Texas is in for a big surprise come Election Day.
Or so I hope, as early voting continues here and across the state through Nov. 4, with Election Day set for Tuesday, Nov. 8. The big surprise I hope for is higher-than-predicted turnout that upends the pollsters and conventional wisdom about the outcome at the polls.
Voter turnout in the 2022 midterms surpassing all predictions is the only path to Texas once again becoming a two-party state after nearly three decades of a Republican stranglehold on state government and politics.
I love it when citizens defy the predictions and show up in unexpected numbers with greater interest in candidates than expected. I write this after years of covering elections in San Antonio and Bexar County, where less than half of registered voters usually turn out for midterm contests, a depressing reflection of low civic engagement.
Midterm elections, when voters are not choosing or reelecting a president, attract more voters than local elections, of course, with statewide offices in play. Still, the election administrators and workers I spoke with once again expect less than half of the registered voters to show up.
But I believe the chances are good they will be proven wrong.
This election season has been animated by significant news developments, including the mass shooting at a Uvalde school in May, the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, and the record-setting wave of asylum-seeking migrants crossing the Texas-Mexico border. And then there is the economy.
While Gov. Greg Abbott has spent little time on the campaign trail, depending instead on media buys to reach voters, former El Paso congressman and Democratic candidate for governor Beto O’Rourke has traveled the state relentlessly, including rural Republican counties, attracting impressive crowds along the way. We could see a repeat of 2018, when Beto’s energy drove higher-than-usual turnout that nearly cost U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) his seat.
The demise of Roe v. Wade led to impressive protest rallies in the state’s biggest cities this summer, but there is no data to suggest the ruling led to enough newly registered voters to affect the outcome, and fervor over the high court’s decision appears to have cooled some.
Inflation and the post-pandemic economy, along with issues like gun control and immigration, are cited among likely voters as more pressing issues than abortion, even if most Texas voters support some form of legal abortion.
Still, Texas could experience an unexpected outcome like the one registered in Kansas in an August primary election when voters overwhelmingly rejected — 59% to 41% — a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have outlawed all abortion. Polls didn’t predict that outcome or the high turnout. Urban voters were highly animated while rural voters in the state showed less intensity.
Abortion isn’t on the ballot in Texas, and neither for that matter is gun control. But both issues are top-of-mind, with many voters unhappy with the state’s Republican leadership. One recent poll showed 80% of Texans believe abortion should be available to victims of rape or incest, yet such public opinion is being ignored.
Pressed on the issue in September 2021, Abbott infamously defended Senate Bill 8, which prevents rape victims from obtaining abortions, by saying, “Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”
That obviously has not happened. And it was the kind of gaffe that could hurt him at the polls. Will female voters make Abbott pay?
I had just returned to Texas in 1990 when Ann Richards, an Austin Democrat, upset Republican Clayton Williams, a wealthy Midland oilman, to win the governor’s race. Williams was heavily favored, but Richards closed strong in the final weeks of the campaign and defied the pollsters.
Williams was the victim of his own frequent gaffes on the campaign trail, notably when he told reporters that rape was inevitable as the Texas weather and its victims should just “relax and enjoy it.”
Abbott’s defense of Senate Bill 8 and his ludicrous pledge to end rape in Texas instantly reminded me of Williams in 1990. We will see if voters react the same now as they did back then. If they do, Texas is in for a big surprise.