PENITAS, Texas (AP) – Despite a 3-to-1 edge in campaign cash and polling leads over his Democratic opponent, Greg Abbott is courting Republican-snubbing Hispanic voters with efforts reminiscent of former President George W. Bush's time as governor of Texas.
The Republican candidate and current attorney general has made 14 visits to the Rio Grande Valley, the symbolic backdrop for this delicate courtship. He's recruited a Mexican actor for some of his TV commercials, spent generously on Spanish-language advertising and introduces his wife Cecilia as the soon-to-be first Latina first lady of Texas.
This week, new highway billboards popped up in the valley, with his mother-in-law's face assuring fellow Hispanics, "Texas will love having him as governor." And on Friday, the Rio Grande Valley will play host to the first debate between Abbott and his Democratic opponent Wendy Davis -- also the first gubernatorial debate on the border since 1998, when Bush began wooing Hispanics for his presidential bid.
Abbott doesn't need to win the valley -- and almost certainly won't -- to move into the governor's mansion. But he's taking the long view for the Republicans in a state with a burgeoning Hispanic population that traditionally votes Democrat.
"The fact that he is doing something that he doesn't have to do is extremely unusual," said Lionel Sosa, a Republican ad strategist who helped Bush win 44 percent of Hispanic voters during his 2004 presidential re-election. "If he doesn't repair the brand, who will in Texas?"
Demographers predict Hispanics will make up a plurality of Texas residents as soon as 2020. Their voting strength, however, hasn't kept pace with their rapid growth: in 2012 in Texas, turnout among voting-age Hispanics was 39 percent, compared to 61 percent for whites, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In the last governor's election, only a quarter of the valley's Hispanic voters cast ballots.
Abbott faces a tough sell beyond the demographics.
Divisive Republican measures he's backed have been viewed as hostile toward Hispanics and particularly felt on the southern Texas border. One in three people here live at or below the federal poverty level, as longtime Republican Gov. Rick Perry refuses Medicaid expansion.
Abbott also has supported the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops along the border to block illegal immigration, which Mexican President Enrique PeÂ±a Nieto last week called "reprehensible." He's also fighting in court to uphold a new state law that forced the closure of the only abortion clinic in 300 miles. Even the roaring Texas economy, for which Republicans take credit, is far tougher to see along the border, where a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate is nearly double the state average.
Skepticism and distrust of Republicans is rampant.
“There is a big disconnect between cities in Dallas and Houston in terms of what's happening in the valley," said Ann Williams Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca, which supports low-income families. "They think it's nothing but a bunch of undocumented people who need immigrant care. It's not true."
But Abbott is getting help. The Republican National Committee has been dumping $50,000 a month into Texas to recruit Hispanic voters, who went for President Barack Obama more than 2-to-1 two years ago. Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists who also are significant donors to Abbott, help underwrite the Libre Initiative that offers Spanish-speakers classes to learn English -- while preaching to them the sensibilities of limited government.
Former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza, a Bush appointee whose political career began as a Republican in Brownsville, said he sees an opening for Republicans because Democrats traditionally have taken their voters for granted.
"Not only is he (Abbott) in sync with the conservative nature of the state, by spending a lot of time in the valley ... he's forcing the Democratic nominee to defend what should be a base," Garza said.