DALLAS — (TNS) Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is maintaining a modest lead over Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the simmering race for Texas governor, though his road to victory could be bumpy.
According to a new poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, Abbott has a 7-point cushion over O’Rourke, unchanged from a similar survey in May.
The poll, conducted Aug. 1-7, surveyed 1,384 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
Powering the governor’s lead is his handling of the Texas economy, with 53% favoring his stewardship and 41% who disapprove. Only 9% blamed Abbott or Texas lawmakers for inflation, while 48% blamed higher costs for goods and services on President Joe Biden.
“Regardless of the many things that are happening, Abbott’s standing and trust in the economy is what’s holding that lead,” said Mark Owens, a political scientist at UT-Tyler and director of the poll.
But all is not rosy for Abbott, particularly when it comes to gun control, with 66% of voters saying the two-time incumbent should call a special session on curbing mass shootings.
Could the gun issue be Abbott’s albatross?
The poll found that 63% don’t think elected officials are doing enough to stop mass shootings, which returned to the headlines after the May 24 massacre of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Roughly the same number of Texans are concerned about gun violence in their community.
“Not only are they concerned that a mass shooting could happen in their community, many people think that the Legislature and elected officials are not doing enough,” Owens said.
A majority of voters — 56% to 43% — also say Texas is headed in the wrong direction under Abbott’s leadership.
“It’s not a hard choice,” said Deborah Crowe, a 62-year-old corporate proofreader from Arlington and poll participant.
She said she’s been disappointed with Abbott’s inaction on gun control and bolstering the power grid, and though the governor has not indicated he’s interested in a 2024 White House run, Crowe believes he has aspirations for higher office.
“I haven’t been satisfied with what Gov. Abbott has been doing,” she said. “He seems to be spending a lot of time preparing to run for president.”
Still, O’Rourke could have trouble turning discontent among Texans into votes. They’re split over whether they rate him as favorable or not, at 43%. In contrast, voters slightly disapprove (49-47) of Abbott’s job performance.
Nathan Lusk, a 45-year-old who owns a printing business and took the poll, said he’s voting for Libertarian candidate Mark Tippetts for governor. He said it’s important that the next governor stop federal government overreach.
Other November midterm races
Elsewhere on the ballot, the poll revealed that the November race for Texas attorney general is the most competitive statewide contest. Democratic challenger Rochelle Garza trailed two-term incumbent Republican Ken Paxton by 34% to 32%, making the race a dead heat.
Garza, a former ACLU lawyer, could be benefiting from Paxton’s legal woes, including a 2015 indictment on securities fraud and an FBI investigation into allegations of bribery and public corruption. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has a 36% to 28% lead over Democrat Mike Collier, a rematch of their 2018 contest.
Patrick, who in his role as president of the Texas Senate has pushed conservative legislation, has a mixed approval rating, with 41% approving of his performance and 39% disapproving. Twenty percent of respondents neither approve nor disapprove of Patrick.
Abbott-O’Rourke race expected to be close
Abbott, who is seeking his third term, has had two blowout wins for governor in 2014 against former state Sen. Wendy Davis and in 2018 against former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.
But his showdown with O’Rourke is expected to be one of the most watched races in the country. Analysts predict the candidates could spend a combined $200 million. Both have formidable political organizations, a rarity for Texas statewide candidates.
According to the poll, 29% believe the race will be very close and Abbott will win, compared with 20% who say O’Rourke will win a close contest. While 20% thought Abbott would win easily, only 4% believed O’Rourke would win easily.
Republican consultant Matthew Langston said Abbott will win with the support of the conservative voters who have dominated Texas politics for 30 years. If 56% of Texans say the state is headed in the wrong direction, that’s a Biden problem, he added.
“We’re looking at national frustration there,” Langston said. “It would be a wrong correlation to say that the direction of the state question is an indicator that Greg Abbott is going to lose.”
The state’s direction is one reason to support Abbott, said Zoe Christiansen of Dallas, a 29-year-old who works in the supply chain business and participated in the poll.
“It’s a booming economy and more people are moving here than leaving here,” she said. “I definitely don’t like Beto.”
But Royce Brooks, the former executive director for Annie’s List, a group that promotes the candidacies of progressive women, said the majority of Texans believing the state is on the wrong path is an opportunity for O’Rourke.
“It’s absolutely amazing that the poll shows Texas on the wrong track,” she said. “In Texas that never happens. The world can be in complete disarray, but Texas is always perfect. That is how Texans like to feel about it.”
Issues and voter trust
Owens said these voters could be turned off by the lack of action on gun control and other issues, as well as the rash of red-meat legislation the Legislature approved in 2021, such as the state’s ban on abortion.
More than half of poll respondents said abortion should be legal in most cases, and 82% said it should be allowed when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, which the Texas law does not permit.
The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade also creates an opening for O’Rourke, Brooks said.
She suggested he team with Garza, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, to motivate voters.
“She not only has exactly the policy and legal background for this moment, when abortion rights are under attack, but she also is a young Latina from the Valley and is able to connect with a community of voters who are so often taken for granted,” Brooks said. “Having her in this process could potentially give him some coattails.”
There was also overwhelming support — 54% to 33% — for expanding Medicaid to improve health care access, which the state has not done.
Still, Abbott won most of the poll’s questions on who voters trust. Respondents gave him the nod over O’Rourke when it comes to reducing crime (43% to 30%), securing the border (45% to 26%), improving the economy (42% to 32%), and even handling the power grid (35% to 33%).
The latter is a disappointment for O’Rourke and Democrats who have made fixing the power grid a campaign issue, although half of the poll respondents said they don’t have confidence in the grid avoiding blackouts, while 46% had some level of confidence in it.
O’Rourke beat Abbott in one category: 37% thought he would do a better job of bringing people together, compared with 32% for Abbott.
Langston said that could be an area of weakness for the governor.
“The trap right now is voter discontent,” he said. “They have to keep people energized because Beto O’Rourke is a really good retail politician.”
But how could O’Rourke win, when even some of his supporters don’t believe he can?
“His opportunity voters are young voters, are voters of color, are women who have been horrified by the attacks on abortion access and reproductive rights,” Brooks said. “There is a way in which to get those voters who are disillusioned to believe in the possibility of change, and to believe in it enough to take action.”
She added that O’Rourke could gain traction in the gun control debate, saying he “has established himself as a “moral authority on this issue.”
Owens said it could be tough for O’Rourke to capitalize on all the issues that could work against Abbott.
“Texans who are not voting are actually across all the demographic groups, so that makes it harder for him to speak to one population and then quickly get to the result that he wants,” he said.
The Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler Poll is a statewide random sample of 1,384 registered voters conducted Aug. 1-7. The mixed-mode sample includes 412 registered voters surveyed over the phone by the University of Texas at Tyler with support from ReconMR, and 400 registered voters randomly selected from Dynata’s panel of online respondents. The margin of error for a sample of 972 registered voters in Texas is +/- 2.6 percentage points, and the more conservative margin of sampling error that includes design effects from this poll is +/- 2.8 percentage points for a 95% confidence interval.
The online and phone surveys were conducted in English and Spanish. Using information from the 2020 Current Population Survey and Office of the Texas Secretary of State. The sample’s gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, metropolitan density and vote choice were matched to the population of registered voters in Texas.
Visit the Center for Opinion Research for more information about current and previous studies.
(By Gromer Jeffers Jr., The Dallas Morning News)