Thumbs on the scales: Texas Data Points for the Week in Politics (August 29, 2020)

State Senator Pat Fallon’s Senate seat is not only still warm, it’s not even technically vacated, which made Governor Abbott’s thumb-on-the-scale calling of a snap election for his replacement the major political preoccupation inside the Austin beltway (such as it is) this week. We take a look at the district, presumed frontrunner State Rep. Drew Springer’s positioning there, and possible spoiler Shelly Luther’s potential audience among the Texas GOP. Meanwhile, in Charlotte and on several public properties in the Washington, D.C. area, Donald Trump and his political party attempted to rally fervid Trump Republicans while shoring up some key corners where they fear attrition in November, a tricky task, even if you do have the White House as a backdrop. Hurricane Laura came ashore big, though luckily appears to have inflicted less damage than anticipated. Still, some Texas areas adjacent to the major disaster areas in Western Louisiana were hit hard; we gingerly consider the possible political consequences of the disaster in Texas, along with other data points from the week in politics.

1. 1,2,3, go! Senator Fallon’s successful bid to become the nominee for the Congressional seat formerly held by Trump appointee John Ratcliffe (second time's the charm!) in the solidly Republican 4th Congressional District set off a shadow race for Fallon’s equally solidly Republican seat in Senate District 30. State Rep. Drew Springer’s interest in Fallon’s seat was a pretty well-known fact in Capitol circles, though Springer’s seemingly well-laid plans and inside lane has been complicated by Salon Á la Mode owner and recently-minted liberty icon Shelly Luther’s declaration of her candidacy. Last Sunday, the day after Luther declared her intent to run, Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation setting the “emergency special election” for Fallon’s replacement on September 29, with a very near-term filing deadline (less than a week out from the proclamation) for anyone who wanted to get their name on the ballot. Six candidates filed: Springer, Luther, former Denton Mayor Chris Watts (who resigned his office to run), 2018 Republican SD30 primary candidate Craig Carter, Andy Hopper (a "Decatur farmer and software consultant"), and Jacob Minter (an "electrition and union activist," candidate descriptions via Texas Election Source). Springer was poised for the announcement. “Minutes after Abbott’s announcement,” per Patrick Svitek in The Texas Tribune, Springer declared his candidacy and released a Twitter storm of clearly pre-produced graphics announcing the endorsements of a string of House members from across the spectrum of the GOP caucus (such as it is), as well as the endorsement of Fallon (who has not yet resigned from his seat). Abbott’s accelerated timetable structurally if not declaratively favors Springer. But with Luther in the race, he must now must contend with being portrayed by Luther and her supporters not as the experienced conservative he presents as, but as the insider favored by the establishment, particularly those stifling the liberty of business people with all this pandemic hysteria. As always, it’s not that simple. We won’t see any campaign finance filings until mid-September, but we know that famously Luther raised over $500,000 during her rise to notoriety via a GoFundMe account, some of which may be available for her campaign through the 501(c)(4) she founded with the money, and one might expect there's more where that came from (as this seemingly underappreciated drilldown into Luther's rise by Richie Whitt in The Dallas Observer implies).  Springer had just under $250,000 in cash on hand in his campaign account as of last reporting, Among the raft of House endorsements of Springer that ranged from House Appropriations Chair Giovanni Caprigione to unlikely-ever-to-be-chair-of-anything Briscoe Cain, he had been endorsed by six of the 10 members whose seats overlap SD 30 (not including Springer). Fallon received 234,364 votes in the 2018 general election; including the 27,618 votes Springer received that year, his endorsers received 103,109 votes. Not included in Springer’s Tweeted endorsers were some big 2018 vote getters in SD 30, including State Rep Phil King (66,735 votes in an uncontested race) and State Rep. James Frank (33,758 votes in another uncontested 2018 race). Two non-endorsing incumbents have exited the field (Sheffield, defeated in the primary, and Lang, a voluntary exit, see their vote totals in the table below). Endorsements don’t guarantee votes, nor does the absence of them mean the votes are not on the table. But it does make one wonder how wedded Reps. King and Frank are to their current barbers. 

Selected Republican General Election Vote Totals and Shares
in Texas Senate District 30 (2018)

TXLEGE District Republican Incumbent (2018)  Votes in SD 30 Vote Share in SD 30
SD 30 Fallon 234,364 73.9%
HD 33 Holland 8,000 75.9%
HD 59 Sheffield* 11,065 100%
HD 60 Lang** 8,095 100%
HD 61 P. King 66,735 100%
HD 62 Reggie Smith 31,856 74.7%
HD 64 Lynn Stucky 14,673 43.2%
HD 68 Springer 27,628 100%
HD 69 Frank 33,758 100%
HD 70 Sanford 19,882 71.5%
HD 89 Noble 13,002 59.5%
HD 106 Patterson 8,479 66.6

(Source: Texas Legialsture online. Names hightlighed in the color of the First Lady's nominationan acceptance address dress at the RNC have endorsed Drew Springer; * = defeated in 2020 primary. ** = not running for re-election.)  

2. Loud, but how big? The Salon Á la Mode owner can thank the Governor and Lt. Governor for making her State Senate run possible after elevating her story of open and belligerent defiance of Abbott’s public health order into a cause célèbre for conservative voters already resisting the government intervention in daily life required to slow the spread of the coronavirus and minimize the economic and social impacts. Luther has since been critical of Abbott, whatever faux diplomacy she has fleetingly engaged in (see, for example, her conversation with the Austin American Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove a couple of weeks ago). This has broken particularly badly for the governor. He elevated a voice, as we have previously written, that resonates with a share of voters that represent, depending on context, something between a sliver and significant minority of Republican voters opposed to basic public health measures in the face of the pandemic. No doubt Abbott, already facing predictable criticism from the left, regrets feeding a small fire of criticism on his right which continues to smolder around him. As we wrote in April in The Texas Tribune, after figuring out just how many respondents in a just-released UT/Texas Tribune Poll reported both opinions and behaviors minimizing or denying the threat of the coronavirus, "Only 2% of Texas voters say that the coronavirus is a “minor problem” or “not a problem at all,” think that people are changing their behavior too much in response to it, and oppose the state’s stay-at-home order. This is the fringiest of the fringe." Two month later, in the June UT/Texas Politics Project Poll, the vast majority of Republicans were still embracing public health protocols like frequent hand washing, staying away from large groups, and (yes) wearing a mask. In fact, in June, only 5% of Texas voters said that the coronavirus is a “minor problem” or “not a problem at all,” weren't avoiding large groups of people, and weren't wearing a mask when they left home. Yes, the majority of Republicans, 65%, say that it’s more important to help the economy, even if it hurts efforts to control the spread of the virus. But in the face of an accompanying widespread acknowledgement of the virus’ seriousness and behaviors to match, this seems like a pretty big needle for Abbott to thread. The recently released survey of Texas House members showed similar patterns in the distribution of attitudes about responses to the virus – resistence to accomodating the pandemic is more than rare but not rampant. While this is unfortunately a drag on public health and public policy efforts because this level of non-compliance hinders the effectiveness of efforts to get a handle on the spread of the virus, it's doesn't have to be fatal in political terms. To the extent that Shelly Luther stakes her political fortunes in SD 30 on some mixture of fatigue with life under COVID-19 restrictions and outright rejection of the need for the government to get involved in any meaningful way, a thoroughly Republican district like SD 30 is an interesting test of just how many Republicans will follow the Lutherite banner. (If “ite” sounds like a harsh locution, the gentler-sounding “Lutheran” is taken.) As a local GOP county chair carefully told Allie Morris for her check-in on the race in the Dallas Morning News," “I am sure that most of the voters in Wichita County, or a large portion of them, would support what (Luther) did and admire her for what she did, but at the same time Drew Springer has a history in the Legislature that many people here would support." That certainly gets at a dimension of the race, and despite what is likely to be a very low turnout election at a very busy time, most will find it hard to resist taking the outcome as leading indicator of the mood of the Texas GOP. Anecdotally speaking, Luther's candidacy has inspired a mixture of eye-rolling and fear among the #txlege crowd, including if not especially Republicans.

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Control the virus88%48%24%
Help the economy7%39%65%
Don't know/No opinion6%13%11%

Do you favor or oppose...

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Temperature checks for entry87%
Designating Member/staff entrances86%
Requiring daily temperature checks84%
Requiring face masks in public spaces82%
Limiting floor access to essential staff79%
Limiting public tours to specific areas79%
Keeping the Members' lounge open75%
Requiring face masks during the session74%
Requiring testing for COVID-1973%
Limiting size of visitor groups in the gallery63%
Suspending public tours60%
Suspending floor recognitions59%
Spacing Members out across the floor & gallery54%
Limiting public access to the Capitol53%
Permitting vistor groups in the gallery51%
Requiring face shields42%
Permitting outside groups to reserve public spaces39%

3. Speaking of putting a little thumb on the scale... Donald Trump and the Republicans made unprecedented use of government properties as settings for the Republican National Convention, most notably the White House, to add weight to their appeals to voters likely to respond to such symbolism (and unlikely to know or care about the Hatch Act's pesky prohibitions on partisan pollitical activity). The RNC emphasized many points that resonate with the opinions of Texas Republicans — immigration, admiration for police, discrimination against Christians _ in their efforts to mobilize their base. But some of their efforts to inoculate themselves on what are being understood as “suburban” issues are heading into real headwinds among those same base voters. Asked about the discrimination that different groups face in society among a list of 10 groups, 40% of Republicans said that women face either “a lot” or “some” discrimination in America today according to June 2020 UT polling. This represented the second LEAST perceived discrimination of any group, with only Asians receiving less discrimination in America (35%) according to the Texas GOP. Asked which group faces the most discrimination in America today, Texas Republicans said Christians (28%), followed by whites (17%), and only then, African Americans (16%) — 3% said women. Asked to evaluate the movements that, while not perfectly representative of any one group’s grievances, have come to be associated with women’s and African American efforts for equality, the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter, 63% of Republicans held an unfavorable view of the former, 76% of the latter.  Immigration remains the rosetta stone of Republican politics. Even if law and order is taking its place as the main theme of Trump’s appeal to cultural animus among his base, immigration remains the great uniter. And the staged immigration ceremony at the White House notwithstanding, this includes legal immigration, too. The Trump campaign likely trusts their core voters to seize on the messages that resonate with them, and to ignore, dismiss, or fliter out the cognitive dissonance created by efforts to soften the hard edges that define Trump Republicanism.

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African Americans60%32%16%
Gays and Lesbians4%6%4%
Transgender people20%12%13%

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Very favorable32%10%6%
Somewhat favorable31%7%9%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable18%25%12%
Somewhat unfavorable6%14%22%
Very unfavorable4%31%41%
Don’t know/no opinion10%13%10%

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Very favorable53%12%4%
Somewhat favorable28%13%7%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable12%18%10%
Somewhat unfavorable3%14%18%
Very unfavorable3%33%58%
Don't know/No opinion1%10%3%

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Border security1%7%16%
Political corruption/leadership11%9%3%
The economy3%11%9%
Health care11%6%1%

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Too many15%34%62%
Too few34%22%6%
About the right amount38%19%25%
Don't know/No opinion14%25%7%

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Strongly agree8%23%47%
Somewhat agree12%11%30%
Somewhat disagree18%23%10%
Strongly disagree56%16%5%
Don't know/No opinion6%28%8%

4.  Law and Order: DJT. How does the flare-up of police violence, protest, and the counter-response playing nightly on the evening news affect the political climate? Does it play into Trump’s hands in terms of the law and order campaign clearly evident a the convention, or does it increase GOP cross-currents to his detriment? Or does it simply reinforcing attitudes already present in both parties? Asked their opinion towards the protests that have occurred in response to the death of George Floyd in June, roughly equal shares of partisans held opposite opinions: 77% of Democrats held a favorable opinion, 73% of Republicans held an unfavorable opinion. Criticizing recent social justice protests writ large, even if only some people engage in violence and acts of vandalism, is unlikely to move partisan hearts or minds very much. But the target may be that minority of the electorate unaffiliated with either party. Among independents, 30% held a favorable view of the protests, 46% held an unfavorable view. While there tends to be an overemphasis on the views of independent voters given their share of the electorate (less than 10% if we're talking about real indepdents), closer elections necessarily make their views more consequential. Given increasingly negative views of the President among Texas independents beginning at the end of 2019, finding an issue that might improve the president’s image amongst this group could turn out to be consequential. Among those independents who disapproved of the president in June polling, a quarter expressed a negative opinion of the recent protests. Chip, chip, chip away.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 201739%37%24%
June 201747%41%11%
October 201755%35%10%
February 201849%37%13%
June 201843%45%12%
October 201839%43%17%
February 201946%37%17%
June 201946%39%15%
October 201941%51%8%
February 202036%47%17%
April 202034%47%18%
June 202036%50%14%
October 202031%53%15%

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Approve strongly2%17%53%
Approve somewhat3%15%25%
Neither approve nor disapprove2%8%8%
Disapprove somewhat4%7%6%
Disapprove strongly89%42%7%
Don't know1%12%2%

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Very favorable50%20%5%
Somewhat favorable27%10%9%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%15%11%
Somewhat unfavorable5%9%20%
Very unfavorable7%37%53%
Don't know/No opinion2%8%2%

5. When all you have is a hammer...? We might worry about being on the edge of some mixture of cynicism and bad taste to think about the political repercussions of the impact of Hurricane Laura, but the context of the pandemic and the election invite it. We are in the midst of a severe public health crisis in the state that has been suffused with politics on all sides, from the specter of conservative backlash that has haunted Governor Abbott’s decision making from the earliest days of the spread of the coronavirus, to the ever-present threat of political punishment for running afoul of the White House’s alternating fantasies of denial of the virus’s severity and triumph over it. So it seems salient to recall that three years ago, Governor Abbott benefitted from his seemingly competent and serious response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey.  Between June and October 2017 UT/TT polling (with Hurricane Harvey in the middle), Abbott’s net job approval among Republicans remained essentially unchanged, from +74 in June to +75 in October, while among Democrats it saw an 11-point improvement from -61 to -50. Abbott’s public presence during the Harvey response played a role in his re-election campaign advertising in 2018, when he cruised to a 14-point victory over Lupe Valdez amidst the Democratic surge that resulted in Ted Cruz squeaking by Beto O’Rourke by less than 3 points. As Ross Ramsey wrote in The Texas Tribune Thursday, the Abbott administration had performed well in natural disasters, but the template they’ve developed for weather hasn’t worked so well for the pandemic response. What he wrote in 2017 has resonance now as a general point:

You don’t want to call a major disaster a political boon, but Hurricane Harvey blew away some of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s distractions while coinciding with a reboot in the office he wants to hold for another four years.

Last week, the Texas GOP leadership leapt at the chance to talk about the threat of defunding the police rather than the leadership's struggling response to the pandemic; disaster relief provides another much less political and more justified redirection of public attention away from assessment of that response. Thankfully for the state, the scope of this natural disaster so far appears much more limited than Harvey's impact.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201542%29%28%
February 201641%29%30%
June 201642%31%27%
October 201642%33%25%
February 201745%33%23%
June 201745%38%16%
October 201748%33%19%
February 201846%31%23%
June 201847%36%18%
October 201852%32%17%
February 201951%32%17%
June 201951%31%18%
October 201952%28%21%
February 202048%34%18%
April 202056%32%13%
June 202049%39%13%
October 202047%40%14%
February 202146%39%15%
March 202145%43%11%
April 202143%45%13%
June 202144%44%11%
August 202141%50%9%
October 202143%48%10%
February 202244%42%15%
April 202247%41%13%
June 202243%46%12%
August 202246%44%10%
October 202247%44%9%
December 202249%41%8%
February 202346%43%12%
April 202346%41%12%
June 202347%42%12%
August 202345%45%10%
October 202349%40%10%
December 202348%41%11%
February 202453%37%10%
April 202455%37%10%


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