Midterm elections typically focus on Congress, and give the opposition party a chance to make gain. But in the Texas of 2022, after the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history, restrictive new abortion laws, concerns about the power grid and much more, Gov. Greg Abbott may be in for the political fight of his career, while other Republican officeholders down the ballot could also face close races.
It’s too early to say, for certain, but the flashing lights for the governor’s re-election team include tighter polling margins between Abbott and his key challenger, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, plus a record financial haul by O’Rourke. These successes have, at least temporarily, put some wind in the sails of Texas Democrats’ hopes to win a statewide office for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Gromer Jeffers is a political writer for the Dallas Morning News. He told Texas Standard that the governor’s race is typically the driver of turnout in elections like this year’s midterm. But Jeffers says if Texas Democrats want to really have power in the statehouse, ousting Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick should be a top priority. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: We’ve talked about some of the campaign cash pouring into the governor’s race and some of the tightening polls there. What about those down ballot races? Lieutenant governor, attorney general, ag commissioner? How are Democrats faring there?
Gromer Jeffers: Well, look, the governor’s race is the driver of turnout typically in these situations. But when you look at, say, the lieutenant governor’s race, Dan Patrick, the incumbent, the powerful president of the Senate – has basically been the prime motivator of most of the conservative legislation that has gone through Texas since he’s been there. He’s seeking a third term. And so it stands to reason that he would be, if not public enemy number one, public enemy number one A for Democrats. And the rematch with Mike Collier, I think will be interesting. It was a five-and-a-half point race in 2018. That’s pretty close. When you think about the powerful incumbent with O’Rourke at the top of the ticket. I think we’re looking at another race, at least less than seven or eight points, and who knows? So it’ll be another competitive race. I’m not saying Collier will win, but it’s one to watch.
What about Ken Paxton? He’s been dealing with a lot of legal issues on the personal front. How much is that dented his appeal or has it at least in the in his reelection campaign?
He’s been under securities fraud since 2015. He’s now under FBI investigation for public corruption. He is considered a weak link on the GOP ticket just because of that. There’s a theory that Democrats should have been trying since his legal troubles began to unseat him. They’ve had trouble in the past getting a candidate that could both raise money and capture the imagination of voters. We’ll see now, though, if Rochelle Garza, as a former ACLU lawyer, can be just that she appears to be qualified, competent in the sense of drawing that contrast with Paxton. And she’s capitalizing on issues like women’s reproductive rights – some of the hot button things that Democrats hope will drive voters to the polls. I think she has the opportunity to catch fire and a sense of attracting national attention and raising money. But that race, if there’s a theory that you go to the weakest link, then, yeah, the attorney general’s race is something that the Democrats should be focusing on.
Do you see a Democratic candidate out of any of these races who poses the greatest single chance of unseating the Republican incumbent?
That is an excellent question. And while the down ballot races are important and you should watch on that and in some ways more important than the governor’s race, I think it’s all in that O’Rourke’s hands for this reason. He’s got to raise the most money, probably at historical levels. He’s going to drive the turnout if he can run close to Abbott, I think he has the best probably chance of making some noise and then perhaps polling a down ballot candidate with them simply because he will have the resources, the name recognition and all of that.
I’m just thinking about the hypothetical, if O’Rourke were to get a win for governor in the fall, but you have other seats that don’t go Democratic. Obviously that would limit Democratic power in the state House. What about national Democrats in any of these campaigns?
There’s a lot of frustration with Texas, with national Democrats. They tend to be more of a hindrance than help in a lot of ways. But, yeah, they are watching Texas for a couple of things. One, can O’Rourke do it? Can he not only pull himself across the finish line, but help the rest of the ticket. You saw what happened in 2018. He came within 2.6% of beating Ted Cruz. He lost. But Colin Alred won in Congress in the Dallas area. Lizzie Fletcher in the Houston area. And then 12 Democrats flipped state House seat. So that’s the kind of turnout I think national Democrats and especially Democrats here in Texas, are looking for something that moves the ball, shifts the numbers and provides some sort of victory and momentum going into the 2024 election.