DALLAS — Former U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke has not officially declared a campaign to unseat Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, but a new poll shows the likely Democratic challenger in a statistical dead heat against the two-term incumbent in the 2022 election.

What You Need To Know

  • Gov. Greg Abbott is in a statistical dead heat with potential Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke according to a new poll

  • The Texas Hispanic vote is closely divided, with O’Rourke having the advantage over Abbott 49% to 31%

  • Attorney General Ken Paxton may not be as vulnerable to primary challengers as experts thought, the same poll finds

Abbott had 43% of support against a potential campaign from Democrat O’Rourke, who had 42% of voter support in the hypothetical run, according to a poll released Nov. 1 by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and Rice University’s Baker Institute. 

The poll was conducted at the end of October and surveyed 1,402 voters online. Results of the poll have a margin of error of 2.6%, meaning Abbott and O’Rourke were in a statistical dead heat.

Among all registered voters, about 3% said they would choose a third-party candidate, including 2% for one of the Libertarian candidates, Dan Behrman or Andrew Jewell, and 1% for Green Party candidate Delilah Barrios. Twelve percent of those polled said they were currently undecided. 

O’Rourke and Abbott were also statistically tied in a hypothetical race in which Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey entered the race. In that scenario, Abbott had 40% of the vote to O’Rourke’s 37% and McConaughey’s 9% among all registered voters surveyed. Twelve percent polled in the five-candidates scenario said they were undecided. 

So far, it’s been only rumors and strong hints within Texas political circles that O’Rourke will launch a campaign. Democrats have looked to O’Rourke as the most likely challenger to Abbott's bid for re-election. The El Paso native narrowly lost his 2018 campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke came within two percentage points of defeating Cruz, giving Texas Democrats huge momentum for their push to flip the state in a future election. 

O’Rourke has been crisscrossing the state this year for his nonprofit group Power to People to raise awareness and garner support for a federal voting rights bill.

McConaughey also has not declared a campaign but has said he was considering it. Candidates have until Dec. 13 to officially declare a run for office in the November 2022 election. 

Three other Republicans have entered the race to challenge Abbott in the Republican primary in March 2022. Allen West, the former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, and former State Sen. Don Huffines, both are running campaigns declaring Abbott as not being conservative enough. Chad Prather, a conservative radio host, is also running. 

Monday’s poll showed Abbott with a clear and early lead against his challengers. Of those Republican voters most likely to go to the polls in the March primary election, 64% favored Abbott, compared with 13% for West, 5% for Huffines and 3% for Prather. Fifteen percent of those voters were undecided. 

Political analysts have said West and Huffines' campaigns have pushed Abbott’s agenda further to the right in recent months out of fear of losing core primary voters in March. Those voters tend to be the most conservative branch of the party, and many analysts see Abbott’s moves being made out of fear not that he will lose the primary, but that he won’t win a large enough percentage of the vote in March to show a strong enough hold on the Republican Party. 

Abbott gave the Texas Legislature a set of conservative policy priorities for this year’s session and subsequent special sessions. He signed several bills into law touching on some of the country’s most contentious culture war issues, including permitless carry, election reforms, restrictions on transgender student participation in public school sports, bans on the use of critical race theory in schools and the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. The U.S. Supreme Court is this week considering two challenges to the Texas abortion law.

“Abbott's strategy in the special sessions of moving to the right really did bolster his support within the G.O.P. primary electorate,” said Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute and the chief information and analytics office at the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. “However in doing so, he did erode his support among general election voters and will thus have to work on winning them back between the March primary and November, 2022.”

Abbott is considered a potential contender for the GOP presidential primary in 2024. That would give even more weight to a clear win in a March Republican primary here in Texas, Jones said.

“Abbott’s clear lock on the Republican primary race shows pundits, politicians and Republican elites throughout the country that he's the undisputed leader of the Texas GOP, which in terms of the 2024 presidential primary is arguably the most important prize when it comes to delegates,” he said.

Texas’ Hispanic vote

Democrats have sought to capitalize on Texas’ growing Hispanic population as a way to grow its base and eventually flip the state. At the same time, the Republican party sees a chance to gain Hispanic support in Texas after former President Donald Trump did better than expected among South Texas Hispanic voters in 2020.  

The importance of the state's Hispanic vote was reflected in the closeness of the poll's results in which O’Rourke got 49% of the Hispanic vote compared to Abbott's 31%. 

Almost twice as many white Texans, or 58%, said they intended to vote for Abbott over O’Rourke, who had 30% of that demographic’s support. However, seven times as many Black Texans favored O’Rourke over Abbott, the poll said. 

Women voters surveyed were much more likely to prefer O’Rourke over Abbott, 47% to 39%. Men in Texas preferred Abbott (48%) to O’Rourke (36%).

Abbott attracts the older Texans, particularly the Baby Boomers, 57% to O’Rourke’s 35%, while O’Rourke does well among Millennials (51% vs. 31%) and Generation Z (45% vs. 20%). 

Generation X voters were evenly split among the two candidates, with Abbott getting 42% to O’Rourke’s 41%.

Paxton less vulnerable

The November 2022 ballot has several other big statewide races, including the now-crowded race for attorney general. The incumbent, Ken Paxton, has long been considered embattled and the state’s most vulnerable Republican incumbent, whose career has been marred with legal battles, including an indictment in 2015 on securities fraud charges in which he has pleaded not guilty. In October 2020, several high-level assistants in his office accused him of "bribery, abuse of office and other crimes.”

Three Republicans and two Democrats have filed to try to unseat Paxton, but among likely Republican primary voters, Paxton had 50% of the support. The second most favored GOP challenger, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, received only 17% support from likely primary voters. 

Likely voters in the Democrat primary for attorney general were evenly split at 20% support for each candidate, Lee Merritt and Joe Jaworski.