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Texas voters should focus on the campaigns, let national media fret about the horse race

August 4, 2018

A flurry of recent polls have thrown Texans into a tizzy because they suggest Beto O’Rourke, the U.S. representative from El Paso, has a chance of ousting Ted Cruz from his U.S. Senate seat in November.

One from Quinnipiac University, released Wednesday, shows Democrat O’Rourke trailing the Republican incumbent by six points. A poll from the Texas Lyceum, also released Wednesday, shows O’Rourke down by two points. And a survey from Public Policy Polling, on Thursday, put O’Rourke behind by four points.

In light of all this, Cook Political Report changed its rating of the Texas Senate race from “Likely Republican” to a mere “Lean.”

“Suffice it to say that O’Rourke has made incredible progress in a pretty red state, at least when it comes to running for statewide office,” editor Jennifer Duffy wrote, explaining the website’s reasoning.

As a result, I’ve fielded a slew of questions about O’Rourke’s prospects. Can O’Rourke really win? Do I think he will? What will it take for a Democrat to win in Texas, after a generation of Republican hegemony?

First, let me be clear: Yes, O’Rourke has a chance of winning. So does Lupe Valdez, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. The same is true of Mike Collier, the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, and Justin Nelson, its nominee for attorney general.

It’s true that Democrats haven’t won statewide in Texas since 1994, but stranger things have happened. In 2016, for example, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Most of America’s political pundits expected Jeb Bush to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016. It’s funny to think back on that, considering everything that’s happened since. There once was a widespread consensus that the 2016 presidential election would be boring. Today we’re debating whether it’s a good idea for the federal government to separate immigrant families.

In light of such things, I’m not sure how reliable Texas polling is, at this stage. I don’t mean to espouse empirical nihilism, but our working assumptions about the state’s electorate — based on the models that held up during the last mid-term election cycle in 2014 — surely have to include an asterisk.

In any case, Texas Republicans continue to insist that their hold on power is secure. Yet, their actions give lie to these claims. Most of the statewide incumbents are, for example, obviously reluctant to debate their Democratic challengers. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s chief strategist, Allen Blakemore, has even tried to cast Patrick’s refusal to meet with Collier as a sign of strength. But it’s obviously a sign of weakness. If you’re a Republican statewide official in Texas you should have nothing to fear from a Democrat, at least in theory.

Meanwhile, there’s only so much we can learn from the polls at this point. For example, the recent batch suggest that O’Rourke has a better chance of winning than Valdez does. The Lyceum poll, for one, found Gov. Greg Abbott with a 16-point lead among likely voters — 47 percent of whom support him, compared to just 31 percent who support Valdez.

Common sense would tell you the same. O’Rourke has been on the trail since the beginning of last year. He has raised more money than his opponent, and his campaign has been covered extensively in both the state and national media. Valdez, by contrast, didn’t file to run for governor until December 2017, and didn’t secure the party’s nomination until the runoff, which was held in May. Most Texans haven’t even heard of the former Dallas County sheriff, as of yet.

Under the best of circumstances, polls tell us little about the actual merits of anyone’s candidacy.

Just 25 percent of likely voters, again according to the Texas Lyceum poll, support Nelson over the incumbent attorney general, Ken Paxton. But almost half of likely voters in that survey declared themselves undecided in that race. That also conforms to common sense.

Paxton is a deeply and demonstrably flawed candidate. He has been under indictment, for example, for more than a year; he apparently is the only statewide elected official under indictment anywhere in the country. And Paxton has used his position to push his own ideological agenda rather than focusing on enforcing and upholding the laws of Texas.

Nelson, by contrast, has no such liabilities. He’s trailing Paxton because he — like Valdez and Collier, or Kim Olson, the Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner — largely is an unknown quantity.

All things considered, I would encourage Texas voters to ignore the polls at this stage. Instead, they should take the remaining time between now and Nov. 6 to learn about the candidates running for office. Let the pundits worry about the horse race.

erica.grieder@chron.com

twitter.com/ericagrieder

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