With the Texas election for governor only a few months away, many are wondering whether Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke has a chance at beating Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Recent polling from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler indicates that Abbott’s lead is tightening a little, but there are a number of policy issues that complicate that narrative. Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University, joined Texas Standard to examine some of these issues.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Help us make sense of some of these numbers here. Abbott is up by about 7 points over his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke. And yet the FiveThirtyEight, which aggregates a lot of the polls that have been done in Texas, puts Abbott up about 9 points. What accounts for that discrepancy?
Mark Jones: Well, the Tyler poll is one poll, whereas what FiveThirtyEight does is it takes all the polls they’re doing – those by UT Tyler, the University of Houston Hobby School, UT Austin, Texas Bank Policy Foundation, CBS News – puts them all together. And when you do that, you get a slightly better result for Abbott and worse result for Beto. The best way to think about these polls, though, is what they’re telling us is that there’s a range that the best Beto has been able to do is get within about 5 points of Abbott, but the worst he’s done is getting about 8 or 9 points. So truth in terms of the actual gap right now is somewhere probably between 5 and 9 points.
Well, when we’ve spoken in the past, Abbott had a massive war chest. I presume he still has quite a bit of money, but Beto had not raised anything like what Governor Abbott had raised and the gap seemed considerably greater. What’s going on?
Well, Beto had an outstanding fundraising cycle in the report that came out in mid-July, and he’s up now having raised about $28-$29 million. Overall, he’s on track to spend somewhere between $50 and $75 million in this race. And while Abbott’s going to be more in the $100 to $125 million, Beto has raised enough money to be able to compete on a relatively level playing field with Abbott, which you can’t say the same for many of his other statewide Democratic colleagues who haven’t done really much at all in terms of fundraising.
Let’s talk about how some of the events that we’ve all been hearing about in the news might have had an impact on some of the numbers. Of course, there’s immigration and Governor Abbott has been doubling down on his hard-line stance with his operations at the border, of course, and also busing immigrants to places like Washington, D.C. Is that reflected in these numbers at all, do you think?
Well, immigration is a winning issue for the governor. His base is wild about his immigration policies, had an 80% or 90% rate in favor. But the general public also supports these policies. So 60%, 65%, 70% of Texans agree with the governor’s policies on immigration, whether it’s sending DPS to the border, to busing immigrants to Washington, D.C., and New York. So I think we can expect Abbott to continue to focus on immigration between now and November because it’s a positive issue for him, both in terms of mobilizing his base to turn out, but also it doesn’t cost him votes in the sort of swing voters who he needs to also be able to win in November.
Let’s look at another issue that’s clearly having an impact on the numbers. Voters in Kansas turned out in record numbers to strike down an anti-abortion constitutional amendment – and of course, Kansas is considered a red state. A lot of people are looking at what that means for Texas. What do you get when it comes to a sense of how Texans are feeling when it comes to the issue of abortion and how that might affect political outcomes in November?
Abortion is a very important issue for Beto O’Rourke, one in terms of mobilizing people who might not otherwise have turned out to vote in November and vote for him based on the issue of abortion. We also can see that the current Texas policy that is banning abortions unless the mother’s health is at risk is out of step with majority opinion in the state. Only about 1 in 4 Texans supports that type of policy. The rest consider it to be too restrictive. So abortion is certainly an issue that’s working against Abbott. And the other main issue would be gun control.
Tell us a little bit more about that. This in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, of course.
The Uvalde shooting, and particularly the focus on assault rifles, Texas Republicans also find themselves out of step with the majority Texas opinion, and it’s especially costing him support among women. And in a University of Houston Hobby School poll, we saw it really dramatically adversely affected Abbott’s support among Latinas whose support shifted dramatically towards Beto in large part due to the Uvalde shooting.
Let’s shift gears for just a moment, because I know that Abbott and O’Rourke have a debate next month in the Rio Grande Valley. What does that tell you about what Battleground Texas looks like as we approach November? I remember, in past election cycles, a lot of folks looking at the suburbs as tipping points.
Well, the Abbott campaign and Republicans more generally are focused on South Texas, an area that historically was dark blue and where Democrats won 70%, 80% of the vote. Now, Republicans have made greater inroads into that area, and Abbott was able to locate the debate there because effectively he held all the cards. And so O’Rourke had to agree to the conditions and location and everything that Abbott wanted.
And the focus on South Texas is one where Abbott’s making the point that Democrats are losing support there, Republicans are gaining support there. Although it’s always important to keep in mind that that part of the state’s only about 2 million people, and we’re not talking about Republicans gaining the majority – it’s just they’re going from winning 20% to 25% of the vote to 35% to 40% of the vote.