When we debuted our governor ratings for Split Ticket, we had initially earmarked the Texas gubernatorial race, rapidly shaping up as a showdown between incumbent Republican Greg Abbott and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, as one to watch. Early on, there were key points of concern for Republicans, ranging from a plausible primary challenge from Abbott’s right to serious issues with the state’s power grid, which threatened to plunge swaths of the state into wide blackouts for the second year in a row. Additionally, O’Rourke was considered a strong challenger, especially as he ran Ted Cruz close in an exceptional 2018 performance, was a prodigious fundraiser in his prior statewide run, and raised a whopping $2M within 24 hours of launching his campaign.
However, with early voting for the 2022 primary elections beginning in just under a week, none of these factors appear to have made a dent in the political fortunes of either side in this still Republican-leaning state. And with the first phase of the election on our calendar’s doorsteps, we now believe that this is no longer a race that has a serious chance of being competitive in 2022.
To begin with, Abbott enjoys an extremely strong polling lead. A public polling average of polls over the last 3 months shows him with a 10-point advantage, and Split Ticket understands that internal polls also show a double-digit Abbott lead. This is a substantial gap to overcome in a state as large and expensive as Texas, but O’Rourke’s problems are compounded by the daunting financial deficit he faces; January reports show Abbott with $63M in cash reserves, dwarfing O’Rourke’s $6M sum. Abbott also matched O’Rourke in fundraising over the course of the month, and there currently appears to be no viable path for O’Rourke to close the financial hole, which greatly damages his ability.
Were this an open race, with O’Rourke running against far-right candidate Allen West instead, things might have been different. However, Abbott also appears to be safe in the Republican primary. A recent poll showed him easily clearing the primary runoff threshold with 59% of support and a primary lead of over 50 points, with none of his challengers even pulling double-digits in support.
Abbott’s aforementioned financial reserves are also unmatched among the Republican field; at the time of latest reports, former state senator Don Huffines had $2.3M cash on hand, while former state party chair Allen West had a paltry $83,000. Lastly, Abbott has also been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and while some of Trump’s allies are urging him to rescind the endorsement, such a development looks exceedingly unlikely in light of the exceptionally strong polling and fundraising lead Abbott enjoys, especially when combined with Abbott’s hard turn to the right of late.
For O’Rourke to overcome serious structural disadvantages against an incumbent governor in a state 10 points to the right of the nation, we would need to see substantial evidence of a Democratic wave election cycle approaching. But with President Joe Biden’s approval ratings currently underwater as well and showing no signs of recovering as of late, this is not a reasonable expectation to currently have. Republicans currently lead on the generic ballot by 2 points, per 538, and in an environment like this, O’Rourke would do well to keep the race within 10 points.
Few states have moved left more rapidly than Texas over the last decade, and the current political landscape in the Lone Star state is a far cry from its ruby-red status in the earlier part of the decade. With the continued leftward drift of college-educated whites, Democrats have a lot of reasons to be optimistic in this state for the long run, and you can credibly make an argument that it is more likely than not that they win a statewide race here within the next decade. But this race, in a red year against a popular incumbent with a Democratic president in office, is almost certainly too soon for such a change. We move this race from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.
I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.