AUSTIN, Texas — Mitt Romney rallied with Kid Rock and President George W. Bush had a fan in Alice Cooper. But a Ted Nugent encore in the Texas governor’s race is growing unlikely after blowback from Republican Greg Abbott’s embrace of the ultimate shock rocker. Call it a rare case of veering too far right in Texas this election year.
Abbott, the leading Republican candidate to succeed Gov. Rick Perry, acknowledged Friday that Nugent calling President Barack Obama a “subhuman mongrel” last month merited an apology. The brash gun-right activist made two campaign appearances with Abbott last week.
Nugent, who has also suggested treating immigrants like “indentured servants,” apologized Friday for the Obama slur after it was disavowed by Gov. Rick Perry and Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
But Abbott, who until now had claimed ignorance about Nugent’s divisive comments, didn’t back away from inviting Nugent to rallies in the first place.
“This is not the kind of language I would use or endorse in any way. It’s time to move beyond this and I will continue to focus on the issues that matter to Texans,” Abbott said in a statement.
The Nugent flap was the latest example of GOP candidates staying unabashedly to the right as they approach the state’s March 4 primary, which will move Texas closer to its biggest power shakeup in a decade. Every statewide office could change hands this November. Perry and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz could also present two potential 2016 presidential candidates from Texas.
The tone of the GOP race contrasts with assertions by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and her party that Texas is becoming a broader political battleground as its demographics change. Provocative conservative proposals to repeal the 17th Amendment, which lets voters – not state legislatures – pick U.S. senators, have been kicked around in the race for lieutenant governor. One of the candidates called the flow of immigrants from Mexico an “invasion.” Anti-abortion credentials are discussed as freely as energy ideas among Republicans vying to regulate the state’s oil and gas industry.
Within the last year, Texas passed a divisive 20-week ban on abortions, imposed cuts that caused Planned Parenthood clinics to shutter and enacted one of the nation’s most stringent voter ID laws. That hasn’t protected the Republican House speaker, however, from a far-right group that has collected six-figure donations for primary challengers against him and top lieutenants.
The tack reflects a clear judgment about Republican voters’ tastes. “All they seem to argue about is who’s the most conservative, which is good for me,” said voter Bob Baker, after taking his seat at a Republican primary debate near Austin. “Just as normal as they shouldn’t have any conservatives in New York, we shouldn’t have any liberals in Texas.”
But the Nugent episode isn’t the first time a leading Republican may have touched a nerve. State Rep. Jason Villalba, a rising Republican star in Texas, sharply urged his party’s four lieutenant governor candidates to stop using harsh rhetoric about immigrants in the country illegally and “acknowledge the humanity” in an open letter this month.
“They’re not war-mongering adversaries. They’re seeking the American dream,” Villalba said. Abbott, who’s been state attorney general since 2002 and boasts of suing the federal government 30 times, has essentially run a general-election campaign from the start. Abbott said inviting Nugent magnified a contrast with his Democratic opponent, who has made her pitch for conservative voters by coming out in favor of “open carry” gun laws before qualifying her stance.
But the Nugent appearance left Abbott on the defensive for one of the first times in the race.
“I don’t know what he may have said or done in his background,” Abbott said following a rally with Nugent Feb. 18. “What I do know is Ted Nugent stands for the constitution. He stands against the federal government overreaching and doing what they’re doing to harm Texans.”
Perry, who isn’t seeking re-election after 14 years in office, said Feb. 20 he’s “got a problem” with calling the president a mongrel and he called the language inappropriate. But he predicted voters would not be distracted from Davis’ “liberal” record.
Davis spokesman Bo Delp blasted Abbott’s statement Friday for excluding “anything about his poor judgment” in embracing Nugent.
Nugent told Dallas radio station WBAP that he apologized “for using the street fight terminology of subhuman mongrel.” But he maintained that Obama was a “liar” violating the Constitution.
Nugent, who’s also treasurer of a Republican candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner, said Texas must defend its brand of ultra-conservatism.
“This is special. There is no other Texas anymore,” Nugent said while introducing Abbott last week. “This is last bastion of rugged individualism, of true independence.”