HOUSTON — In a year where many Republicans are fighting for their lives, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to expand the GOP slice of an electorate polarized by President Trump.
Abbott is one of the most popular governors in America and Democrats all but concede he will win re-election. That's good for the Republicans in Texas whose survival may depend on his help.
The governor of the lone star state holds the keys to GOP success there. Everyone from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to members of Congress representing suburban areas in difficult races, all the way down to state house members is counting on him in November.
"That's my role," Abbott said of his job to help re-elect GOP candidates down ballot, adding that his first goal remains to win re-election. "We have had a long-time developed strategy to achieve that goal and we're executing it very well."
As Republicans in the state largely try to energize and turn out their base ahead of Nov. 6, with some help from President Trump's slated rally in Houston, Abbott is pushing to expand the GOP tent beyond the limits of Trumpism.
On Monday, Abbott headlined a lunch featuring African-American leaders and pastors from across the Houston metropolitan region to air multiple messages, namely his push to improve economic opportunity and lower incarceration levels in the state, among other topics.
The discussion was the third of its kind, with Abbott also holding events earlier in the year in Dallas and Tyler, leading Abbott to sense an opportunity to bring new voters into the fold for the GOP.
"Because economic opportunity has broadened over the past two years, there is a greater sense of the African-American community realizing, 'You know what? Maybe these Republicans can be helpful to us,'" Abbott said in an interview after the event.
"I didn't have Kanye out there," he added.
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As for those present, Abbott's presence signaled an olive branch, one that they don't see from others nationally — especially the president — or other top Republicans in the state.
"We have a sold out room because they believe in him. He is probably the only one who could do something like this as a Republican," said Lyndon Rose, a former captain of the famed "Phi Slama Jama" basketball team at the University of Houston, who attended the luncheon and is a supporter of the governor.
"With all of the things that you hear in Washington and the division in the country, he is one who ... can handle everything," Rose said, contrasting Abbott with the president. "The president will not have any support in here."
As Abbott has one eye on expanding the electorate, his other remains focused on the political prize up for grabs in 18 days — a re-election win for himself and his fellow Republicans. His personal goal is to eclipse his margins in 2014 — a 20-point win and 44 percent support among Texas Hispanics. According to one source familiar with polling of his race, Abbott's support level sits in the mid-30s with the bloc.
After beating former state Sen. Wendy Davis that year, Abbot kept in place a full-time get-out-the-vote operation, mirroring what Reince Priebus put in place at the Republican National Committee as chairman after the 2012 presidential election. This ultimately served as an integral part of Trump's ground operation in 2016.
The operation got a test-run in September when Pete Flores won a state senate seat that Republicans had not held in over a century, and it came through. He believes it could be the difference between Republicans keeping hold or losing the House in less than three weeks.
"One reason for that will be this turnout machine we have," Abbott said of the chances the GOP could hold the House. "I could put it on cruise control if I wanted to. I work seven days a week all day long on getting out the vote and to make sure that we're connected with every sector of the community to make sure we're actually expanding our electorate."
As much as Abbott realizes his importance on the 2018 scene, those depending on him readily understand it. Sen. Ted Cruz said that he is "absolutely" getting help from the governor's operation
"Gov. Abbott and I remain very close friends," Cruz told reporters after an event outside Houston on Saturday. "His team and my team are working very, very closely. Our objectives are the same, which is turn out common-sense conservatives all across the state of Texas. This is a turnout election."
While Cruz holds a steady lead over Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, and is the clear favorite on Nov. 6, his fellow lawmakers in the House have a more difficult road to hoe. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who faces a tough challenge from Democrat Colin Allred, said that Abbott will bring "stability" to the ticket for Republicans, which his colleagues agree with.
"The fact that he's devoting so much time to get out the vote and running on his record, all of that is hugely helpful," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.