What are the political trends to watch for this presidential election year?

Democrats eyeing Ted Cruz’s Senate seat and fissures among Texas Republicans are just some of the stories to keep an eye on.

By Rhonda Fanning & Glorie G. MartinezJanuary 1, 2024 10:00 am,

As we head into what appears to be another potentially wrenching presidential election season, there are serious questions for Texas, where we’re seeing divisions within the GOP and Democrats increasingly frustrated with the agenda of Republican lawmakers – from Gov. Greg Abbott on down.

What does it all add up to for the coming year in politics in Texas?

Rebecca Deen, a professor of political science and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Álvaro Corral, professor of political science at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let’s begin with a big statewide race folks will be watching most certainly this year: the race for U.S. Senate. Ted Cruz is up for reelection after his tight victory over Beto O’Rourke back in 2018. Rebecca Deen, who seem to be the top challengers this year for that Senate race?

Rebecca Deen: Well, it’s going to be U.S. House Representative Colin Allred from up here in North Texas. He has raised the most money of the field so far, about $10.6 million, and he’s got a good deal of that cash on hand. And then right behind him would be State Sen. Roland Gutierrez out of San Antonio.

Who you think has the name recognition advantage there?

Deen: Well, I think it’s regional. I mean, I think that probably Allred… He got some statewide press when he upset the incumbent, Pete Sessions, for that seat back in 2018. But, you know, Gutierrez has that Central Texas/South Texas support.

» RELATED: Democrats Colin Allred, Roland Gutierrez draw distinctions on key issues as they target Sen. Ted Cruz in 2024

Very interesting. But I want to shift to you, Álvaro Corral… A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, I believe. Do you have any reason to think that this year will be any different?

Álvaro Corral: You’re right. It’s, I think, pretty easy for Democrats to get pretty dour about the near 30-year losing streak. But I would say that there are a couple of things that may be giving them a bit of hope.

You know, I’ve long said that if Democrats want to get an upset victory, there needs to be sort of a perfect storm of factors. And they actually have potentially a few of those things working in their favor.

One, Democrats need high turnout. And having a Senate race that coincides with the presidential election races is just on average, I think, positive for Democrats who may be able to capitalize on some energy if they have it. You know, going after one of the weaker GOP senators who by far is Ted Cruz – he’s the most polarizing, has high negatives, so potentially a little bit more vulnerable. Obviously, he’s coming off of a sort of 2018 battle that made him sweat.

And three, which is that sort of X factor issue, which may be abortion. The post-Dobbs decision here in Texas is only now, I think, starting to trickle down to voters. And that may be, again, the sort of X factor that could drive enthusiasm among Democrats who are kind of starved for it with with an incumbent, you know, in President Biden, who maybe isn’t doing all that well in the polls. That may be something that they can rely on.

» RELATED: Do Democrats have a chance to win in Texas?

I want to ask you about that, Rebecca, because, you know, you think about how Texas has been in the news for its strict abortion laws – effective abortion ban, really. What do you think of the idea that women who might have previously voted Republican or perhaps didn’t vote in elections past might help Democrats this year in Texas?

Deen: Well, you know, I think Professor Corral is exactly right. In order for Democrats to do well statewide, they have to increase the enthusiasm. They have to get strong mobilization. They’re not getting that with President Biden nationally. He’s got an enthusiasm gap. So I think potentially that issue of abortion – that’s not only in the news, but so salient for women – might be that factor.

Additionally, sort of suburban Republicans that we’ve watched swing back and forth – women Republicans that we’ve watched them back and forth – probably are not enamored of President Trump, who is likely to win the GOP nomination again. So I think there’s a possibility here.

A number of Republicans running for U.S. House seats has significantly increased compared to the last election cycle. What do you think’s contributing to the rise in challengers and how might that more crowded field affect candidates strategy in upcoming elections? What do you think? 

Corral: Yeah, so I mean, in political science we kind of have a bit of a truism, that candidates are strategic, that, you know, they’re pretty good at reading the political winds. And, you know, Republicans are probably sort of wetting their chops in an otherwise sort of weak year potentially for Democrats.

Can they capitalize on a sort of weak top-of-the-ticket and will that help them down ballot? And again, I think something that we’re going to talk about in a little bit – the sort of fissures around the Texas GOP – that’s something that lots of candidates may be looking to exploit. “Can I be in the good graces of Gov, Abbott? Can I be in the good graces of Paxton? Can I capitalize on a small issue here and there that can give me the advantage in a crowded field?”

So I think that may be something that’s driving that kind of rise of the GOP candidates.

» RELATED: With primary season around the corner, here are some races to watch

You know, I notice that several of these open seats are in North Texas. The House seat Democrat Collin Allred is leaving to run for Senate, then you have the retirement of Republicans Kay Granger and Michael Burgess. Professor Deen, do you think that their seats are going to be safe within their party or not so much?

Deen: Oh, I think they are solidly safe. Districts in the last cycle already won with over 65% of the vote. And with Granger and Burgess, they were redistricted to be even more solidly. So if you think about the DFW area and the little spokes shooting out from that, the Granger district has all of Parker County and then the Burgess district goes almost all the way to Bridgeport, west of the area.

Michael Minasi / KUT

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Well, I want to shift to some state politics here because to say it’s in disarray, at least among Republicans, might be an understatement. Gov. Abbott’s been endorsing primary challengers running against lawmakers who voted against school vouchers, including some who’ve been critical of him in the past.

What do you think this says about his approach to building support for his priorities? Is this effective? And what does it mean sort of writ large for Republicans in Texas? What would you say to that, Professor Corral?

Corral: Yeah, I would say that Gov. Abbott has shown himself to be incredibly laser focused on delivering something on education – specifically this very large push for school vouchers that Republicans couldn’t deliver during these four special sessions. I think even the fact that he just went to four special sessions, there’s talk of him calling another one in the next the next spring potentially, I think that really speaks to his own sort of focus on this issue.

There were, of course, these 21 Republicans in the Texas House who voted against the voucher bill ultimately. And he seems, again, laser focused on eliminating that obstacle, these conservative Republicans in mostly rural areas. He may be saying, “well, I can likely find another Republican in this very conservative party in Texas who agrees with me.” So I think that’s been his approach.

Yeah, but I’m curious, we haven’t even talked about one of the biggest political… I don’t know how even to categorize this. It was certainly a spectacle, to say the least. We’re talking about Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial. And again, similar to what we were talking about with Gov. Abbott, we heard Ken Paxton saying he’s going to come after some of his political opponents.

And I wonder, Professor Deen, if you think that this is going to be felt in the primaries and beyond this year in Texas, or if people are paying that close attention to who people like Paxton or Abbott are supporting?

Deen: Well, Paxton is doing his level best to make it relevant.

He has said very explicitly that he was going to go on a campaign tour to hunt out the people who had opposed him. And you really see it in two different ways. He’s going after leadership that you would expect. So he’s going after the speaker and he’s going after the impeachment manager and the person who chaired the investigative committee, but then also the entire delegation of his home region of Collin County and Denton County. He’s endorsed and/or funded contributing funds to the challengers there.

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Do you think that the presidential sweepstakes here is going to galvanize Texas voters? While we’re with you, Professor Deen, what do you think?

Deen: I think potentially. Paxton draws on that same slice of the Republican Party. You know, really what we’re seeing is a fissure in the party from the sort of more extreme, MAGA, far right-leaning and the sort of country club business types. And that would be best represented traditionally by Gov. Abbott, though he did move a little bit more to the right in his last reelection.

So it’s potentially the truth that having former President Trump at the top of the ticket might get the strongest base excited.

Professor Corral, you agree or not so much?

Corral: I would agree. I think that, you know, Donald Trump is really the sort of elephant in the room, for lack of a better word. I think that to a certain extent, a lot of what we’ve been talking about may very well shift depending on whether he’s at the top of the ticket, just because he brings his own sort of X factor to the race – whether he can mobilize his very, very loyal base of support, which is very strong here in Texas.

So I think that the presidential race will definitely inform just about everything up and down the ballot.

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