Republican incumbents in statewide office have significant leads in their upcoming primary races en route to reelection, and Democrats are still struggling to boost public recognition of their candidates beyond the top of the ticket, according to a poll released Monday by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Politics Project.
The poll of 1,200 registered voters illustrates the significant advantage that Republican incumbents hold within their party after leaning further to the right during the state legislative sessions last year. Additionally, the poll found that surveyed voters were divided on GOP-touted issues like removing books from public school libraries, parental influence in education and restrictive laws on abortion.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton are head and shoulders above their competition in the Republican primaries, according to the responses from the 41% of surveyed voters who said they would vote in the Republican primary. Paxton, who is the most likely of the three to be pulled into a runoff, faces the most significant competition in his race.
On the Democratic side, former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was the choice for governor of 93% of the polled voters who said they would vote in the Democratic primary. But below O’Rourke on the ticket, a majority of voters said they had not thought enough about the down-ballot Democratic primaries to make an immediate choice between candidates, a sign that the party still has significant work to do to introduce its candidates to voters and disrupt the longtime Republican hold on the state.
No changes in public opinion on Abbott vs. O’Rourke
In a hypothetical matchup right now between O’Rourke and Abbott — the leading primary candidates in their respective parties — the poll found that Abbott would win the race for the governor’s mansion 47%-37%. The 10-point predicted victory nearly matches the result of a 9-point win for Abbott when the same question was asked in a UT/Texas Tribune poll from November.
Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT, said that it’s unlikely that either Abbott or O’Rourke will be able to mobilize partisans on the other side to vote for them in the current political environment. But given recent election results in Texas that have seen Democrats lose by margins smaller than 10 points, Blank said there is still potential for a shift in public opinion — either toward Abbott or O’Rourke — over the next couple of months leading into the general election.
“Looking at previous election cycles and knowing about O’Rourke’s ability to fundraise and generate earned media, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that he’s not likely to chip away at that 10-point deficit,” Blank said. “The question just becomes: How much can he chip away at it?”
O’Rourke has an overwhelming lead in the Democratic primary with the support of 93% of polled voters. No other candidate received more than 2%.
Abbott is up against two challengers from his right — former state Sen. Don Huffines and former Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West. In the poll, Abbott received the support of 60% of the respondents who said they’ll participate in the Republican primary, while West and Huffines received 15% and 14%, respectively.
Abbott and O’Rourke are both political juggernauts for their respective parties with huge fundraising prowess, but so far O’Rourke has not been able to match Abbott on money in the bank.
Abbott raised $1.4 million compared to O’Rourke’s $1.3 million in the first 20 days of January. But Abbott has built a $62.6 million campaign war chest over his terms in office, which dwarfs the approximately $6 million that O’Rourke — who essentially started fresh when he announced his gubernatorial campaign last year — currently holds.
Mark Miner, Abbott’s campaign communications director, said O’Rourke’s policy positions put him more in line with President Joe Biden than Texans, citing the Democrat’s policies on green energy, the border and police funding.
The president is unpopular in Texas, with the poll finding only 36% of respondents approve of his job performance.
O’Rourke campaign manager Nick Rathod said the campaign’s efforts are focused on reaching out to the people of Texas, adding that O’Rourke has traveled to dozens of communities as part of his 2,100-mile drive around the state.
As the runup to the primary for both the candidates continues, O’Rourke is rehashing his 2018 campaign strategy of visiting each of Texas’ 254 counties, which first thrust him from being a largely unknown upstart Democrat into a national spotlight.
Both Abbott and O’Rourke are focusing on spurring turnout in South Texas, where Republicans have targeted the historically Democratic-voting Hispanic population as a source of potential future power in the rapidly diversifying state.
Republican incumbents hold leads; Dems struggle with recognition
Patrick holds a commanding lead in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, with the support of 82% of poll respondents who said they would vote in the Republican primary. Other candidates were each the pick of 6% or less of respondents.
Patrick, the staunch conservative and leader of the Texas Senate, has received credit for helping shepherd the legislative sessions last year, which saw the passage of voting restrictions, a near-total abortion ban and restrictions on transgender high school athletes.
The most contested Republican primary the poll measured was the attorney general race, but incumbent Paxton, while embroiled in a dragging securities fraud case and accusations of misusing his office, was still the pick of the biggest share of respondents.
Forty-seven percent of likely voters said they would pick Paxton, 21% picked Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, 16% picked former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and 15% picked U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tyler). The hotly contested battle has spotlighted both ethics and commitment to conservatism, with many of the challengers criticizing Paxton’s legal expertise in their bid to become the state government’s top lawyer.
Blank said that while Paxton has a slimmer poll lead than Abbott or Patrick, the conservative base that he has cultivated during his time in office has made him popular among the Republican primary electorate, which tends to lean further to the right than the broader conservative electorate.
“The fact that, despite all the troubles [Paxton is] facing legally and the presence of three high-quality challengers, he still finds himself close to the 50% threshold is a testament to his strength amongst the Republican primary electorate,” Blank said. “Bush and Guzman are explicitly in the race because of concerns about Paxton’s electability in the general election should he face further legal troubles. They see Paxton as wounded.”
In the case that no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote on March 1, the race will proceed to an overtime special election in May. Paxton, though, thinks he’s on the track to winning.
“If anything, I’m gonna win outright or I’m gonna have a runoff with George P. [Bush],” Paxton told radio talk host Mark Davis. “Although I still think I’ve got a 60/40 chance of winning this outright.”
In the Democratic primary races, 57% and 52% of voters said they hadn’t thought enough about the lieutenant governor or attorney general matchups, respectively — a result that points to how Democrats still face an uphill battle to get their candidates elected to statewide office as they push against longtime Republican dominance.
“In most cases, their candidates are not well-known to begin with, because they’re not drawing from a bench of formerly elected statewide leaders,” Blank said. “The task of introducing oneself to the electorate is extremely difficult in a state as large as Texas. It’s not only geographically large, but it’s also a diverse media landscape in which a statewide ad in all of Texas’ media markets can be prohibitively expensive for most candidates. And so this is the disadvantage Democrats always face.”
When asked to choose, 46% of voters who said they’d participate in the Democratic primary picked 2018 lieutenant governor candidate Mike Collier, with state Rep. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton) coming away with 27% and Carla Brailey, the former vice chair of the Texas Democratic Party, getting 23%.
For the attorney general primary, Rochelle Garza, a former lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, was the choice of 41% of polled voters who said they’ll participate in the Democratic primary. Former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski garnered 24% of survey takers’ support, civil rights attorney Lee Merritt came away with 15% and former Harris County Judge Mike Fields garnered 11%.
Policy concerns: Schools, books, abortion
As the primary season comes to its peak, one of the hottest topics and talking points on the Republican side is scrutiny over what books are allowed in public schools and how much influence parents have over their children’s education, specifically on the teaching of race issues that some conservatives have labeled critical race theory. Such discussions are expected to continue into the general election later this year, across both the state and the nation.
The poll found that 62% of survey takers oppose efforts by some politicians to remove books from public school libraries, including 47% who strongly oppose such efforts. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they supported such efforts, while 9% did not know or indicated no opinion.
Regarding parental influence in schools, 44% said they thought parents had enough influence over what their children were taught, while 41% said they did not think so. Fifteen percent said they did not know or had no opinion.
Last year, Texas passed a near-total abortion ban that thrust the state into the national spotlight over restrictions on the procedure. Forty-three percent of respondents said abortion laws in Texas should be made less strict. Twenty-three percent of respondents indicated that the laws should be left as they are, and 23% said restrictions on the procedure should be more strict.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently evaluating a Mississippi-spurred abortion law case that could partially or completely overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that granted abortion rights nationwide. Texas has passed a “trigger” law that would ban abortion if the case is overturned by the high court. However, 53% of polled voters said they would oppose such a change, with 34% of respondents saying they would support the action.
Additionally, voters were split over the stringency of Texas’ voting laws, which were tightened across the board in a sweeping elections bill this year. Thirty percent said voting rules should be further tightened, 31% said they should be left as they are and 29% said rules should be less strict. Nine percent said they didn’t know or had no opinion.
Blank noted that years of conservative governance in Texas, coupled with the recent redistricting process that aimed to entrench the Republican Party’s control over the state’s politics for the next decade, have allowed for the GOP to pass increasingly conservative policies, even without broad appeal among the electorate.
“Currently, it’s hard not to look at the broader public opinion landscape and not see a lot of either conflict in issues that have split the electorate down the middle or outright opposition in some cases to a lot of the banner legislation that was passed in the last year,” Blank said.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.