SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched his re-election bid Friday with no clear rival in sight, the money to likely outspend any eventual challenger and a new immigration crackdown that could test in 2018 support among Hispanic voters he aggressively courted four years ago.
Supporters cheered as Abbott lauded a new Texas ban on "sanctuary cities" while kicking off his campaign in San Antonio — which has joined Houston, Dallas and Austin in suing to block the law that empowers police to ask people during routine stops whether they're in the U.S. legally. Police chiefs and sheriffs can also face jail themselves if they don't comply with federal immigration detainers.
The bill known as SB4 has become the most polarizing — and arguably defining — moment for Abbott since easily winning office in 2014 and making inroads for the GOP with Hispanics in doing so. Beleaguered Texas Democrats, who haven't won of statewide race since 1994, say voters in a state growing more Hispanic by the day won't stand for what the party chairman called a "state-sponsored deportation force."
But so far, there isn't even a whiff from Democrats of who might run against Abbott, whose 20-point trouncing of Wendy Davis last time lingers as a stinging reality check for the party.
"It is irresponsible and reckless to release known criminals back onto the streets," Abbott said of SB4. "In Texas, we expect our elected official to enforce the law. If they don't want to enforce the law, they just need to step aside."
Police removed a few protesters from the event Friday, including a woman who was carried out by officers. Supporters drowned out one interruption by chanting Abbott's name.
Just as he did last time, Abbott launched his campaign on July 14, the anniversary of a tree falling on him in 1984 and paralyzing him from the waist down. Abbott is the first governor in Texas history to use a wheelchair and says the accident gave him resolve and keeps politics in perspective.
His personal story was the narrative thread of his first run for governor, when his low-key persona was seen by many Republicans as a refreshing change after 14 years of braggadocio under former Gov. Rick Perry, who is now President Donald Trump's energy secretary. But he has angered Democrats with both SB4 and his support for a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people, which Abbott is reviving in a special legislative session starting Tuesday.
Major corporations including Google and Amazon have urged Texas not to put bathroom restrictions on transgender people, and on Sunday, computer giant IBM will run full-page ads in Texas' biggest newspapers that say "No one should face discrimination for being who they are."
Abbott, who runs the biggest red state in America, made no mention of Trump in his re-election kickoff. Hillary Clinton lost Texas to Trump by 9 points, which Texas Democrats took as some silver lining after years of double-digit defeats.
"We endure and we will not let fear-mongering Republicans and nonsense hold us back," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. "After 2016, Texas is a single-digit state and more Democrats are fired up than ever before."
Two of the biggest Democratic stars in Texas, congressman Joaquin Castro and twin brother Julian, who was President Barack Obama's housing secretary, have signaled they will sit out statewide races in 2018.
Abbott will have a massive fundraising leg up on any contender — he's socked away at least $35 million in his campaign bankroll and will likely announce a bigger haul next week.
Census figures show that the Hispanic population in Texas grew three times that of whites between 2010 and 2016. Abbott, whose wife is the first Latina first lady of Texas, captured 44 percent of Hispanic voters last time in the strongest showing by a Republican candidate since former Gov. George W. Bush.
Abbott has called some protests to SB4 fearmongering and says only lawbreakers have anything to worry about. Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the crackdown won't necessarily cost Abbott votes next year.
"The risks for Gov. Abbott are that SB4 locates him in the same arena as President Trump," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, referring to the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration. "But all this speculation hinges on Democrats fielding a competitive candidate. And right now it's still crickets."
This version of the story corrects the 2nd paragraph to say Abbott lauded the "sanctuary cities" ban. The earlier version said it was not mentioned.
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