Statewide Watson

An early preview of Kirk Watson's race for attorney general

It's too early to say much about the statewide races, where Mayor Kirk Watson will face off for attorney general against former state Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott. The major parties have devoted most of their efforts in recent months to accumulating campaign funds and avoiding serious spring primary challenges and have apparently succeeded. Watson faces no serious Democratic challenger, and when Phil Gramm announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate, Abbott was among the Republican dominoes: Following AG John Cornyn's declaration for Gramm's seat, Abbott dropped down from contention for the lieutenant governorship to the AG race, where his judicial experience is arguably more relevant. Abbott was first appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Bush in 1995 and has twice won re-election -- despite Watson's capital-city popularity, Abbott's name-ID outside Austin may be an initial advantage.

Still, the early handicapping has tilted slightly in Watson's direction. The candidates' positives and negatives will be virtual mirror-images. Abbott will be seen as the candidate of the conservative Republican business interests; Watson will play as the big-city liberal Democratic mayor who is also a "trial lawyer" -- i.e., those guys who are enormously popular in TV melodramas but somehow Devils Incarnate on public policy. But there is a crucial qualifier in this race: The "trial lawyer" rep is not necessarily a disadvantage for voters choosing an attorney general. Citizens generally want in the AG job somebody who's going to stand up against special interests, and a hotshot lawyer can be just the man for the job.

Watson told reporters he wants to be AG because the office represents "a wonderful synergy of public policy, which I love, the law, which I have loved, and politics, which I enjoy. And it offers the opportunity for me to take some of the things that I would like to see happen in public policy, where we're protecting families, where we're doing it in a way where we bring common sense and practicality to the job." Abbott points unapologetically to his service on the Supreme Court, where he says he "helped cement tort reform, protect physicians from frivolous lawsuits, and restore reason to our worker's compensation system ... conservatively interpreted our parental notification laws, and took tough stands on juvenile justice issues." Watson, though he is typecast as a liberal, has not been an ideologue in action, while Abbott's judicial achievement list might have been drawn directly from the corporate-friendly agenda of the Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

Democratic consultant George Shipley describes Watson as "one of the most able and exciting Democrats in several years -- he's the right guy for the right job." Shipley predicts that voters will be "very comfortable with an aggressive lawyer in that [AG] job," while they are likely to see Abbott as the candidate of wealthy special interests: "developers, chemical companies, HMOs, insurance companies." Shipley adds that Watson's mayoral record shows he's no enemy of business -- "He can raise money there, and he's enormously popular among businessmen here."

Republican consultant Bill Miller calls the AG race "a sleeper" to be won or lost on matters of nuance. "In light of recent election cycles, the Republicans should have the advantage," Miller said. "Abbott has attorney general qualifications, and he's won twice statewide. But he's never faced an opponent as daunting as Kirk Watson. Watson has charisma and personality, he understands what it takes to win, and he's well-funded, with a small but strong business base."

"Abbott's an attractive, smart guy," concludes Miller, "but Watson will give him all he can handle. In this race, the subtle things will make a difference."

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Kirk Watson, Attorney General, Greg Abbott, trial lawyers, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, George Shipley, Bill Miller

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