Riding the Wave: Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics, February 9, 2018

The week started with very bad news for Lupe Valdez, while state campaign finance reports revealed how the Governor and Lt. Governor are spending their campaign largesse in the absence of any real primary challengers. Patrick Svitek of the Texas Tribune also posited the absence of one of the issues that roiled the legislative session in primary campaigns, despite some predictions (even promises) to the contrary. We took a break on national politics this week, though we note with many others that some national polling is suggesting that the much-discussed Democratic wave might be breaking farther from shore than exuberant Democrats and glum Republicans have been thinking.

1. Lupe’s lost weekend. The Austin American Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove started the week with a First Reading that neatly wraps up multiple storylines that all point to the same conclusion: former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez may not be ready to run a statewide race in Texas. Last weekend was a few days of very bad coverage for her, which Tilove vividly captures (after a pretty positive, though within the realms of objectivity, profile after her announcement last year). In short, she’s raised very little money, she only recently expanded her campaign staff from one to (maybe) three, and she failed to receive the endorsements of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus and her hometown paper, the Dallas Morning News, after what seems to have a been a very rough meeting with the editorial board. The DMN’s endorsement editorial read, in part, “We were disappointed by her gross unfamiliarity with state issues, however, particularly an almost incoherent attempt to discuss state financing.” But she seemed very nice! By contrast, they endorsed Andrew White for “his knowledge of the state's complex challenges that make him far and away the better choice in the crowded nine-way Democratic primary for governor.” Neither Valdez nor White are likely to be known to more than a handful of voters when they enter the voting booths in a few weeks (let alone any of the other candidates), but among the small share paying close attention (who will definitely vote), this last week might be hard to recover from. Progressives had expressed early hope in Valdez, seeing in a gay, Latina, ex-four-time elected Sheriff the future of the party with a nice safe law enforcement twist – and a striking contrast to White, a self-described “conservative Democrat” who also describes himself as personally pro-life but would never – well, you know. White increasingly looks like he might be the “most ready” in a large field of Democratic candidates who have had trouble making that case, and loaned his campaign $1 million to try to close the deal – keep an eye out for ads in your market soon if you live in The Big City. Democratic voters in Texas appear more likely to favor a progressive vision of the future, so it will be interesting to see how White attempts to convince them, since that’s where the primary votes are to be found. In the October 2017, UT/TT poll, only 7 percent of self-identified Democrats said that Texas’ Democratic elected officials were “too liberal,” presumably White’s potential base. A slim plurality, 36 percent said that they were liberal enough, while 35 percent said that they, in essence, could be more liberal. These numbers didn't seem to bode well for White when he entered the race, but it's hard not to see an opening here for him if can use that million bucks to pry it open wider.

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Liberal enough36%
Too liberal7%
Not liberal enough35%
Don't know/No opinion22%

2. This is what it looks like when a Governor has $43 Million and no need to campaign for himself. Governor Greg Abbott announced his support on Monday for Chris Falls against Rep. Lyle Larson in House District 23. Larson is the third incumbent GOP house member whose opponent has been endorsed by Abbott, with the Governor spending $161,000 in advertisements for Rep. Sarah Davis’ challenger Susanna Dokupil in January. He also endorsed Mayes Middleton in HD 23,  who is challenging Republican incumbent Wayne Faircloth. Abbott appears to be attempting to increase his clout in the legislature by sending strong signals about the perils of speaking ill of the governor and/or his agenda, which all three of these legislators have done in their own way (as Ross Ramsey discussed in a Texas Tribune column as this unpleasantness was unfolding in November, that foreshadowed the governor’s move against Larson). Three things are working together to allow the governor the opportunity to glide through his primary while evening some scores in the house GOP caucus. First, his historically massive campaign account (per Mike Ward and Andrea Zelinski in the Houston Chronicle). Second, his incredibly high approval ratings among Republican voters, and particularly among Republican primary voters. And third, his lack of a serious primary challenger himself (and probably a serious general election candidate for that matter; sorry, but see point one above). Ross Ramsey comes back to the subject in the Tribune today (with a quote from Omar Little in the hed) to suggest that this is a bid by Abbott to lock down the lege.  "If Abbott’s candidates win, he’ll have a strongman’s claim on the state Legislature...If he loses his bet, he risks adding to his reputation as a chief executive the Texas Legislature won’t follow. And the 181 will discount his threats."  This is a  more persuasive take than seeing this mainly as Abbott being peevish and personal -- as Gilbert Garcia put in the San Antonio Express News in the wake of an Abbott broadside against Larson on KTSA yesterday, "consumed with settling scores, pandering to extremists and protecting his fiefdom than addressing the true needs of this state" -- though the two perspectives aren't mutually exclusive by any means.  But is worth wondering, per Ramsey's take:  if the point here is to signal to legislators that talking smack about the governor will get a response come primary time, how successful does the governor have to be if the signal is that, he's willing to increase your costs if you cross him, at the very least? It's obviously best for him if he were to dislodge all three Abbott-apostate targets, and worst if they all survive.  But either way and in between, the message is sent and the costs are incurred by the legislators no matter the outcome.

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Approve strongly3%24%49%
Approve somewhat11%21%30%
Neither approve nor disapprove16%16%12%
Disapprove somewhat17%16%3%
Disapprove strongly47%14%2%
Don't know5%10%2%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Approve strongly4%42%60%
Approve somewhat10%34%27%
Neither approve nor disapprove15%16%1%
Disapprove somewhat17%4%5%
Disapprove strongly51%1%4%
Don't know3%3%3%

[Trigger warning:  People get shot in cable TV violence below.]

3. This is what it looks like when a Lt. Governor has $12 million and no need to campaign for himself. This week, it was revealed that Lt. Governor Dan Patrick spent $5.1 million on television advertisements in the month of January. Given that his chief primary rival, Scott Milder, has only spent about $14 thousand, this expenditure seems like an overshoot, unless of course, it’s not really about Milder (nor about likely Democratic nominee Mike Collier, who has spent about $160,000). No, this is a chance for Patrick to do two things: first, to raise his name identification in the state above 70 percent, which is something that he’s had trouble doing despite being dubbed “the most influential person in Texas politics” by R.G. Ratcliffe and Texas Monthly heading into the 2017 session AND being #1 on the same magazine’s Bum Steer list (written by another group of writers - Jeff Salamon, David Courtney, and Rich Malley); second, it’s a chance for him, like Abbott, to throw his weight around (even more) within the GOP universe. Also on that expenditure report was $17 thousand in polling expenditures for Rep. Pat Fallon, the opponent of incumbent Senator Craig Estes. Things are getting messier than a Baratheon family reunion in the GOP tent.

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Approve strongly16%
Approve somewhat20%
Neither approve nor disapprove19%
Disapprove somewhat7%
Disapprove strongly24%
Don't know13%

4. Notable lack of disappointment that the GOP Primaries aren’t in the toilet. The Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported this week on the absence of what many thought, and Dan Patrick specifically argued, would be a driving issue in primary campaigns across the state: bathrooms. While legislation that would limit which bathrooms transgender individuals could use in public facilities failed during the regular and special sessions with much fanfare, public polling never indicated that this was an issue of great importance to Texas voters, let alone to important primary constituencies within the GOP. The evidence for this comes from the volatility in opinions over time regarding this issue, and in turn, the extent to which bathroom legislation was being driven by Patrick and his allies, not by the base. In February 2017, at the start of the regular session, only 29 percent of Tea Party Republicans (a good proxy for a Republican primary voter) said that regulating bathroom access for transgender people was either “very” or “somewhat” important. By the end of the legislative session in June, after extended public discussion – to put it politely – over the issue, that number increased 41 points to 70 percent. But again, by October, with the special session over, and the constant drum beat to save Texas’ wives and daughters muted, that percentage had dropped again, by 18 points, to 52 percent. What this volatility highlights is the extent to which this issue was/is being driven by elected officials. If the voters were clamoring for bathroom legislation, one should see high, and consistently high, shares of Republicans and Tea Party Republicans expressing the opinion that it is important to legislate this issue, not the bouncing around that can so easily be tied to the public comments of elected officials. One might note that the implications of this dynamic don’t seem to have been entirely digested by opponents of bathroom legislation, either. If you want this to move off the agenda and your opponents have stopped talking about it, you should stop, too.  

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very important22%31%23%
Somewhat important11%20%16%
Not very important11%13%15%
Not at all important44%31%40%
Don't know/No opinion11%6%6%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very important17%32%47%
Somewhat important15%22%23%
Not very important9%17%13%
Not at all important48%25%17%
Don't know/No opinion10%4%1%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very important19%27%35%
Somewhat important18%21%17%
Not very important11%15%17%
Not at all important46%33%29%
Don't know/no opinion7%4%2%

5. Tsunami warning canceled, you can return to your home now – maybe.  After months of the conventional wisdom congealing around the fact that 2018 was going to be a massive wave election that would lift the boats of Democrats nationwide, a new round of national polling this week turned the CW a little gooey. James Hohmann in the Washington Post's The Daily 202 emphasized the closing of the Democratic advantage in the Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday, along with (relative) improvement in the President’s job approval numbers, as the main exhibits in making the case that Democratic prospects are dimming. Hohman was characteristically thorough, but not alone in noting the possibility of a shift – among others, Aaron Bycoffe, Dhrumil Mehta and Nate Silver are tracking national generic ballot polling at 538.com. There are lots of possible ways to explain this possible shift in the trend if that’s what it is – the strong economy? The tax cut? The government shutdown? A less than totally disastrous State of Union speech? But as the data below compiled by 538 illustrate, *something* has happened in the last few weeks, whether it continues or not.

fivethiryeight.com generic ballot estimate, February 8, 2018

The best overall way of thinking about “the wave” might be inspired by the way venerable political analyst Charlie Cook and Chuck Todd talked about it on Meet the Press on the final day of 2017: there's a wave coming, but there's a lot of time for it to either build or dissipate – just like a real wave, for those of you who have been to a real beach with real waves.


[....] Charlie Cook, this is what you do for a living. You saw the 11-point advantage in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll for Democrats, 50 to 39. It suggests a wave is building. The question is, just how big? And will it crest at the right time, in the right moment for the Democrats?


This is what waves look like, when you're standing on a beach looking out. And we've seen this before.


You see it from afar. Wow, look at that?


Yeah, you know, you can't tell precisely how tall it is. But you can tell it's a big one.