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Why Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is missing from 2024 presidential buzz

Houston Chronicle 12/8/2022 Jeremy Wallace, Austin Bureau
Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks at an event at The Rustic on Thursday, June 16, 2022 in Houston.  © Karen Warren/Staff Photographer

Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks at an event at The Rustic on Thursday, June 16, 2022 in Houston. 

It's a no-brainer: Gov. Greg Abbott ought to be right in the middle of the presidential jockeying in 2024.

As a three-term governor coming off a solid re-election in the nation's biggest Republican state, Abbott would typically be acting like his predecessors — George W. Bush and Rick Perry — making trips into Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of the early primaries.

But that isn’t happening so far, putting Texas at risk of having no serious contender for the White House from either party for the first time since the 1970s.

“We’ve never discussed this,” said Dave Carney, Abbott’s top political adviser who has worked on several presidential campaigns. “Never done any plans for it. No travel that would be a prelude to testing-the-waters type stuff. Just focused on things here in Texas.”

One reason: Donald Trump.

THE TRUMP EFFECT: Few Texas Republicans step forward to embrace Trump following 2024 announcement

The former president has already announced he’s running in 2024, which is going to dissuade dozens of Republicans who would normally be in the conversation from bothering to look at the race.

Normally 15 to 20 Republicans might be making trips to Iowa or New Hampshire — the first primary states — to gauge the reception they’d get.

While the midterm elections just ended, the presidential cycle starts quickly. Candidates typically jump in between March and July of the year before the presidential race.

IN-DEPTH: What's next for Beto O'Rourke? Despite three defeats, he's likely not done in Texas politics.

If anyone is going to beat Trump, the GOP cannot have a crowded field splitting the non-Trump vote.

Stuck on Trump

Just four or five serious contenders would probably be enough to hand Trump the nomination, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

The 2016 race shows exactly how that can happen. Back then, Trump never topped 35 percent of the vote in the first three states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But because the non-Trump votes splintered among more than a half dozen other contenders, Trump surged to an early dominating lead that they would never relinquish.

“Even today, despite everything, much of the Republican base remains with him,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

Jillson said if the non-Trump elements of the Republican party want to avoid renominating him, they’ll have to limit the field and build momentum behind just one opponent, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has frequently been mentioned as a top contender for 2024.

In November, the Republican Party of Texas released the results of a poll of 1,099 likely GOP primary voters that showed DeSantis as the clear front-runner of potential alternatives to Trump. About 43 percent said they’d support DeSantis and 32 percent said they’d back Trump again. No other candidate had more than 5 percent.

Similarly, a national poll by Quinnipiac University in November showed Trump and DeSantis each with 44 percent of the vote in a potential head-to-head contest. 

Jillson said DeSantis and other well-known Republicans including former vice president Mike Pence, former ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are further along as potential candidates for the White House than Abbott.

It’s unusual not to have a Texan in the mix.

Bush, Perry, Cruz ...

From 1980 to 2016, there has always been a Texas Republican in the mix, thanks largely to the Bush family. And Democrats have had serious challengers at times, including former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in 1976 and more recently former Congressman Beto O’Rourke and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro in 2020.

While Texas often has some big names in the race, it doesn't mean it always goes so well.

Texas has plenty of one-time contenders who fizzled out on the national stage. Jillson said it shows how hard it can be to translate Texas politics onto the national stage. Many Texas candidates have underestimated how much time and focus it takes to run a coast-to-coast campaign for the White House, he said.

Even without Trump, Jillson said he’s not sure where Abbott fits into the White House contender list. Having risen in the political ranks as a judge, he’s a more measured politician than those who come from a more legislative background like DeSantis, who served in Congress before first running for governor in Florida in 2018.

Abbott may have two terms as governor under his belt, but “he can be a quieter guy,” Jillson said. “He’s gathered influence in Texas but he’s not that booming voice that is going to command a big setting.”

Abbott, 65, got his start in politics in 1992 when he won a district judge race in Harris County. He later became a Texas Supreme Court Justice and then served 12 years as the Texas Attorney General before becoming governor.

And he hasn’t quite been angling to run quite like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has for the last two years dropped not-so-subtle hints that he wants to run for president again. But Cruz, too, has been hesitant to declare he’d take on Trump in another race as he did in 2016. 

Earlier this year, Cruz made it clear Trump’s decision would be a major factor in determining the size of the 2024 GOP field. 

“If Trump doesn’t run, I think everybody runs. Every name you’ve heard, every name you haven’t even heard,” Cruz said.

Abbott has gotten an “honorable mention” in some early projections of top presidential candidates. The Washington Post last month left him out of its Top 10 candidates but had him in the honorable mention category along with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

While Abbott is not on the top tier of potential candidates, should Trump reverse course and leave the race, he has clear advantages if he were to run.

He’s been a big fundraiser in Texas, raising more than $140 million to secure his re-election. He has been a dominant national voice on border security — routinely the No. 1 issue for GOP primary voters.

But Abbott has said little to preview a potential run. The most he’s said about running for president came years ago when asked about it by television reporters. Abbott would only say he’s focused on his re-election and after that “we’ll see what happens.”

Abbott won his re-election over Democrat Beto O’Rourke in November by 11 percentage points and has said he’s focused on fulfilling his campaign promises to provide tax relief, improve border security and keep the state’s economy booming.

While a solid win, Carney said the result don’t signal one way or another whether he should run for the presidency in 2024 or down the road.

“There’s nothing that happened [in the re-election] that would say that he can’t run for president. Or that he should run for president,” he said.

jeremy.wallace@chron.com

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