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As midterm elections approach, new poll shows GOP elected leaders holding steady with Texas voters

As midterm elections approach, new poll shows GOP elected leaders holding steady with Texas voters

by Gromer Jeffers Jr. | Dallas News  |  Published on April 19, 2021

With resounding victories in the 2020 elections, Republicans proved that Texas — while more competitive for Democrats — is a red state.

That status was cemented when the GOP easily maintained control of the Texas House. Now they are implementing a conservative agenda that, for the most part, appears to have the backing of most Texans.

A new poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler shows that the approval rating for Texas Republican leaders has held steady, even as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s leadership have been pelted with criticism over the winter storm that left millions without power and resulted in the deaths of at least 111 people.

With most of the statewide office holders up for reelection next year, the fate of GOP incumbents could hinge on challenges inside their party, and the ability of Democrats to craft a message that resonates with a cross-section of Texas voters.

“The Republicans are pushing for things that resonate with their conservative base,” said Bill Miller, a veteran consultant based in Austin.

Miller warned that Republican leaders needed to emerge from the legislative session with a fix to the state’s power delivery system, one that prevents a recurrence of the power outages and deaths caused by this year’s winter storm.

Last week a chilling message from the Energy Reliability Council of Texas warned Texans to conserve energy on what was a normal spring day. Major summer outages could turn voters against the Republican leadership.

But for now GOP leaders are in good shape.

According to the poll, Texans approve of Abbott’s job as governor by a 50% to 36% margin, slightly less than the 52% approval rating the governor enjoyed earlier this year and considerably down from the 61% approval he had in 2020, before the pandemic took hold.

The poll also revealed that Abbott’s road to reelection could have some challenges.

The survey found that if Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey ran for governor, 45% of Texas registered voters would vote for him and 33% would vote for Abbott. “Someone else” would get 22% of the vote.

The poll, conducted April 6-13, surveyed 1,126 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.92 percentage points.

The governor’s race would not be a slam dunk for McConaughey. The poll shows that 56% of Republican voters said they’d vote for Abbott, compared with only 30% for McConaughey. Democrats broke 66% to 8% for McConaughey, and independents, 44% to 28%. More than twice as many Democratic primary voters — 51% — said they wanted a progressive candidate for governor than wanted a centrist — 25%. That could pose a problem for McConaughey, who has criticized both parties and whose ideology is unclear.

The poll showed the approval rating for the rest of the Republican leadership has been largely unchanged since a March survey.

Voters approve of Attorney General Ken Paxton by a 37% to 26% margin, with 36% neither approving nor disapproving. The result mirrors The News/UT-Tyler poll released in March.

The FBI is investigating the embattled Paxton after allegations of bribery from former staff.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is considering challenging Paxton in next year’s GOP primary. If he runs, Bush is expected to make Paxton’s integrity an issue. The poll found that 36% of voters agree that Paxton has integrity, while 26% said he did not. Another 37% of voters were unsure, suggesting that deliberations about the incumbent attorney general are still taking place.

Long before the era of President Donald Trump, scandals like the one dogging Paxton would have been politically untenable. But Paxton has been able to develop a connection with conservative voters who don’t care about his legal hurdles, while many voters still aren’t familiar with him and other statewide leaders.

There is hope for Democrats in an attorney general race. If Bush runs and softens up the incumbent in the primary, a Democrat would be in position to rally moderates and some Republicans against Paxton.

Elsewhere, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the most powerful players in state government, had voters approving of his performance by a 37% to 26% margin, which is similar to the March survey.

Houston Democrat Mike Collier is seeking a rematch against Patrick in next year’s race for lieutenant governor.

So how should Democrats go about upending the GOP?

It’s all about effectively communicating with voters.

“It’s the inability to consistently message voters about our values,” said Democratic strategist Colin Strother of his party’s failures. “We’ve got to get rid of the suit and ties and quinoa salad crowd and get operatives who are on the street, who know how to connect with voters.”

Another political consulting veteran, Jason Stanford, agreed.

“The voters are waiting to hear about our vision and ideas in a sustained way,” Stanford said. “It can’t be a cookie-cutter message. It has to be relevant to Texans.”

Stanford pointed out that too much of the political focus is on the legislative session, which is controlled by Republicans and often forgotten by voters when it’s over.

The News/UT-Tyler polls found that Texas voters continue to support some proposals in the Legislature, including the controversial bills aimed at curbing mail-in voter fraud.

According to the poll, 60% of voters support additional requirements beyond signature verification to increase “election integrity,” while only 18% thought additional requirements are unnecessary.

By a 41% to 16% margin, voters supported limits on the hours a county can open polling locations for early voting.

The support for such election law changes are backed by voters, even though they acknowledged — by a 52% to 28% margin — that there was no widespread election fraud in the 2020 contests.

Last month the Senate approved legislation that would limit early voting hours, restrict the amount of voting machines available at countywide polling places and take power over election administration away from local officials.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have blasted election bills moving through the Texas Legislature as voter suppression tools. But Republicans contend the proposals are necessary to bring uniformity to election laws and guard against election fraud.

The Republican push to end abortions is also attractive to Texas voters, and one reason Democrats can’t get traction with voters who might like their stands on other issues.

Democrats are in concert with voters on the issue of openly carrying guns without authorization.

By 58% to 26%, Texans oppose a bill the House approved and sent to the Senate on Friday that would allow people to carry handguns without a permit. Last month, though, opposition was greater — 64% to 23%.

In two polls by The News and UT-Tyler early last year, a majority of Texas registered voters endorsed a national ban on sale of semiautomatic assault weapons. But this month, that slipped to support by a plurality, 48% for and 33% against.

Strother, the consultant, says Democrats should continue to focus on gun safety issues, including opposing open carrying of handguns without a license. But he said there are also opportunities to gain traction with voters on issues that are non-starters in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Those issues include decriminalizing marijuana, implementing casino gambling and sports betting and expanding Medicaid to give more Texans access to quality healthcare.

Democrats also have to develop their own Texas brand, one that resists the tendency of national operatives to force strategies and issues that may fit in other areas of the country, but not in Texas.

In 2020, national Democrats, and some in Texas, saddled their party’s local candidates with unpopular issues like defunding the police and expanding the Supreme Court so President Joe Biden could pack it.

“The Texas Democrats suffer at the hand of national Democrats,” Miller said.

And while Democrats have gotten much better with fundraising, their party leaders and elected officials need to constantly engage voters, not just during election season.

The reality, however, is that Republicans have structural advantages in Texas elections. The math shows that there are more conservatives in the electorate than progressives.

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