A New Year's Dose of Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics, January 8, 2017

The first week of the New Year brought with it an unsurprising uptick in political signaling in the run-up to the advent of the 85th Texas Legislature. Speaker Straus gave an interview that sent some selected signals to both legislative chambers, while the Lt. Governor, having released a few lists of priorities before the holiday break, zeroed in on bathroom access Friday. In more indirect moves, Attorney General Ken Paxton released some strong fundraising numbers and an Austin-resident, ABC pundit, and scold of the two parties confirmed rumors that had circulated all through the fall that he was considering running in 2018 as an independent for the Texas Senate seat currently held by Ted Cruz. On the national front, the Senate Armed Services Committee held hearings in which testimony confirmed (along with a newly released report) that US intelligence agencies largely agreed that Russia intervened in the US election with the goals of de-legitimizing the process in the eyes of the world (and, presumably, Americans, it would seem), and also to aid Donald Trump. Trump sent the usual array of mixed messages in response, though one consistent element was his apparent unwillingness to match the level of trenchant criticism of Russia heard during the hearings. Read on for public opinion data from Texas and beyond on these stories for the week just concluded.

1. House Speaker Joe Straus gave an interview for a piece by Peggy Fikac and David Saleh Rauf in The San Antonio Express News in which he sent a few more signals about his agenda priorities for the 85th Session. He repeated his opposition to repealing in-state tuition for so-called “dreamers,” among other things in what we expect was a widely-read story in #txlege circles. Amidst the growing wave of stories previewing (i.e. speculating upon) the 85th Legislature, one of the interesting themes is the intermingling of personalities and institutional positions in the different approaches taken by Speaker Straus, Lt. Governor Patrick, and Governor Abbott to attempt to shape the agenda in the run up to the convening of the legislature on January 10.  

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In-state tuition41%
Out-of-state tuition43%
Don't know/No opinion16%

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In-state tuition61%36%26%
Out-of-state tuition23%41%59%
Don't know/No opinion16%23%14%

2. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Senator Lois Kohlkorst (R-Brenham) unveiled SB6, their much-anticipated transgender access bill, dubbed the Texas Privacy Act by the Lt. Governor and the bill sponsor. The bill in its current form focuses on preventing schools, agencies, and political subdivisions from allowing individuals to access multiple occupancy bathrooms, locker rooms, and other areas where people might be in a state of “undress,” based on their gender identity. The Lt. Governor has put no small amount of political capital and a high bill number on this “priority” of the state, saying at the press conference rolling out the bill, “we know we’re on the right side of the issue. We’re on the right side of history.” The “we” that he’s referring to likely reflects the high levels of agreement among Republicans that people should use the bathrooms and public facilities that match their birth gender. A central factor affecting the bill’s chances in the legislature is whether agreement over what people should do trumps the possibility that passing a law akin to North Carolina's could negatively affect the state’s business climate like in that state, as business groups have warned. The Lt. Governor denied that this will happen at Friday’s press conference, but elements of the business sector have made it clear they don’t want to take the chance, as Patrick Svitek’s weekend story in The Texas Tribune illustrated. It’s helpful to note that while the the Lt. Governor and Senator Kohlkorst cite overwhelming support for their position across all demographic categories, which was reflected in UT/TT poll results, the sharpest distinction that did register in those numbers was the partisan difference between Republicans and Democrats. This seems likely to widen as Democratic voters become more familiar with the issue and with more consistent signaling likely to come from Democratic public figures.

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Their birth gender26%46%76%
Their gender identity50%30%14%
Don't know/No opinion24%24%10%

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Their birth gender26%46%79%
Their gender identity51%30%10%
Don't know/No opinion23%23%10%

3.  Attorney General Ken Paxton released campaign finance numbers this week. They were good. As The Dallas Morning News’ Lauren McGaughy notes, Paxton’s fundraising has to impress given his indictment and pending trial for securities fraud. But while impressive, maybe not so remarkable, given that in the October 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, only 15 percent of Texas voters say that they’ve heard “a lot” about Paxton’s legal problems, a majority (55 percent) say that they haven’t heard very much, or nothing at all. Among those who have heard, partisan filters are likely in full force among when it comes to how they think about Paxton’s legal troubles.

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A lot15%
Not very much24%
Nothing at all31%

4. Former George W. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd continued inflating the trial balloon signaling a possible challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 general election. In a story by Abby Livingston in The Texas Tribune, he says he would run as an independent – joining a short list of names including Reps. Michael McCaul (R) and Beto O’Rourke (D) in what might be an interesting, if (so far) not terribly crowded field. Some of the impetus for the challenge against Cruz, who prior to his failed 2016 bid was easily the strongest positioned Texas Republican (today it’s Greg Abbott), is his now infamous flip from chief Trump antagonist to endorser, and the perceived damage that his run and subsequent handling of Trump has caused to his brand. But according to UT/TT polling, Cruz has largely recovered among the Republicans he needs to win over in a Texas primary. While Texas Democrats are now more aware of who their Senator is and that they don’t like him, the Republican candidate should expect to enjoy the usual Republican advantage in a Texas election.

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Approve strongly1%8%33%
Approve somewhat6%19%31%
Neither approve nor disapprove11%16%11%
Disapprove somewhat11%14%10%
Disapprove strongly63%35%10%
Don't know8%7%5%

While Dowd would certainly be a long-shot to unseat Cruz, much like any independent candidate (or for that matter, any non-Republican candidate), there are at least two interesting unknowns worthy of brief speculation. First, if “successful,” what kind of voters would Dowd attract, and would they make a strong Democratic challenger more or less competitive against Cruz? Dowd has both Democrats and Republicans on his consulting record, but there’s really no answer to this question at this early stage, though Dowd’s media pundit profile is unlikely to endear him to hardcore GOP voters. On an even more speculative and unilluminating note, how might the first two years of a Trump administration confirm, reinforce, or contradict the usual patterns of mid-term elections harming the sitting President’s party? This historical tendency is based on the observation that winning Presidents usually push congressional candidates to victory who might have otherwise lost, leading to overexposure for that party in Congress, allowing for a reset at the midterms that follow. But in this scenario, it’s not clear how much Trump the candidate aided Congressional Republicans (he did lose the popular vote), and more importantly, Republicans will be defending far fewer Senate seats in 2018, and very few competitive ones. While this doesn’t necessarily map onto Texas’ political situation – Cruz would likely beat any Democrat in a general election rather easily – the introduction of another element into the mix within these broader dynamics could make the race more interesting than we would expect. But it’s a stretch to expect much of a shake-up.

5. A roughly bipartisan consensus was in evidence at a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee largely focused on the topic of Russian cyber-espionage during the 2016 election aimed at de-legitimizing the American electoral process. Going into the election, Texans expressed worry about the possibility of external forces hacking voting machines, which was largely ruled out in the hearing and the report on the subject released Friday. These concerns were more bipartisan than other skepticisms about the legitimacy of the process, including about voter fraud and other kinds of malfeasance real or imagined during the last decade, which were much more skewed toward Republicans having been primed by elites to worry about such things. Conversely, Democrats tended to worry less about such problems, primed by their own leaders to see these elite suspicions as little more than efforts to suppress their votes. If and how these attitudes shift – given the outcome of the election, Donald Trump’s public stance on the role of Russia (which has been, at best, skeptical), and the continued debate over both Russian motivations and the impact of the espionage – will bear watching.

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Extremely serious35%
Somewhat serious27%
Not too serious19%
Not serious at all15%
Don't know5%

These attitudes will intersect another set of attitudes, Americans’ views of Russia. Donald Trump’s (at least initially) surprising embrace of Vladimir Putin and his reluctance to share in the broadly hostile reactions of political elites to Russian targeting of the American political system leads us to wonder if his views will affect the attitudes of his followers – and Republican voters more generally. Broadly speaking, the public has traditionally expressed wariness of Russia; see, for example, national polling released by Vianovo and GSDM last year (Disclosure: we both worked on this poll). Whatever the source of the president-elect's comparatively sanguine view of Russia, its president, and their policies toward the United States, whether and how these views will affect GOP voters who have been deeply suspicious of Russia since the Cold War constitutes yet another portentous question during Trump's ascendance.

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