If you’re hoping to understand what’s happening politically in Texas this year, the best place to look is the primary races. It’s long been true that, for Texas’s statewide candidates at least, the real election is the GOP primary; the last Democrat to win a general election statewide did so 27 years ago. The party is successful in big cities and urban counties, but has struggled for more than a generation to find a message that appeals to a statewide majority. Now, in 2022, an aggressively redrawn U.S. House map has shifted the drama even more toward intraparty elections: the new congressional map has reduced the number of districts both Republicans and Democrats can be competitive in, from as many as a dozen last election to two this year.
With early voting for the primary set to begin in just two weeks, we finally have a poll worth looking at, courtesy of the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler. Here are some key takeaways:
Texas voters seem to favor policies that are more progressive than those of their preferred politicians.
What’s most noteworthy about the poll is what it reveals about voter preferences on a range of issues, including national ones such as abortion, immigration, and policies to slow the spread of COVID-19; and local ones such as the reliability of the electric grid. On most issues, with the exception of the Biden administration’s border and immigration policy, majorities of the poll’s registered voters expressed preferences for policies that are to the left of those endorsed by Texas’s current leaders.
For example, while Governor Greg Abbott signed a “trigger” law in 2021 that would outlaw abortion in Texas immediately should the Supreme Court reverse the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that constitutionally protects the right to the procedure, 53 percent of the registered voters who were polled do not want to see the precedent overturned. Meanwhile, 57 percent support local mask mandate policies, which Abbott has made illegal by executive order. On the state’s immigration policy, 52 percent say they believe that the millions of dollars spent on Abbott’s border wall were “wasteful” or that the money would be better allocated to purchase technology that aids immigration agents (as advocated by moderate Republicans such as former congressman Will Hurd). And only 28 percent oppose the granting of permanent legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, an Obama-era policy that Texas attorney general Ken Paxton sued to end in 2017.
Yet if you’re a Texas Democrat, the rest of the polling serves as a proverbial bucket of ice water on your hopes that the state is ready to embrace progressive politicians. Despite preferring many policies opposed by the leaders they’ve voted for, Texas voters still seem to be happy enough with those leaders. Abbott enjoys a 51 percent approval rating among poll respondents. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Senator John Cornyn all also have higher favorable ratings than unfavorable ones (though, unlike Abbott, all three candidates have significant “not sure” responses). Among statewide elected Republicans whom pollsters inquired about, only Senator Ted Cruz, at 44 favorable to 45 unfavorable, is underwater. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke all elicit more unfavorable views than favorable ones. In a head-to-head matchup, Abbott leads O’Rourke 47 percent to 36 percent.
Why the disparity between policy and candidate preferences? According to James Henson of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, “Candidates shape the issues the electorate cares about. So O’Rourke is trying to drive voters around the electrical grid and abortion, while Abbott will focus on border security, the economy, and Joe Biden.” Based on the polling, Abbott’s narrative appears to be more effective right now.
“Not Sure” is an extremely popular candidate.
A substantial percentage of the registered voters who were polled—an outright majority, even, in several races—haven’t made up their minds. Even in primary races with a top-tier headliner, such as the gubernatorial races led by Abbott and O’Rourke, “not sure” polls at 20 percent or higher. In races where the field is less well-known—the Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and the GOP primaries for lieutenant governor, attorney general, and agricultural commissioner—that number often exceeds 50 percent. Sid Miller, one of the more colorful Texans to hold statewide office in recent years, polls at 25 percent in his primary against Republican state representative James White and rancher Carey Counsil, while “not sure” pulls a commanding 63 percent of respondents.
Both Abbott and O’Rourke seem like safe bets to clear the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. (Still, the poll’s finding that 4 percent favor Springtown computer engineer Ricky Lynn Perry—who is listed on the ballot as “Rick Perry,” the name of the governor who preceded the incumbent—must trip Abbott out a bit.) Dan Patrick, who polls at 42 percent in his race against five lesser-known GOP challengers who all poll at less than 3 percent, seems a solid bet for reelection. Every other race, though, is more of a wildcard.
This makes the horse-race analysis—an approach that pollsters have begun discouraging in recent years—of limited utility. Even the most heated contest of the primary, the GOP race for attorney general, features plenty of uncertainty. Four well-funded, high-profile candidates are vying for the nomination: beleaguered incumbent Ken Paxton faces political-dynasty scion and land commissioner George P. Bush, longtime Tyler congressman and provocateur Louie Gohmert, and former Texas Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman. Paxton carries the advantage of incumbency and Donald Trump’s endorsement, along with an indictment in three securities fraud charges (something voters have been okay with in previous elections, as the charges are more than six years old), as well as bribery allegations. He polls at 33 percent. Behind him, Bush receives 19 percent, while Gohmert pulls 8 percent and Guzman 7. Meanwhile 33 percent of respondents currently are “not sure.”
The COVID-19 backlash seems smaller than GOP talking points suggest.
One striking detail about the Republican responses in the poll are that the pandemic seems to be less of an animating issue than anyone following the outcry over masks, school closures, and vaccines might assume. After some early waffling, Abbott has used the executive authority of his office during most of the pandemic to oppose mandates for vaccines and masks. A slim majority of registered Republicans are with him—54 percent say they oppose local mask mandates—but other evidence in the poll indicates the issue is not one that will drive the GOP base to cast ballots. It certainly won’t do so among the broader electorate, which supports such mandates by a 57–35 margin. But as we’ve noted, the broader electorate doesn’t matter much in Texas these days.
Only a third of registered Republicans say an official’s support of a mask mandate makes them less likely to support that candidate. A quarter say they don’t care, while another quarter of Republicans say such mandates actually make them more likely to support a candidate. The trend holds for COVID policy in schools: registered Republicans answered in nearly the same percentages as they did on mask mandates when asked about their support for school board officials who switched to distance learning amid COVID outbreaks. And a majority of Republicans—64 percent—said they have worn a mask in the past week. That’s a larger percentage than the 59 percent of registered Republicans who oppose vaccine mandates or regular testing as a condition of employment.
Texans want the lights to stay on.
The grid, meanwhile, seems to have everyone’s attention. In an analysis Henson published on Wednesday, he cites his institution’s work from the past year showing that only 37 percent of Texans polled were confident that the state’s grid can handle another severe storm. In the DMN/UT-Tyler poll, which asked a slightly different question, that number is a bit higher, with 46 percent of respondents expressing confidence in the state’s ability to keep the lights on.
The numbers hold across ideological groups: in the DMN poll, fewer than 20 percent of respondents—Democrats and Republicans alike—have “a great deal” of confidence in the grid, while only 10 percent of independents do. (Republicans, however, were more likely to say they had “a fair amount” of confidence in the grid, at 40 percent compared with 24 percent of Democrats.)
We can see this anxiety over the grid playing out in the race for governor. This week, Beto O’Rourke announced a statewide road trip to remind voters of what February 2021 felt like; Abbott’s campaign quickly characterized the effort as the “Praying the Lights Go Out” tour. Highlighting the salience of the issue across party lines, however, Abbott’s GOP primary opponents challenging him from the right have brought similar concerns to Republican voters. Don Huffines, a former state senator from Dallas, for one, tweeted Wednesday his list of winter storm preparedness tips, which along with layering clothing and stocking up on food and water included one pointed piece of advice: “Make a plan to vote against Greg Abbott in the Texas GOP primary.”