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New poll shows TX AG Paxton staring down runoff race, Gov. Abbott well ahead

File photo of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.  (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
File photo of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
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Despite more than doubling his next closest challenger in his Republican primary race, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is staring down the barrel of a runoff election, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll.

The poll, which was released Monday, shows 47 % of likely voters who participated indicated they would vote for Ken Paxton, versus 21 % for George P. Bush.

Candidates must secure more than 50 % of the vote to avoid a runoff election, which is a race of the top two vote-getting candidates if none of the candidates meet this threshold.

Texas Politics Project Director James Henson said Paxton's campaign has to be worried about the specter of a runoff race.

"If you're an incumbent candidate running for a third term, and you're looking at going into a runoff, you're concerned. There's no two ways about it, no matter how cool you play it in public, which you have to do. This is not a position any incumbent wants to be in. There's too much uncertainty given the crowded field, given the uncertainty around the attorney general's legal position, and the timing of the election, which is going to wind up being a relatively low turnout election. There's a lot of risk for Paxton if he goes into a runoff. It's unlikely to me they're not feeling that way about it," Henson said.

All major polls so far in 2022 have shown Paxton getting less than 50 % of the vote. However, with early voting starting Monday and the March 1 primary election just two weeks away, this latest poll further indicates the likelihood a runoff election will be needed.

Experts have had a tough time predicting this race, but have kept their eye on it because of Paxton's legal troubles.

The state's top law enforcement official is currently under indictment, which came down within his first year of his first term in 2015 over charges of securities fraud.

The AP reported in November 2020 the FBI launched an investigation into Paxton after a whistleblower lawsuit alleged he abused his office and conducted bribery. Among the many allegations in this lawsuit, The Texas Tribune reported Paxton is accused of having a wealthy donor give a job to his mistress in exchange for using his power and office to help this donor.

"Paxton is in a tough position to the extent he's running a campaign that has attracted challengers because he has these legal and ethical problems hanging over his campaign," Henson said.

Paxton's legal issues have become a focal point in the campaign by anyone except the two-term incumbent, himself.

Bush, especially, has taken aim at the fact the state's top law enforcement official is under criminal investigation, himself.

"County DAs, local law enforcement officials don't trust their top cop because he, himself, is facing three felony counts in Houston and an FBI investigation looking into bribery corruption," Bush said at a voting event Monday morning.

Paxton has categorically denied wrongdoing in all of these instances.

Predictably, he has also avoided these topics when talking about the campaign.

"I'm either going to win outright or we're going to have a runoff with George P., assuming he doesn't fall apart in the last two weeks," Paxton said during an interview on The Mark Davis Show Monday morning.

Paxton also held a press conference Monday announcing he filed a lawsuit against Facebook.

This lawsuit was filed in Congressman Louie Gohmert's district, which was where the press conference was also held. Gohmert is challenging Paxton from the right, and is believed to be siphoning some of the firebrand conservative base that reliably votes for Paxton. Recent Paxton campaign ads have specifically targeted Gohmert, though the incumbent denied during the press conference that his choice to file the lawsuit in East Texas had anything to do with Gohmert.

In the poll, Gohmert came in fourth, but not without first securing 15 % of the polled voters' votes. Eva Guzman surged to third with 16 % of the vote, after getting only 2 % in Texas Politics Project's October poll, though it should be noted that was before Gohmert entered the race.

Henson said Paxton will likely focus his attacks on Gohmert in order to try and prevent a runoff.

"This has attracted a reasonably strong field of challengers in George P. Bush, Eva Guzman, and Louie Gohmert. If you look at that array of these three candidates that he's having to compete with, he's in a bit of a squeeze play. On one side, he has more mainstream Republicans like George P. Bush and Eva Guzman," Henson said. "But on his right, he's got Louie Gohmert, who is an arch-conservative and a figure in the far right circles of the Republican party. Gohmert in many ways is the key problem here. Gohmert was polling in double figures. Gohmert, one has to assume, is pulling almost exclusively from Paxton because they are both trying to tap into the core audience of very conservative primary voters."

Meanwhile on the race for governor, we're getting a much clearer picture of what the November general election will look like.

Despite being challenged by known far-right conservatives, Gov. Greg Abbott is more than tripling the next closest challenger in the Republican primary, with 60 % of the vote versus 15 % for former Florida Congressman Allen West and 14 % for former state Sen. Don Huffines.

Despite getting attacked from the right, Abbott looks like a lock to make it out of a surprisingly crowded Republican field.

"Seeing Gov. Abbott at 60 %, their campaign is almost certainly fine with that, and I suspect as we get closer they might well pick up more than that. For this point in the campaign and the snapshot in time, it's a pretty good result for them. Not a lot to worry about here for Gov. Abbott, I don't think," Henson said.

Former El Paso-based Congressman Beto O'Rourke has long been considered the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, and Monday's poll confirmed as much, as he secured 93 % of the votes of those who were polled.

Both candidates have made their campaigns more focused on the November general election, when they will likely face each other.

Recently, the campaigns have been tied to the power grid with a winter storm hitting much of the state earlier this month.

O'Rourke has made the power grid's reliability a focal point of his campaign, even after it stood up to the storm this year.

"In the energy capital of the world, we couldn't keep the lights on or the electricity flowing," O'Rourke said during a campaign event in Austin last week.

Democrats and energy experts have criticized the Republican-led state legislature for not doing enough to ensure a repeat of last year's statewide power outages, which led to the deaths of hundreds of Texans, would not happen again. Specifically, they point to state lawmakers not requiring natural gas supply facilities to be winterized for this winter, which they point to as a major cause of last year's outages since these facilities power many of the plants that provide electricity to the grid and homes.

Meanwhile, Abbott has largely avoided bringing up the power grid on his own during campaign events, largely only commenting on this topic when asked about it during question-and-answer portions with the press.

The two-term governor has continued to express confidence in the reliability of the grid, and did so again after this year's winter storm.

"The power grid continues to perform well at peak demand during this winter storm," Abbott said the day after the worst of the winter storm earlier this month.

The poll released Monday revealed Abbott is up by double digits in a predicted race against O'Rourke, with 47 % of the vote compared to O'Rourke's 37 %. Many recent polls since O'Rourke entered the race have shown Abbott up by double digits.

Henson said the power grid not crashing earlier this month is not solely the reason Abbott is ten points ahead in his race to win a third term as governor, but it certainly helped.

"I don't want to necessarily attribute his favorability ratings or his position to the absence of the failure of the grid, but certainly had the grid failed, this would look very different," Henson said. "It was a pretty safe bet we wouldn't see another catastrophic failure like we did in the 'perfect storm,' if you will, of February 2021. That's not to say the grid doesn't still have vulnerabilities, but to the extent these vulnerabilities haven't been exposed and weren't exposed after this last batch of winter weather, that was a good thing for the governor's candidacy, given he owns that issue."

Abbott's favorables are also up. The governor's approval rating sits at 44 %, compared to a 42 % disapproval rating. This is the first time since March 2021 - almost a full year ago - that his approval rating outweighed his disapproval rating. This 44 % figure also tops the approval ratings of other Republican leaders in Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Paxton, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and former President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile the question remains: Where does O'Rourke go from here?

Henson said because we're still nine months away from the general election, there's still time to catch up.

However, throughout the process, Henson has said O'Rourke needed to have something shake up the race because a campaign on the power grid might not be so effective if most people's last experience with its catastrophic failure was in 2021 - almost two years before the general election.

"The takeaway for the way the general election is shaping up for the O'Rourke campaign is that from the beginning it seemed what the O'Rourke campaign needed was something to shake up the status quo. This polling result looks very status quo. You've got a preponderance of Democrats supporting Beto O'Rourke, a preponderance of Republicans supporting Greg Abbott, at least in this point in time, and independents leaning more towards Abbott than O'Rourke," Henson said.

This poll shows only 21 % of independents would vote for O'Rourke, compared to 42 % with Abbott. However, 21 % said they have not thought about it enough to have an opinion.

At this point, Henson said it is unknown what exactly he would need to shake up the race to move the needle his direction.

"You need something if you're Beto O'Rourke to shake up that dynamic, and we haven't seen that yet. Whether it's something Beto O'Rourke does or something that happens, the O'Rourke campaign is looking for something that changes the trajectory of this race and changes the context of this race," Henson said. "What we're waiting for is something that is unknown, in a sense."

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