AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott has a comfortable lead over potential Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, according to a new poll from the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune.
The survey of registered voters found Abbott with a 9-percentage-point advantage over O’Rourke, 46% to 37%. Seven percent of respondents picked someone else in the hypothetical matchup, and 10% said they have not thought about it enough to have an opinion.
O’Rourke is increasingly expected to challenge the Republican governor for a third term next year, though he has not made an announcement yet.
Both men have vulnerabilities, according to the survey. Abbott’s approval rating has slightly improved since the last poll in August, but it remains underwater, with 43% of voters approving of the job he is doing and 48% disapproving.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, has a well-defined — and negative — image with voters. Only 35% of respondents said they have a favorable opinion of him, while 50% registered an unfavorable opinion. Only 7% of voters said they did not know him or had no opinion of him.
While O’Rourke is widely liked by Democrats and widely disliked by Republicans, his low favorability with independents is hurting his overall showing: Only 22% of them have a positive view of him, while 48% have a negative view.
Abbott’s numbers with independents are nothing to brag about, either. Twenty-seven percent of them approve of his job performance, while 57% disapprove.
O’Rourke’s initial 9-point deficit “is as good a starting point as Democrats are gonna get,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
One upside for O’Rourke is that with his widespread name ID, he “doesn’t have to spend most of his campaign introducing himself to the electorate,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT. But Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll, noted that any candidate with a favorability rating as lopsided as O’Rourke’s is not in “great shape.”
One other potential gubernatorial candidate who has captured the attention of the political world is actor Matthew McConaughey. He has teased a possible run for months, without saying which primary he would run in — or whether he would run as an independent.
The poll discovered that the movie star is not universally beloved by Texans. Close to a third of voters — 29% — have neither a favorable nor unfavorable opinion of McConaughey. Thirty-five percent registered a favorable opinion of him, and 24% said they had an unfavorable impression.
Any Democratic candidate will have to contend with a president from their party, Joe Biden, who is deeply unpopular in Texas. In the poll, voters gave him a net approval rating of negative 20 points, with 35% approving of his job performance and 55% disapproving. That is wider than the 11-point deficit that the survey found between the two ratings for Biden in August.
The primary elections
The survey also found that the top statewide officials are easily leading their Republican primaries, with considerable shares of voters who have not tuned in yet. Attorney General Ken Paxton has drawn the most serious lineup of challengers, including Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Fort Worth state Rep. Matt Krause. Paxton won the support of 48% of primary voters in the poll, with Bush far behind him at 16% and no one else in double digits. But over a quarter of respondents said they have not thought about the primary enough to have an opinion.
Bush is Paxton’s best-known challenger by far. Only 15% of Republicans said they were unfamiliar with him, and among the Republicans who had an opinion of him, 34% had a favorable view and 28% had an unfavorable view.
Another high-profile primary has been the governor’s race. Abbott is at 56%, with Allen West, the former Texas GOP chair and U.S. representative from Florida, in second place at 13%. No other challenger is in double digits, and 16% of primary voters said they have not thought about it enough to have an opinion.
West is easily Abbott’s best-known challenger — and very well-liked among Republicans, with 53% rating him favorably and only 7% rating him unfavorably.
Results were less notable in the statewide Democratic primaries. The poll showed O’Rourke dominating his primary and majorities of voters not paying attention yet to the primaries for attorney general and lieutenant governor.
For example, the two Democrats running for lieutenant governor, Mike Collier and Matthew Dowd, got 17% support and 13% support, respectively. Two-thirds of voters said they had not thought about that primary enough to form an opinion about which Democrat should take on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Like Abbott, Patrick’s approval rating has improved a bit since the August survey, though it is still upside-down. In the latest poll, 35% of voters approved of the job he is doing, while 39% disapproved.
Paxton’s approval numbers, meanwhile, are virtually unchanged from August. Thirty-five percent of voters approve of the job he is doing, while 37% disapprove.
Another top Texas Republican, House Speaker Dade Phelan, remains lesser-known than the statewide officials, as is typical for the legislative leader. Almost a third of voters said they do not know how to rate the job Phelan is doing, while 20% gave positive marks to his job performance and 28% disapproved.
More interestingly, the Texas Legislature has seen a noticeable recovery in its job approval among voters since August, when it was in the throes of a series of contentious special sessions. In the latest survey, 35% of voters registered approval for the Legislature’s job performance, while 40% disapproved — a much smaller deficit than the 20-point gap two months ago.
The survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted online from Oct. 22-31. The margin of error was +/- 2.83 points. The sample for the Republican primary had 554 voters, with a margin of error of +/- 4.16 points. The sample for the Democratic primary included 436 voters, with a margin of error of +/- 4.69 points.
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.
This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.