Already well-known in political circles and extremely well-financed, Attorney General Greg Abbott formally announced Sunday he's running for governor, hoping to seize the fiercely socially conservative mantle of Gov. Rick Perry that has helped make Texas the country's largest red state.
The campaign kickoff in downtown San Antonio came 29 years to the day after a freak accident left Abbott partially paralyzed. Still, the announcement was no surprise. The state's top cop since December 2002, Abbott has more than $22.7 million for his war chest and hasn't hidden his ambition to live in the governor's mansion.
Abbott, 55, called his accident, "my greatest fight" and said Sunday "it was a challenge that made my even being here highly improbable."
Hundreds of sweaty supporters in Plaza Juarez near the famous River Walk cheered while trying desperately to cut the heat with yellow-and-blue paper fans bearing Abbott's name over the words "Fast cars, firearms and freedom -- it's a Texas thing."
Perry announced last week that he would not seek an unprecedented fourth full term as governor -- though he hasn't ruled out another run for the White House in 2016. So, it was only a matter of time before Abbott joined the race to be Perry's successor and instantly being viewed as the front-runner.
"With the money, the name ID, the political structure of the state right now, it's beautiful for Greg Abbott," said Bill Miller, a longtime GOP political consultant based in Austin. "It's absolutely his race to lose."
Abbott carries a quiet confidence borne of seven years as a Texas Supreme Court justice before becoming attorney general. He has a reserved style and wry humor meant to disarm audiences who may be concerned about his disability, for which he uses a wheelchair. Abbott, fresh out of law school, was jogging through Houston's River Oaks neighborhood on July 14, 1984, when a 75-foot oak tree suddenly splintered at its base, striking him in the back and partially paralyzing him. Abbott sued the homeowner and a tree company that had worked in the area and collected millions.
He has since become a proponent of limiting civil litigation in Texas and capping the amount of damages that can be awarded. Opponents have called him a hypocrite, but Abbott has largely shrugged off such criticisms. He rarely speaks about his accident, but chose to Sunday.
"Piecing my life back together began with doctors piecing my vertebrae back together," he said, noting physicians inserted rods in his back. "Too often, you hear politicians talk about having a spine of steel. I actually have one."
Abbott has spent months solidifying his right flank, speaking to grass-roots organizations and tea party groups in hopes of making the governor's race a foregone conclusion. Abbott has also been cheered by many in his party for giving tea party firebrand and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz his start when he appointed him solicitor general in 2003.
Abbott promised Sunday to downsize government, set "real spending limits in Austin" and stroked social conservative fires by saying, "Our priorities are wrong when we live in a state that stops a valedictorian from mentioning God but doesn't stop drug cartels crossing our border."
Perry, though popular, ran afoul of some Republicans for distributing funds to attract jobs to Texas that critics say is corporate welfare. Abbott, meanwhile, has burnished his credentials as a strong fiscal conservative -- as well as being an outspoken proponent of gun rights and opponent of abortion.
But he's best known for using his office to sue the federal government 27 times during President Barack Obama's tenure, legal battles that have cost Texas at least $2.58 million. The results are decidedly mixed: Five wins, nine losses, nine pending and four where Texas dropped its complaint because of changing circumstances. His chief target was the Environmental Protection Agency, which Abbott sued 17 times over pollution standards and limits on greenhouse gas emissions. He also was part of the unsuccessful, multi-state effort to overturn the White House's signature health care reform law.
Abbott would be the first attorney general elected governor in Texas since Democrat Mark White, who served in the post from 1979 until 1983 and defeated incumbent Bill Clements in the 1982 governor's race.
Abbott's early fundraising prowess means 2014 could go down as the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in Texas history. In 2010, Perry spent $41.7 million to be re-elected, with Democratic challenger Bill White spending $24.8 million. But funds used in the respective primaries, including a challenge to Perry from then-Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, pushed that race's total over $100 million.
No Democrat has yet announced for the governor's race, and the party hasn't won any of Texas' 27 statewide offices since 1994. In an email to supporters Sunday, Will Hailer, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in an email to supporters Sunday, "Greg Abbott expects an easy campaign. Let's show him that Texas Democrats are ready for a fight."
Former Obama re-election campaign operatives have founded "Battleground Texas" in hopes that a booming Hispanic population can eventually turn the state blue. It isn't likely to pay off until after the gubernatorial race, but Abbott isn't taking the group lightly, imploring conservatives to "beat back this effort by Barack Obama and his liberal cronies."
Many Democrats have urged Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth to run, but she remains uncommitted. Davis became a national sensation during last month's 12-plus-hour filibuster to temporarily block sweeping abortion restrictions from passing the Texas Legislature's first special session.
In the meantime, the only other announced candidate is former Texas Republican Party chairman Tom Pauken, a longshot who has complained that Abbott "seems to be the anointed one for the governor's chair."