say that he can remove the baggage of his party with a little bit of rhetoric, especially because he’s not backing off any of the policies,” Aldrete said.
Nevertheless, Abbott has managed to win endorsements from seven mayors — including Harlingen’s and McAllen’s — from the Valley. The Republican Party of Texas has sent full-time field representatives to Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley and opened Hispanic outreach field offices in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso.
Virtually all of Abbott’s ads are in Spanish as well as English, including one just released starring Mexican telenovela star and singer Eduardo Verástegui. Abbott also likes to say he married into a Hispanic family and would bring the first Latina first lady to the governor’s mansion.
Abbott’s chief political strategist, Dave Carney, said the campaign was buoyed by Democratic primary results in which Davis lost several South Texas counties to a Hispanic opponent who did almost no campaigning. Davis’ team has dismissed the results as irrelevant.
Carney said the campaign has focused part of its field operation and voter-identification effort on Hispanic voters. He cited “dynamic modeling,” in which the campaign has identified more than 1 million Hispanic voters it believes would be receptive to the Republican’s message about jobs, the economy and conservative social values, especially opposition to abortion.
“We look at who’s for us,” he said. “We have a 100-person field team. And we’ve been doing it over a year.”
“We know every single voter we need to turn out, who they are,” Carney added. “Our outreach program — both [the state GOP’s effort] and what we’re doing — it’s all focused on a very specific model.”
Campaign spokesman Avdiel “Abe” Huerta called the outreach unprecedented for a Republican candidate and said Abbott “remains committed to securing half of the Hispanic vote in the upcoming election.”
Former state Rep. Aaron Peña, who switched to the Republican Party four years ago, helped host a pachanga in Mission on Saturday night featuring Abbott.
He said he remembers speaking to Abbott over lunch several years ago, long before the attorney general had announced his candidacy for governor.
“The subject came to my community in South Texas and the Hispanic community. He said we’re going to transform politics in this state. He wanted to make an effort to reach out to the Hispanic community and do it like it’s never been done before,” Peña recalled.
He said he recognized that some Republican activists, and even a few candidates, have used harsh rhetoric and placed punitive proposals into the party platform that make it harder to win over Hispanic voters.
“There have been outliers who have not helped our cause,” Peña said.
Erica Sackin, a spokeswoman for Battleground Texas, said what she has seen on the ground in South Texas belies the optimism and wishful thinking of the Abbott campaign.
“The level of enthusiasm we have among our volunteers is high, and there are big numbers out knocking on doors and making phone calls and doing everything they can to support Wendy Davis,” Sackin said.
The Davis campaign points out the candidate has made more than three dozen campaign stops in South Texas. She also has a long list of community leaders — more than 50 from the Valley — who have endorsed her and are working as surrogates for her at campaign events.
In addition, Sackin said Battleground Texas has signed up 30,000 volunteers who are trained to go into the community, talk to friends, call relatives and knock on neighbors’ doors to urge them to register and vote.
“We’re so excited by how much momentum we’re seeing of people who are organizing in the Valley, who are community members,” Sackin said.
Peña said he’s seeing a different momentum. When he asks Democratic friends about Davis’ campaign, he contends, they shake their heads.
The combined antipathy toward President Barack Obama in Texas and Davis’ fight against a bill that outlawed abortions after 20 weeks has persuaded a lot of Valley voters to sit out this election.
“They might vote for Hillary [Clinton in 2016], but they’re not going to vote for Wendy Davis,” Peña said.
And that’s the start Abbott needs.
Follow Christy Hoppe on Twitter at @christyhoppe and and Wayne Slater at @wayneslater.
UPDATE: Answering the question about Obama
AUSTIN — Wendy Davis answered a question Saturday that she ducked when rival Greg Abbott asked it in Friday’s debate: She doesn’t regret her vote for President Barack Obama.
Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, blew off Abbott’s question, which was designed to tie her to the unpopular president in debate viewers’ minds. She talked instead about what she hopes to do as governor.
Asked again Saturday at an event sponsored by The Texas Tribune, Davis said: “No, I don’t regret it.” As for why she didn’t say that in the debate, Davis said: “We were there to talk about who we are going to be as future leaders of this state. … I thought it was striking that when he had the one opportunity to ask me a question, instead of asking me something about who I will be as governor, he asked me about who I voted for as president.”