VICTORIA — Jockeying for position to see the arriving stars Friday, more than 200 people blocked Main Street outside Fossati’s, Texas’ oldest delicatessen. Julie Montero, 38, a karate enthusiast from Richmond, pushed her way to the front just as the black SUV pulled up.
She was here to see tough-guy actor Chuck Norris, not the other guy who received the loudest applause, Republican gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott.
But after hearing Norris endorse Abbott’s positions on issues, especially his pushback of claimed overreach by President Barack Obama’s federal government, and then listening to Abbott himself, she stood in line for nearly 30 minutes afterward to see what this Austin politician was all about.
“He said things I agree with. He looked me in the eye. I like that,” said Montero, a single mom with two teen children who owns a freight-expediting firm. “I’m going to vote for him. He speaks my language.”
She’s just the kind of suburban mom and previously disinterested voter both Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis have been trying to attract.
With just two days left before Election Day, it appears a majority of voters agree with Montoya and will give Abbott a victory long predicted in the polls.
There is concern among some conservative Republicans that Davis could be gaining ground and ahead of Abbott in Harris and Bexar counties.
But to most political observers, Fortress Abbott is impenetrable at this point. And most down-ballot GOP statewide candidates enjoy similar leads in the polls.
But in a state where politics often are not what they seem, a loss could actually be a victory for Democrats. If Davis comes closer to winning than the nearly 13 percentage points by which former Houston Mayor Bill White lost to incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Perry four years ago — it would be a signal that Democrats’ chances might be improving to win future elections.
In many ways, Davis has faced an uphill battle. After all, she is running in a Republican-majority state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in 20 years.
Her challenger started out with a $21 million fundraising lead. Her stage presence too often seemed more wooden than the coolly affable Abbott.
She has never led Abbott in the campaign polls.
“It’s looking pretty grim for her,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus, echoing the sentiments of more than a dozen other political experts who have closely watched the governor’s race.
“To win, she would have to have a dramatic drop in Republican turnout, which won’t happen, and a surge in turnout by Democrats in large numbers that won’t happen. She would need a spectacular surprise to win.”
In recent weeks, Abbott and other Republicans running for statewide office have stuck to a careful playbook that has led to repeated GOP sweeps in Texas, even as Democrats have insisted they are building their turnout to eventually win statewide offices.
“If you are looking for a perfect candidate in Texas, that’s still a Republican,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
And while Democrats peg their hopes on rousing Hispanic voters to turn out, those hopes have dimmed, as have their plans to turn Texas bright purple — a step between Republican red and Democrat blue.
Democrats’ hope — Hispanics
On a recent campaign swing through Edinburg and the Rio Grande Valley in far South Texas, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, blasted away at her GOP opponent, Dan Patrick, for disrespecting Hispanics in pointedly campaigning to toughen immigration laws and secure the Texas border with Mexico.
“He’s only been here one or two times,” said Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. “Every time he comes, they’ll take a picture of him in a gunboat. He understands that to get votes in his primary, he has to insult our families, our culture.”
It is a refrain she sang throughout the campaign. Van de Putte, the only Hispanic at the top of either party’s statewide ticket, is seen as the Democrats’ hope to bring out the largely latent Hispanic vote that could secure a Democratic victory. On this day, she was touring with actress Eva Longoria, a South Texas native, and local Hispanic leaders to cinch her sell.
For his part, Patrick has made no apologies for his views on border security and immigration enforcement. Still, he has been much quieter on his position in recent months than he was before a contested GOP primary and runoff earlier this year, where he pitched to ultra-conservative voters who agreed with him.
Abbott, too, has made South Texas a focus, selling a much softer message of opportunity and jobs — and the fact that if he is elected, his wife, Cecilia, will become the first Latina first lady of Texas.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, acknowledged that while party faithful continue to work for a Davis-Van de Putte win, some hoped-for early turnout numbers have fallen short, especially among Hispanics in the Houston area.
While Hispanic turnout in Democratic strongholds like San Antonio, El Paso and the Valley appears strong, Hinojosa said last week: “We’re not seeing the base turnout we’d like to see in Houston, to the numbers we’d projected. But there’s still time. and we’re working hard.”
On the streets in both South Texas and in San Antonio, Democrats echoed that view.
Republican officials such as party Chairman Steve Munisteri predicted the GOP will make a good showing among Hispanic voters, especially in South Texas. Davis’ support for abortion rights, he said, “doesn’t play well with a large percentage of the Hispanic population” and will help Republicans.
For some young voters, however, the abortion issue was important.
“I think that women need the right to choose, and without access, there’s no choice,” said Jeanette Pacheco, 20, a UT-Austin student from Corpus Christi who was part of the crowd at Davis’ UT rally. “A woman’s body should not be governed by the government — particularly males.”
Playing to the base
If Hispanic voters were not motivated to turn out in much larger numbers this year, as both parties had hoped, one reason could be the lack of a charismatic, Hispanic-surnamed vote-getter at the top of either party’s ticket.
“That’s what it will take to really have a step change in Hispanic voting in Texas,” said Mark Jones, chairman of the Rice University political science department.
On a sunny day last week in Lubbock, Abbott campaigned with Patrick in their first joint appearance of the race. Because Patrick had become a lightning rod for criticism earlier this year for suggesting that undocumented immigrants should get the boot as part of a crackdown on border security, Abbott had campaigned for the Hispanic vote on his own.
But on that afternoon, they were on the same page: Vote Republican if you want a bright Texas future.
“We don’t just want to defeat them, we want to crush the Democrats,” Patrick told the crowd, with his typical bravado. “I believe in my heart that we are America’s last hope, Texas.”
In a state where tea party activists still carry clout, even after their fortunes have waned elsewhere, the credo of God and country and capitalism and freedom garner a strong following, at least here on West Texas plains where the move from Democrat to Republican state government got an early foothold 20 years ago.
It is an area where both Abbott and Patrick play well, even though Davis has visited several times to court the votes of Texas women, a key constituency to her hopes for victory.
Nonetheless, recent polls hinted the all-women Democratic ticket was running behind in Lubbock, Amarillo, Sweetwater and Abilene, where the all-male GOP ticket was still playing the better bet.
Even in Victoria, women at an Abbott rally, who acknowledged they were once Democrats, said they were voting Republican.
“He comes across as more Texan, more low taxes, more vision for the future, that she does,” said Cuero resident Lloyd Mendleman, a retired Navy officer and San Antonio native.
Weeks ago, when Davis aired a controversial TV commercial using an empty wheelchair to blast Abbott as hypocritical for supporting limitations on lawsuits even though he won an estimated $10 million settlement after a falling tree in Houston left him paralyzed in 1984, Democrats wondered if the shocking ad might trigger an October surprise — a turnaround that could see her eventually win the election.
Attorney General Mark White, a Democrat, had come from behind in 1982 to upset incumbent Gov. Bill Clements, the first Republican elected to the top post since Reconstruction. Ann Richards had done the same thing in 1990 to beat Republican oilman Clayton Williams, after he cracked a joke about rape that coalesced Texas women to support Richards.
“Wendy Davis is a wonderful person, extremely sincere, but she doesn’t appear to have the momentum in her campaign that Ann Richards did,” said Gilbert Cuthbertson, a Rice University political science professor. “Ann Richards was portrayed as a tough-talking grandma on a motorcycle… Davis doesn’t have that image.”
If campaigns are mostly about perceptions, then Davis never measured up for many Texans.
“Being in Texas, she was already facing an uphill battle,” Douglas Richter, 26, a project manager for a printing company, told a reporter at a San Antonio rally for Abbott.
Charles Hanna, 40, a Houston Ship Channel worker who lives in San Antonio, echoed that sentiment: “One, she lost on the issues. That’s a given. Texas is not as blue as she thinks…. The issues were a guaranteed loss.”
For others, Davis is an inspiration.
“I’m a Wendy Davis supporter because she stands for women’s rights, education,” said Priscilla Valdez, 20, a UT-Austin student from San Antonio. “I am lucky to be here. I come from a low-income family. I am Latina. So education has always been pushed, and Wendy Davis has come up with a plan, has inspired me to continue going and to pursue a higher education and make it possible for me to do that.”
At a time when President Obama’s national unpopularity is magnified in Texas, and where tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants and children flooded cross Texas’ border with Mexico triggered a late-summer crisis, Texas Republicans appear motivated to turn out in droves.
Especially motivated are the tea party activists who already were unhappy with politics.
“Certainly the president’s popularity is not helpful, and perhaps more so because the national Republicans — Greg Abbott and the people around him are squarely a part of this — have done such an intentional job of really dishonestly and unfairly painting the president as someone who’s less than a real American,” said Jeff Rotkoff, an adviser to Democratic mega-donors and Houston residents Steve and Amber Mostyn, who have contributed heavily to Davis’ campaign.
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau reporter Patrick Svitek contributed to this story.