AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The field is set for the Texas primary election, after candidate filing wrapped up in December. Early polls are giving us some insight into how voters feel about the top races on the ballot.
Gov. Greg Abbott is facing several challengers in the Republican primary, most notably from former State Senator Don Huffines and from former Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West. Abbott would need to win more than 50% of the primary vote to avoid a runoff.
“I think right now it looks like Gov. Abbott as the incumbent is in pretty good shape. Most of the polling has had him including ours has had him over 50%,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
“Early polling showed former chairman West polling a little bit better than Don Huffines. I expect that’s going to change a little bit,” Henson continued. “Former Senator Huffines has a lot of money to spend, deep pockets, has been spending it and seems to be the more present person in terms of what the campaign is thinking about. But I don’t expect to run off at this point. I think the governor has worked very hard for a long time to avoid being outflanked on his right wing, which is what Huffines and West are trying. I don’t think they’re going to have enough success with that.”
Beto O’Rourke is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. But Henson said polling shows he faces an uphill climb in the general election.
“He’s underwater with Texans overall in terms of his favorability ratings,” Henson said. He explained that while O’Rourke is popular with Democrats, he has little support among Republicans. Getting crossover support is essential for a Democrat to win a statewide election in a majority-Republican state.
“He’s a very negatively defined figure among Republicans,” Henson said, describing polling on O’Rourke that shows 80 percent of GOP voters have a strongly unfavorable view of him.
“That means there’s not much potential for persuading Republicans to cross over. That’s always been kind of part of the formula for former Congressman O’Rourke,” Henson added.
Arguably the most-watched contest on the primary ballot is the Republican race for Texas Attorney General. Incumbent Ken Paxton faces several challengers, all citing his legal issues as reason why voters should replace him. Paxton still faces a criminal case for which he was indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015. He also faces a separate FBI investigation and a lawsuit brought against him by his former aides.
Despite those issues, Henson says polling shows Paxton still has a lot of support from Republican voters.
“The dyed in the wool Republicans seem to be sticking with him in large numbers, at least those who are paying attention to this race,” Henson said. “But when you look at the trial ballots, he’s just a little bit under 50 percent,” he added, noting the possibility that the primary race could lead to a runoff.
The Republican field includes three high-profile challengers: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, conservative Congressman Louie Gohmert and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. Henson says that so far, none of the challengers have made a significant move in the polls.
“Nobody’s really broken out yet. George P. Bush goes into this with an advantage in terms of his name and being more sort of instantly recognizable to people in polling,” Henson explained. “On the other hand, he has an uphill battle in convincing Republican primary voters that the Bush name isn’t sort of yesterday’s Republican.”
The combination of ongoing legal issues and the number of challengers makes this one of a few races where an incumbent could be at risk.
“I think it’s going to be hard to avoid a runoff,” Henson said. “That’s why everybody’s watching this race.”
‘I’ve been fighting for progressive issues’ – Greg Casar leaves Austin City Council to run for Congress
An open seat for Congress is creating a hotly-contested race in central Texas. District 35 stretches from east Austin, south to San Antonio. The district leans strongly toward Democrats. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who has served in Congress since 1995, currently represents the district. But he chose to run in the newly-created District 37, which covers a large part of Austin.
Congressman Doggett’s decision opens the door for other Democrats. Four candidates filed to run in the March primary election. Carla-Joy Sisco is a consultant. Sisco is the only candidate in the race who has not held elected office before. Also on the primary ballot is former San Antonio city council member Rebecca Viagran. She served four terms, which is the maximum allowed on San Antonio’s council.
The race also features two well-known elected officials from Austin. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, has represented Austin at the State Capitol since 2002. Greg Casar, who has served on the Austin City Council since 2015, is also on the ballot.
“I’ve spent years organizing and supporting communities in East Austin, but also through Hays County and down to San Antonio,” Casar said during an interview in December. “I’ve been fighting for progressive issues but also delivering key wins in East Austin, making sure we have affordable housing so that people don’t get pushed out of the city.”
During the interview, Casar also highlighted his work on a paid sick time law. But he believes it’s important for him to continue the fight for progressive issues in Washington.
“We have seen leadership at the state level, especially as I saw in the winter storm, when we were delivering blankets to people, trying to keep people alive, and Ted Cruz was getting on a plane to go to the beach, we’ve seen some of those leaders at a higher level, continue to fail us,” Casar said. “And so it’s really important for Texans and working families to have a leader that will fight and deliver on raising wages on fixing our electric grid and winning things like Medicare for all.”
“I’m a person that is going to be committed to the working class person and not taking a penny of corporate PAC money in this campaign. That’s where I’m coming from,” Casar added. “Voters will get to decide whether they want to side with the folks that let them freeze or the people that are committed to standing up to the big companies and making sure that the lights stay on.”
‘I want to take the fight to Washington’ – Eddie Rodriguez aims to move from State Capitol to Capitol Hill
Eddie Rodriguez says his working class parents instilled in him a deep sense of the American dream. He was the first in his family to go to college, which he called a “tremendous source of pride” for his family.
But Rodriguez says he worries that others won’t have the chance for those same opportunities.
“I feel like today, that sense of the American Dream is fading. And that’s why I’m running for Congress,” Rodriguez said during an interview in December. “I want to work on issues that help the working class, economically, educationally to better their lives and provide a better future for their kids. I’m also running because I want to stop what the Republicans are doing right now, which is ignoring the working class and the middle class and attacking our fundamental rights. That includes the right to vote the freedom to vote, the right to fair representation. And, very importantly the freedom for a woman to make her own personal health choices.”
Rodriguez was among the Democratic lawmakers who broke quorum at the State Capitol in the summer and traveled to Washington, DC to attempt to block a Republican-led election bill. He said that experience helped push him toward a run for Congress.
“It was very clear to me that many of the battles that we fight here in Austin, are won and lost in Washington,” Rodriguez said. “I want to take the fight for the working men and women out there, and for our values and our cause to Washington and finish the job.”
‘Lack of faith in political leadership’ among issues weighing on Texas voters
Candidates in both parties are working to get attention from voters leading up to the Texas Primary. But the issues that are important to Texas voters differ sharply depending on party affiliation.
“You know, the issues that really drive Republicans are immigration and border security,” Henson said. Polling from the Texas Politics Project shows those are the top issues for 68% of Republican voters in Texas. For comparison, just 3% of GOP voters polled listed COVID-19 as a priority issue.
For Texas Democrats, it’s more difficult to find a focal issue.
“The Democratic coalition is a broad one,” Henson said. He pointed to polling that shows no one issue dominating attention for Texas Democrats.
“You see a little more than 10% on a handful of issues: COVID, voting rights 11%, each followed by health care at 8%,” Henson said, describing the poll results. “So it’s hard for Democrats to put together an agenda that really galvanizes people, compared to Republicans.”
Henson said that polling in Texas shows the issue of political leadership and corruption is one that resonates with both Democrats and Republicans, but in different ways.
“It comes up for Democrats at the state level and for Republicans at the national level,” Henson explained. “That’s really a function of the partisan polarization we’re seeing. There’s a lot of a lack of faith in political leadership, but it’s really driven by who’s in charge at what level of government, and who you ask.”