DALLAS – Beto O’Rourke has made courting independents and Republicans whose votes could be up for grabs a critical component of his campaign to unseat GOP incumbent Greg Abbott.
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler reveals O’Rourke’s strategy may not be working as planned.
Abbott has opened a 9-point lead, slightly better than the 7-point advantage he’s enjoyed for most of the year. O’Rourke is tops among independents by a 36% to 35% margin. He’s winning among Democrats 77% to 12%, but that’s offset by Abbott’s 85% to 8% lead with likely Republican voters.
O’Rourke’s strongest support comes from Black voters, which he’s winning by a 70% to 14% margin. It’s a close race for Hispanic voters, with the Democrat leading Abbott by 41% to 37%. And Abbott has a strong 60% to 29% lead with white voters.
The poll, conducted Sept. 6-13, surveyed 1,268 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
In Texas, the electorate is dominated by Republican voters, which explains O’Rourke’s strategy of showing up in GOP strongholds to make his case against Abbott. The governor knows his advantage. He’s used his resources, including television commercials and a grassroots team, to awaken his support base.
O’Rourke is the underdog.
The former congressman from El Paso and any other statewide Democratic candidate has to supplement their support from the party faithful with some Republicans and some independents. Texas is noted for its political polarization, so independent voters are not as plentiful as unmovable Democrats and Republicans.
“You’ve got to turn out your base and that’s what’s going to get you nearly all the way there, but you’ve got to also persuade those voters who are solidly in one party or another, and are open to hearing messages from the candidates irrespective of party,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s fair to say that there’s not a huge number of persuadable voters, but there certainly are some. That sliver of the electorate that is persuadable and is willing to split their ticket can determine the outcome.”
Turner, who managed former state Sen. Wendy Davis’ unsuccessful campaign for governor against Abbott, said O’Rourke’s appeals to non-Democrats are rooted in issues such as abortion rights, the state’s power grid crisis, health care, curbing mass shootings and public education. There are sharp contrasts between Abbott and O’Rourke on all of those topics.
“We know those issues obviously are important to Democratic voters, but they’re also important to a lot of voters who are persuadable,” Turner said.
But the poll shows Abbott is holding his own on hot-button issues that O’Rourke is pounding with independents and Republicans.
Survey respondents were split on an abortion question, with 46% agreeing with the decision to leave the question of abortion rights to the state and 46% disagreeing with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to abolish national abortion rights. The overwhelming majority of voters, however, support O’Rourke’s view that there should be exceptions to Texas’ abortion ban for victims of rape and incest and in cases that involve fetal abnormalities. Abbott has said victims of rape and incest should take the Plan B pill and call the police, a view criticized by health care officials and abortion rights activists.
On the economy, Texans like Abbott’s stewardship by a 52% to 39% margin. Texans also support Abbott’s handling of border security and immigration issues 52% to 39%. And poll respondents favored Abbott’s ploy to bus migrants to Washington, D.C., by 54% to 29%. The governor is also sending migrants to New York and Chicago and has indicated he’ll likely add more destinations.
O’Rourke could have an opening on the gun violence issue, in which 73% percent of respondents favored raising the age to purchase “semi-automatic assault-style rifles” from 18 to 21. The Democrat supports the idea, while Abbott says it’s unconstitutional. Most Texans, 60%, don’t believe elected officials are doing enough to stop mass shootings.
A lot of issues are being discussed as the Nov. 8 midterm elections approach, and most appear divided along party lines.
The bottom line: If O’Rourke can’t convince enough Republicans and independents to dump Abbott, he’ll need an outsize turnout from Democratic Party base voters.
That means running up his vote totals in urban areas, like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Austin.
O’Rourke has been working with Dallas County Democrats to reach nonvoters in what’s one of the bluest counties in the state. He estimates that there were more than 400,000 eligible Dallas County voters who didn’t participate in the 2020 election.
In 2018, he lost his Senate challenge against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz by 2.6 percentage points, and some analysts said more outreach to Black and Hispanic Democrats would have put him over the top.
Last month at a Black-owned Dallas barbershop, activists told O’Rourke outreach to communities of color was critical. He said he understood.
The reality is turning out enough Democrats to overcome the Republican advantage in the electorate is a daunting task, as is appealing to non-Democrats.
Most of the statewide contests are expected to be close, single-digit races, a sign that the competitive balance in Texas has shifted since Abbott beat Davis by 20 points.
There’s still time for late-breaking voters to go O’Rourke’s way. Still, until the electorate shifts more, there aren’t many options for a statewide Democratic candidate.