AUSTIN, Texas – Freshly announced gubernatorial hopeful Beto O'Rourke is running 6 percentage points behind Gov. Greg Abbott in a direct matchup, and Abbott leads both the Democrat O'Rourke and Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey in a three-way race for Texas governor, according to a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday.
In a race between Abbott and O'Rourke, the two-term GOP incumbent leads among all registered voters, 45%-39%. A substantial 22% want someone else to be governor, the poll found.
By nearly 2-to-1, all voters would be more likely to support McConaughey than O'Rourke. Pluralities of Democrats and independents want the Oscar-winning movie star and products endorser to run.
Still, McConaughey continues to lack a clear lane into next November's general election. By 65%-11%, Democratic voters believe O'Rourke is the best opportunity for Democrats to break a statewide losing streak that dates to 1998.
In the hypothetical three-way general election contest, Abbott is the choice of 37%; McConaughey 27%; and O'Rourke 26%. Ten percent of voters want someone else. The poll, conducted Nov. 9-16, surveyed 1,106 adults who are registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
With the race taking shape, McConaughey has just more than three weeks left in the candidate-filing period to jump in, noted UT-Tyler political scientist Mark Owens, the poll's director.
"It appears that if Matthew McConaughey chooses to enter the race before Dec. 13, he will be more on par with Beto O'Rourke than Gov. Abbott," Owens said. "Even if McConaughey delays a start in public service, both Abbott and O'Rourke have become the face of the two political parties in Texas."
Aubrey resident and large-equipment salesman George Altevogt, a Maryland native who moved to Texas 4 1/2 years ago, said McConaughey "should stick to playing make-believe."
"O'Rourke is completely anti-2A so he has zero chance," said Altevogt, a gun rights supporter who was referring to the Second Amendment and O'Rourke's 2019 comments about assault-style weapons.
"Abbott's done a good job," said Altevogt, 44, who'll vote for the incumbent though he disagrees with him on abortion and gay marriage. "Obviously, we'd like him to be a little tougher on the border. But the fact is, he's fighting against the federal government."
In contrast to recent national polls, in which President Joe Biden's job approval has slid precipitously, the Democratic president, while underwater, remains about where he was in Texas in early September: 40% approved and 52% disapproved then of Biden's performance. This month, 42% approve and 53% disapprove.
At the same time Biden stopped sinking, Abbott's job rating by Texans rebounded: 49% approved and 41% disapproved. That was statistically significant, if not considerable, improvement. In September, the review of Abbott's performance was net approval, but narrowly (45%-44%).
Migrant surge's fallout
In the intervening two months, Abbott may have been helped by his almost nonstop criticism of Biden's immigration policies. Abbott also has obtained state funds and deployed state police and soldiers at the Texas-Mexico border – a move supported by 59% of voters, including 56% of independents.
By 54%-33%, Texas voters disapprove of Biden's handling of immigration there. But 49% approve of Abbott's actions, with 38% disapproving.
"Governor Abbott's strength is when he's focused on the future and taking action at the Texas-Mexico border, rather than discussing responses to past crises," Owens said.
Bare majorities agree that a wall along the Texas-Mexico border is necessary for a safe border and support use of state funds, as Abbott is doing, to extend the barrier.
By 48%-30%, state voters support granting permanent legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children.
Education, racial justice
On other topics, the poll yielded less favorable results for Abbott and fellow Republicans, who are seeking in next year's midterms to extend their generations-long chokehold on Texas politics.
By 51%-48%, registered voters say things in Texas are going in the wrong direction, not the right one. That's better than September's 10-point net negative assessment of the state, when 54% said the direction was wrong and 44%, the direction was right. But it's hardly a rousing endorsement of Republican rule.
On education, touted as a possible Republican wedge issue after a GOP candidate won the Virginia governor's race this month, majorities aren't in accord with Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Fort Worth GOP state Rep. Matt Krause in trusting elected state leaders to cull out offensive books from public schools.
Only 28% had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in their judgment, 31% had not too much confidence and 35% had no confidence. And 59% of voters said K-12 teachers should be permitted to discuss how historical examples of discrimination in our laws apply to current social inequities.
On education, the GOP holds a narrow, 50%-47% edge over the Democratic Party as the more trusted party. And on race issues, Texas voters by 50% to 47% trust the Democrats.
On schooling and racial justice, "independents and some Republicans start to see Texas Democrats as a viable alternative," noted UT-Tyler's Owens.
From a purely partisan viewpoint, the poll's findings on the COVID-19 pandemic are mixed.
Pluralities, though not majorities, support Abbott's bans on vaccine requirements (49% support, 42% oppose) and mask orders (48%-45%).
Similarly, 48% of Texas voters endorse Biden's requirement that, at companies employing more than 100 people, employees must be vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus. 42% oppose.
Forty percent favor requiring masks in K-12 classrooms, 31% want school districts to decide and 25% want no mandate at all.
Nineteen percent of Texas voters surveyed have received a booster shot against COVID-19. Eighteen percent said they won't get any of the shots, and 5% said they're unlikely to do so. Among parents of children between the ages of five and 18, 28% said they wouldn't have their youngsters vaccinated and 9% said probably they wouldn't.
Mask wearing is decreasing in all three polls taken by The News and UT-Tyler since Abbott lifted the mandate in early March. In February, 93% of Texas adults said they'd worn a mask in the past seven days. This month, 71% said they had, including just 56% of those who said they hadn't been vaccinated. "Now it is close to the rate when masks were initially recommended but never mandated," Owens said of mask wearing.
Abbott vs. O'Rourke
Abbott is trying to nationalize his bid for reelection next year, by tying O'Rourke to Biden and stressing statements the former El Paso congressman made about guns, the border wall and police funding while running unsuccessfully for president in 2019.
As the race begins, O'Rourke is recasting those positions by contrasting them with what he calls "extremist" bills passed by Abbott and the GOP Legislature on permitless carry, abortion and transgender student athletes.
Meanwhile, Abbott's trying to deflect attention away from his COVID-19 response and the February storm that knocked off electricity and water for millions of Texans, and toward perceived Democratic weaknesses on immigration and crime.
In grading Abbott's performance, Texas voters are happier about the state's outlook (51% rated that favorably; and 39% poorly) and his policies (46%-40%) than they are about his response to crises (45%-44%).
Wanda Grimes, 78, a retired substitute teacher and Census Bureau employee from Beaumont, said she's an independent, but would support O'Rourke in 2022.
"I will vote Democrat all the way until we see some changes," Grimes said. Of Abbott, she said, "He talks about what he's going to do but then he doesn't do it."
In September and November, respectively, O'Rourke was viewed unfavorably by 42% and 43% of voters. Just 34% viewed him favorably in September. That increased slightly this month, to 37%.
"As Beto O'Rourke emerges as a candidate for governor, his favorability has increased 3% since September but it is clear his path to finding a way to having a higher favorable rating will come from making 18% of independent voters less ambivalent about his candidacy," Owens said.
The pollster was referring to the 18% of independents who were neutral about O'Rourke. 28% of independents viewed him favorably, and 44% unfavorably. 10% said they didn't know enough to say.
GOP primary for governor
Abbott, who in September enjoyed 55-point leads among Republican voters over challengers Don Huffines and Allen West, looked just as strong in this month's poll of the entire GOP primary field:
Sixty-three percent of Republican primary voters said they'd vote for Abbott. Of the rest, 6% were for West, the former state GOP chairman; 6% for entertainer and Blaze TV host Chad Prather; 3% for Huffines, a former state senator; 3% for someone else; and 18% said they didn't know.
As Abbott keeps an eye on his primary, the fall contest, presumably with O'Rourke, may be tougher than his first two successful runs for governor, Owens said. In 2014, Abbott, a former state attorney general and Texas Supreme Court justice, blew out then-state Sen. Wendy Davis by 20 points. Four years later, he dispatched former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez by 13.
"I expect 2022 will be more competitive than the governor's two previous elections, because Republicans are already looking to make O'Rourke a catalyst for mobilizing the base instead of ignoring him," Owens said. "Beto O'Rourke enters the race after engaging with voters for four years and Governor Abbott is eager to show he can lead Republicans to victory in new areas of the state."
Attorney general, other races
Embattled GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton continues, despite his legal troubles and year-old accusations by subordinates that he's abused his office, to be above water on his job rating: 37% approve, 31% disapprove. By 34%-31%, all voters say he has the integrity to serve. And Paxton still has a double-digit lead over his closest Republican challenger, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the poll found.
Among GOP primary voters, 46% said they would most likely support Paxton; 32% said Bush; 7%, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman; 7%, someone else, including state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth and a possible late entry, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler; and 8% said they didn't know.
Among independents planning to vote in the Republican primary, Bush is just 9 percentage points behind Paxton (who leads in that group, 43%-34%).
Two other potentially positive signs for Bush: By a 3-to-2 ratio, his supporters are certain they'll vote for him, while a majority of Paxton's backers said they'd probably vote for the incumbent. And in a test of name recognition enjoyed by six GOP challengers running for governor or attorney general, only 17% hadn't heard of Bush (and just 21% hadn't heard of West, the gubernatorial hopeful). 48% hadn't heard of Guzman. 57% didn't recognize Krause's name.
On the Democratic side of the AG's race, 47% of Democratic primary voters haven't heard of former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski; and North Texas civil rights lawyer Lee Merritt and former ACLU lawyer Rochelle Garza of Brownsville each were unknown to 46%.
The Democrats' name-identification challenges are only slightly less imposing in the race to see who gets to run next fall against Patrick, who wants a third term as lieutenant governor and faces only minor opposition in the GOP primary.
Former ABC News political analyst and onetime George W. Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd, now a Democrat, and twice-unsuccessful Democratic statewide candidate Mike Collier are running for lieutenant governor, as is state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton. She jumped in after the poll questionnaire was set.
In a head-to-head matchup, Collier leads Dowd, 35%-20%, with 29% of Democratic primary voters saying they'd vote for someone else. On the name-ID test of Democrats running for statewide office, 44% of voters in the party's primary said they haven't heard of either candidate.
Grading the politicians
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who's about halfway into his second six-year term, continues to spur passionate support and opposition. But Cruz's favorable-unfavorable split (42%-42%) didn't change much from September (44%-42%).
That wasn't true for Texas' other GOP senator, John Cornyn, who slipped. While more than two-thirds of Republicans view Cruz favorably, just 51% look at Cornyn with favor. Cornyn's favorable-unfavorable split, 38%-26% in September, eroded to 30%-33% this month.
Among all Texas voters, Vice President Kamala Harris is viewed favorably by 37% and unfavorably by 47%.
Patrick, the former state senator and conservative talk-show host from Houston, wins approval for the job he's doing as lieutenant governor from 38% of Texans. 31% disapprove.
Washington correspondent Emily Caldwell contributed to this report.
The Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler Poll is a statewide random sample of 1,106 registered voters conducted between Nov. 9-16. The mixed-mode sample includes 244 registered voters surveyed over the phone by the University of Texas at Tyler with support from ReconMR and 866 registered voters randomly selected from Dynata's panel of online respondents. The margin of error for a sample of 1,106 registered voters in Texas is +/- 2.9 percentage points, and the more conservative margin of sampling error that includes design effects from this poll is +/- 3.2 percentage points for a 95% confidence interval. The online and phone surveys were conducted in English and Spanish. Using information from the 2020 Current Population Survey and Office of the Texas Secretary of State. The sample's gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, metropolitan density and vote choice were matched to the population of registered voters in Texas.