In mid-April, as Gov. Greg Abbott was making headlines for a controversial plan to inspect commercial vehicles coming across the U.S.-Mexico border, his popularity in Bexar County was on the rise, according to the latest Bexar Facts/San Antonio Report poll. 

The nonpartisan poll released Tuesday found 46% of respondents approved or somewhat approved of Abbott’s job performance as governor, up from 38% in the previous survey, conducted in late September 2021. It’s much lower than the 70% approval Abbott enjoyed just before the pandemic, but marked his first rise in approval since the poll started tracking it in April 2020.

Bexar Facts surveyed 695 Bexar County residents who are registered voters through telephone interviews conducted in both English and Spanish. The conversations took place April 16-20.

Between April 8 and 16, Abbott ordered increased inspections for commercial vehicles coming across the Texas-Mexico border, citing the need for better border security. The inspections, which the governor ended after several meetings with Mexican officials, caused huge delays without ultimately turning up any drugs or weapons. The move came as the governor’s plan to use the Texas National Guard to the border to deal with border crossings has also drawn increased criticism, including from some guard members themselves.

“Voters strongly support what he’s doing at the border, statewide and in South Texas,” Dave Carney, a longtime Texas GOP operative who serves as general consultant for Abbott’s reelection campaign, told the San Antonio Report.

Though local elected officials vehemently disagree with Abbott’s approach to the border, when it comes to politics, the border is “a stronger suit” for Republicans than Democrats, said Carney.

Among poll respondents identifying themselves as Republicans, 85% approved of Abbott’s job as governor. Among independents, 50% approved.

Abbott carried Bexar County by roughly 4,000 votes in his 2014 race against Democrat Wendy Davis. He lost it to Democrat Lupe Valdez by roughly 35,000 votes in 2018, even as he carried the state with 55.8% of the vote. This year Abbott faces a challenge from Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who came 215,000 votes shy of unseating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

“[Abbott] really caused a lot of havoc unnecessarily with the inspection of trucks. … He wasted millions of dollars on the [National Guard] down there, [and] wasted millions of dollars on a big fence,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a Democrat who is retiring after leading the county for two decades. “I can’t see how his programs are affecting anything.”

Still, Wolff said, Abbott’s recent moves have helped shift the narrative in his party’s favor.

“Regardless of party, we all know that we’re against immigrants coming in here illegally,” said Wolff. “But he’s really politicized the issue, making everybody think they’re crooks and criminals when they’re not.”

Urban centers like San Antonio don’t factor much into the campaigns of statewide Republican candidates, who typically win their races by running up the score in rural counties.

But as Democrats in Bexar County continue campaigning for a host of runoffs next month, including the high-profile race to be the Democratic nominee for Wolff’s job, Republicans concede they face a potential enthusiasm gap.

“You’ve got swing voters and independent voters that don’t participate in the primary and you want to keep them interested the election,” said Carney, the governor’s campaign guru. Asked what he worries most about this fall, he said, “Keeping enthusiasm high.”

In a rare public appearance in Bexar County last week, Abbott sought to help his party do just that.

Surrounded by TV cameras and officers in uniform at the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Bexar County, Abbott framed the border as “the widest, most-prolific crime challenge and law enforcement challenge we have in the state.”

Governor Abbott addresses the media during a press conference with local law enforcement last week.
Gov. Greg Abbott addresses the media during a press conference with local law enforcement last week. Credit: Andrea Drusch / San Antonio Report

“Under the Biden administration, there have been more than 1.6 million people allowed into the state of Texas, allowed in an illegal fashion,” said Abbott. “This has led to an enormous burden on local communities across the state … even in communities like San Antonio and Houston.”

Over the course of a half an hour he warned of murderers and child rapists arriving at the border, cartels using the social media platform TikTok to recruit teenagers as drug traffickers, and the seizure of “enough fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in Texas, as well as many other states.”

“People don’t think there’s a race [between Abbott and O’Rourke]. There’s no reason to vote,” Carney reasoned of Republicans’ dilemma in Bexar County. “We’re at the top of the ticket. We need to bring voters out to keep them out, and for the whole ticket.”

Meanwhile, the job approval ratings of local elected officials tracked in the Bexar Facts poll remained higher than that of the governor, but saw a slight decrease from the last survey in September 2021.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg had a 61% approval rating, down 6 percentage points. Wolff saw a 4-point decrease to 56% approval.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.