The most influential non-voter in Texas

The Republican primary for governor is probably over, before it ever really started.

Greg Abbott already won the supporter who really counts, having converted his current tight focus on conservative populist issues into a Donald Trump endorsement that removes any threat from the likes of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Republican Party of Texas Chair Allen West, or former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas.

Intentional or not — did you really think Abbott was ad-libbing? — the governor ended a conservative legislative session by snagging the Trump golden ticket that's preemptive in the Republican primary. Now he's adopted the former president's pet project of a wall separating the United States and Mexico, and Trump is coming to Texas next week for a border tour with Abbott.

Good news for Greg Abbott. Bummer for everybody else. He's got the lucky charm that can ward off attacks from the right — threats that were accumulating a year ago, when Abbott was issuing unpopular pandemic orders to close certain businesses, wear masks and remain at a distance to flatten COVID-19's curve.

The opponents, none of them especially formidable but most of them worthy of attention, started to line up.

Miller never said in public that he would challenge the governor, though at least one outside group, calling itself the Conservative Republicans of Texas, was encouraging him to jump in and Miller was saying Abbott "cannot get reelected in the general election." And he and West were outside the Governor's Mansion last October, manning the bullhorns and protesting Abbott's emergency responses to the pandemic. After some thought, and that Trump endorsement, Miller now says he will be running for reelection.

West resigned from his party post and hasn't said whether he plans to run for office — or which office he might covet. But with Trump hugging the incumbent, it's hard to see where West might be looking for votes; his potential audience is listening to someone else.

Huffines is still in, with some personal money but little in the way of visible political support. He needs Texas voters more than they seem to need him. He'll recognize that line, maybe, after telling WFAA-TV on Sunday that he wants to close the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I'm going to communicate to Mexico, and they know it, they need us a lot more than we need them, and this is a proven tactic that can work," Huffines said. He's still pushing Trump themes, especially with his talk of an "invasion" on the border — a word Abbott has also adopted — and with his claim that Abbott is stealing some of his ideas.

Maybe, but that's how it goes in politics, and Abbott is no slacker. He wants a wall between here and Mexico. Unlike Huffines, he's got the Trump seal of approval and will, in about a week, have TV footage with the former president on the border.

It's not the only Texas GOP contest where the man from Mar-a-Lago gets to make a decisive call. Look at the race for attorney general.

Ken Paxton, the Republican incumbent, sought favor as one of the pre-insurrection speakers at a Trump event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. He's been under indictment on securities fraud charges for six years — through a reelection cycle in 2018 — and is under investigation after several top lawyers in his state agency accused him of using that office for the benefit of a political donor. Even so, he's still the one to beat.

But Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose father Jeb was emasculated by Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, sought the former president's blessing for his challenge to Paxton.

Trump hasn't picked a favorite, which is good news for Bush. But when he does, it has a good chance of deciding the race.

Eva Guzman, who quit the Texas Supreme Court to join that race, hasn't yet made a play for Trump's favor, relying so far on the support of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a Republican-leaning political group that signals a candidate's establishment ties. That amounted to more formidable backing in Texas politics 20 years ago, before Republican tastes turned to Trump. If Paxton's troubles catch up with him, she could advance, but that's the funny thing about the 2022 Republican primaries.

They could well be decided by a non-Texan who won't be on the ballot.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Joe Biden as popular as top Republican officeholders in Texas, UT/TT Poll finds

Texas Democrats think Joe Biden is doing a good job as president, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Texas Republicans don't.

Overall, the president gets good grades from 44% of Texas voters and bad grades from 46% — numbers that are better or roughly the same as the state's most popular Republican leaders. Underneath Biden's overall numbers, as with other officeholders in Texas, are starker partisan grades: 88% of Democrats said Biden is doing a good job, and 86% of Republicans disapprove of the work he's doing.

Biden does a little better — but still poorly — with Republicans on how he's handled the response to the pandemic; 14% approve, and 67% disapprove. But 92% of Democrats approve. And overall, 49% of Texas voters give Biden good grades on the pandemic, while 35% think he's done a bad job.

Overall, 38% approve of Biden's handling of the economy and 46% disapprove. Only 23% of voters approve of his response to immigration and border security, while 59% disapprove.

A 55% majority of Texas voters disapprove of the job the U.S. Congress is doing; 24% said they approve, but only 4% strongly approve. It's a Democratic Congress, getting good grades from 49% of Texas Democrats. Among Republicans, 82% disapprove of the work being done in the U.S. Capitol.

The state's U.S. senators are getting better grades than Congress as a whole. John Cornyn gets approving notices from 31% of all voters and disapproving ones from 43%. Among his fellow Republicans, 57% approve and 18% disapprove of his work.

Ted Cruz, overall, has the approval of 43% and disapproval from 48%. He's more popular with Texas Republicans than the senior senator, too, with 80% saying they approve of the job he's doing — 57% strongly so.

Gov. Greg Abbott gets good marks from about as many Texas voters (43%) as give him bad marks (45%). He's popular with Republicans, though: 77% approve of the way he's doing his job. Those numbers are consistent with the way voters grade the governor on his response to the pandemic. Overall, 43% approve and 48% disapprove. Among Democrats, 87% disapprove, and among Republicans, 76% approve.

Just over a third of Texas voters (35%) approve of the way Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is doing his job, while 39% disapprove. New House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, still hasn't made an impression on most voters — a condition he has in common with most of his predecessors in that post. While 20% of voters said he's doing a good job, and 22% said he's not, 57% of the voters either have no impression of him or no opinion.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, regularly in the news for legal actions involving the state and as the subject of an indictment on securities fraud and a federal investigation into allegedly using his public office to help a campaign donor, is doing a good job, according to 32% of Texas voters, and a bad one, according to 36%. The remaining 30% either had a neutral or no opinion. Among Republicans, 59% said he's doing a good job, and among Democrats, 68% said he's doing a bad job.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from April 16-22 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas' elected problem-solvers are creating more problems than they're solving: analysis

It's clear that there are more people trying to get across the border between Mexico and Texas, that state officials are concerned about increases in human trafficking there and that the state's Republican politicians are trying to pin those troubles on the country's Democratic president.

It is not at all clear that the people of Texas are more at risk of catching COVID-19 from a migrant than from anyone else they run into right now. But it's become convenient to tag people from other countries as scary carriers of the pandemic.

That rhetorical link between immigrants and disease isn't a new one, but it's an insidious one. There's no evidence to back it. It comes from the same bucket of political swill as Donald Trump's effort to paint refugees coming through the southern U.S. border as murderers and rapists.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier this month reversed his own requirements for social distancing in public places and mask-wearing, followed that announcement with news conferences on the border and in Dallas, adding fears of spreading the pandemic to his concerns about the rising tide of immigrants crossing and trying to cross the state's southern border.

There is no denying the pressures at the border. And there's also no evidence to label those people coming into the U.S. as COVID-19 spreaders. It's a dirty trick common to nativist politics, particularly at a time when racial tensions are at a peak.

Political provocations are rising, too. U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, reacted to Tuesday's slayings of six Asian women in Atlanta by deploring the crimes and then adding pain to the grief with a reference to lynching.

"The victims of race-based violence and their families deserve justice, and as the case for what we're talking about here with the tragedy of what we just saw occur in Atlanta, Georgia," he said. "I think there's an old saying in Texas about — find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree. You know we take justice very seriously, and we ought to do that— round up the bad guys," he added.

Words like this make it harder to address the hate crimes that prompted Roy. Adding slights about the coronavirus makes it harder to unwind the almost overwhelming tangle around immigration policy, as it did a year ago with the former president and some of his followers labeling the pandemic as a product of China, stirring nativist politics into a public health crisis that needed undivided attention.

The people who are supposed to be solving problems like these are making them harder to solve, creating new problems as they try to burnish their political popularity.

Democrats are fretting loudly, but even some Republicans, like Texas GOP Chair Allen West, think Roy went over the line. While saying the Democrats were making "mountains out of molehills," he said, "My recommendation to Congressman Chip Roy would be to engage the brain before firing the mouth, it would avoid embarrassing situations such as this."

It all makes former President George W. Bush's brand of Republican politics seem retro. In an interview with The Texas Tribune's Evan Smith at the opening of this year's SXSW Online 2021 festival, Bush said he delayed publication of his new book, "Out of Many, One: Portraits of America's Immigrants," for fear it would worsen the political differences blocking immigration reform.

"If I'd have been a more of a selfish guy, I would have tried to get the book out before Christmas of last year in order to enhance sales," he said. "But I wanted to avoid the election season, because one of the problems is immigration has become overly politicized, and it's really a rebuke of Congress' inability to come together to get something done on immigration."

Later, he added, "There needs to be an overhaul, which means that we need to get politics out of the system and get sober-minded people focusing on A, what's best for our economy and B, what's best for our country."

Democrats have criticized some proposed changes to the state's election laws — some of which are up for debate in the Texas Legislature on Monday — saying those would make it harder to vote and would disproportionately affect voters of color. Legislation on police reform and financing, sparked by demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police and by other incidents of police violence against Black and Hispanic people, is pending in Austin. And later this year, lawmakers will redraw political lines for the state Legislature and the congressional delegation — an issue that turns on demographic data and communities.

Those debates would be tough in any political environment. Fanning racial, ethnic and national differences has derailed immigration reform for more than a decade. It might work for campaigns, but it's a lousy way to govern.

Dan Patrick's recent swipe at Texas' Abbott fuels speculation about 2022 run

Lieutenant governors almost never interrogate witnesses at public hearings. It's not that it's illegal, just that that sort of showboating is not done. That's the business of senators and representatives. A lieutenant governor grabbing the mic is the legislative equivalent of a parent taking over a student's science fair project.

But there was Dan Patrick late Thursday afternoon, taking a chair — and a mic — to question the state's last remaining Public Utility Commissioner about the PUC's failure to do what Patrick and 28 state senators had demanded in a letter the day before.

That performance was not only about last month's electricity blackouts during a freeze that lasted nearly a week. It was also another swipe at Patrick's superior, Gov. Greg Abbott, who appointed Arthur D'Andrea, along with two other commissioners who already resigned under pressure from Patrick.

"You serve at the pleasure of the governor," Patrick said to D'Andrea at one point. He was admonishing the commissioner for not retroactively reducing energy prices incurred during the storm. D'Andrea, a lawyer, said it would be illegal to do so, noting that put him in an awkward position because Patrick and 28 senators have said he should go back and "correct" those charges.

Patrick wanted to know what he would do if the governor asked him to change the numbers, and D'Andrea said Abbott has never asked him to do something he thinks is illegal. In fact, the governor is in a position to make that request, but not to order it. Governors appoint commissioners, who are then confirmed by the Senate. But the governor can't fire them; they're not his employees.

After the freeze, Patrick said the head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas should go, along with Abbott's three appointees at the PUC. All but D'Andrea are now gone, evidence that the lieutenant governor has taken some control of the situation.

That's a political move, whether that was his aim or not. Patrick is exerting his powers at the expense of the governor, a member of the same party — albeit of a different wing of the GOP — who has been both an ally and an adversary since the two men were elected to their current posts in 2014.

Two years ago, Abbott, Patrick and then-House Speaker Dennis Bonnen legislated in unison, pushing through an overhaul of public school financing and significant changes to local property taxes. Two years before that, Patrick was pushing what became known as "the bathroom bill" — an attempt to regulate bathroom use and keep transgender Texans from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.

In the resulting whirlwind of culture politics, then-Speaker Joe Straus and the House blocked the legislation while Abbott played both sides, publicly voicing support for the bill and adding it to the agenda of a special legislative session while privately assuring concerned business leaders that it wouldn't become law.

The polar vortex that descended on the state last month opened new differences between the state's top two elected officials. And it has reinvigorated speculation about Patrick's intentions for the 2022 elections.

He wouldn't be the first name mentioned, or even the first name in the past week. Abbott has said he wants to run for reelection. Patrick has knocked down rumors of a gubernatorial race several times, and has also said he wants to run for another term as lieutenant governor.

Political folk are getting restive. George P. Bush, the state's land commissioner, has said he's considering a race for attorney general, regardless of what Attorney General Ken Paxton decides to do in 2022. The mere possibility of openings in either of the top two offices is tantalizing music to the ears of statewide candidates lower on the political ladder, like Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick. Allen West, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, has been mentioned as an Abbott rival.

Throw in the new wild cards, like actor Matthew McConaughey, who was asked about the governor speculation on NBC's "Today" show. "It's a very honorable consideration. So am I considering that? Sure," he said. Or Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who told The Texas Tribune's Evan Smith, when asked, that she's focused on doing her job right now. Some might read that as a placeholder, with an emphasis on the word she didn't say: No. Pressed on that question, she told Smith she's focused on reelection to her current job. And there are persistent murmurs about former U.S. Rep. and erstwhile candidate Beto O'Rourke.

Expect more of this kind of talk over the next few months. The political calendar starts with an election. The elected people go to City Hall, or Austin, or Washington, to do the jobs they were elected to do. Voters and donors watch what happens before deciding, in the next election, whether those politicians deserve more time, or should be stopped in their tracks.

If everything stays on schedule — a question because of delayed census numbers used for drawing political districts — people who want to run in 2022 will file their papers in nine months.

Right now, voters are in that "watching" time, and the potential contestants are starting to audition for our attention and favor.

Texas voters like Biden’s COVID-19 response better than his overall performance, UT/TT Poll finds

President Joe Biden, who today is making his first visit to Texas since his January inauguration, starts his term with about the same numbers of voters giving him good and bad marks for job performance, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Among registered Texas voters, 45% approve of the job he's doing and 44% disapprove. Those results include 30% who said they strongly approve of his performance and 39% who strongly disapprove. The partisan lines are strong: 80% of Republicans disapprove, while 89% of Democrats approve.

"Election season always hardens partisan attitudes. That didn't end with the election," said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. "I don't know that we ever got out of election mode."

Biden's grades for responding to COVID-19 are better, with 49% approving what he's doing and 36% saying they disapprove. That's an improvement over his predecessor: In the October 2020 UT/TT Poll, 45% of voters approved Donald Trump's coronavirus response, while 48% did not — including 43% who disapproved strongly.

"He's starting out, in a Republican state, with fairly respectable numbers," Daron Shaw, a government professor at UT-Austin and co-director of the poll, said of Biden.

The assessment of Gov. Greg Abbott's COVID-19 response has improved a bit since October. In both polls, 44% said the governor is doing a good job, and the number who giving him bad marks has fallen 5 percentage points, to 41% from 46%. Public approval for Abbott's handling of the pandemic peaked at the beginning; in the April 2020 UT/TT Poll, 56% of Texas voters approved of his responses and 29% disapproved.

The poll was in the field Feb. 12-18, when a massive winter storm battered the state and caused the state's electric grid to lose control of the power supply. The poll was being completed just as the state began to thaw and news of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's trip to Cancún surfaced. None of that news was evident in voters' ratings of Abbott and Cruz.

The governor's numbers held steady, with 46% of Texas voters giving him an approving job review and 39% giving him a disapproving one. In October, his results were 47% – 40% — virtually the same.

The same was true for Cruz: 45% positive and 43% negative in this poll, compared to 46% - 42% in October.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn got positive marks from 32% of voters, and negative marks from 42% — a more negative showing than either Cruz or Abbott. In October, right before he was reelected, Cornyn's job performance was rated positively by 39% and negatively by the same percentage.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's job review was flat: 37% of voters say he's doing a good job and 36% saying they disapprove of his work. The state's newest legislative leader, House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, elevated to that post by his peers just a few weeks ago, still hasn't made an impression on most Texas voters; 60% said either that they have a neutral or no assessment of how he's doing his job, while 22% gave him positive grades and 18% were negative.

About two in five Texans, 39%, don't have a favorite branch of government, mentioned first here because that answer outranked the U.S. Supreme Court and the judicial branch, 35%; the president and the executive branch, 22%; and Congress and the legislative branch, 5%.

With a Democrat in the White House, 42% of Democratic voters chose the executive branch as their favorite. Meanwhile, 50% of Republicans chose the courts. Among independents, 64% went with "don't know/no opinion" over any of the three branches. Congress fared poorly no matter who was responding. It's the favorite of 7% of Democrats, and 3% each of the independents and the Republicans.

Congress remains notably unpopular: 22% of Texas voters approve of its job performance, and 57% disapprove — 43% of them strongly.

Almost half of the voters who identified themselves as conservative — 46% — said the Republican elected officials in Texas are "conservative enough." But 32% said those officeholders are not conservative enough. Only 12% said they are too conservative.

Among voters who identify themselves as liberals, 36% said the Democrats now in office are "liberal enough," 38% said they're not liberal enough and 9% said state Democratic officeholders are too liberal.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from Feb. 12-18 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Just when you thought campaign season was over with, Texas pulls you back in

Beto O'Rourke is thinking about challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2022 election. Abbott is already responding, the way candidates do.

You're right to think this is happening early. The last big election was less than three months ago. If you include the protests of the results, and you should, it wasn't officially over until Jan. 6.

But it's always campaign season in Texas.

O'Rourke, the state's best-known Democrat, launched this trial balloon when asked on El Paso radio station KLAQ whether he would run for governor.

"It is something I'm going to think about," he said. He expanded on that in a string of tweets Thursday night.

Abbott had his opening shot ready to go, recalling the Democrat's support for an assault weapon buyback program during the 2020 presidential race.

"You're talking about a person who says they want to run for governor who said, 'Heck yes,' he's gonna come and take your guns," Abbott said Thursday at a news conference in Odessa. "Heck yes, he's for open borders. Heck yes, he's for killing the energy sector and fossil fuels in the state of Texas. I don't think that's gonna sell real well."

Here's the setup: Abbott has been in statewide office for more than 25 years, serving on the Texas Supreme Court, as attorney general and then as governor. He's a formidable fundraiser and outperformed the other Republicans on the ballot with him in his last reelection in 2018. O'Rourke was an El Paso City Council member and member of Congress who found political celebrity with his 2018 challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, raising millions of dollars and coming within 3 percentage points of winning that election. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

Neither of the state's U.S. Senate seats will be on the 2022 ballot; the governor's race will be the marquee contest. Abbott has said he wants a third term.

And the primaries in Texas are early. What might seem like a contest that's far in the future is just over a year away.

Texas contestants have to declare their candidacies by Dec. 13 of this year, and early voting in the March 1 primaries starts on Valentine's Day next year — just a year and two weeks from now.

Abbott had only minor opposition in his last primary, and he zoomed out of that race with more than 90% of the vote. He could have more competition next time, with Republicans like Don Huffines of Dallas, a former state senator, and Allen West, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, most often mentioned as potential challengers. In the short term, O'Rourke gives the governor an opportunity to rail against a Democrat and talk past the noisy, and so far, minor, wannabes in his own party. And it's a welcome change of subject for a governor whose responses to the pandemic have generated persistent criticism across the political spectrum.

The Democratic race is open, but that party hasn't won a statewide race since Abbott was first appointed to statewide office in 1995, and it hasn't produced a truly competitive candidate for governor for years. Abbott won his first race for governor by more than 20 percentage points, his second by more than 13.

From this distance, Republicans appear to have some advantages in 2022. That will be a presidential midterm election, and those often go against the party in power. Donald Trump's party had a rough time in 2018, as did Barack Obama's Democrats in 2010. It will be Joe Biden's turn to test the waters.

It will also be the first election held under political maps cut to fit the 2020 census numbers. The Texas Legislature will draw those maps this year, as soon as it gets those census results, and it's reasonable to expect that the Republican majorities in the House and Senate will join with the Republican governor to draw maps that favor GOP candidates.

But in O'Rourke's only statewide race in Texas — he dropped out of the presidential race before the Texas primaries last year — he was a formidable, if losing, candidate. There's a reason he's a name brand for the Democrats; he came out of nowhere and nearly unseated Cruz. Other Democrats dreaming of being the next governor now have some more thinking to do.

The voters are still getting over the 2020 elections. The politicians have already moved on to 2022.

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