Ted Cruz leads Beto O’Rourke by 5 points in Texas Senate race, UT/TT poll finds

Republican Ted Cruz leads Democrat Beto O’Rourke 41 percent to 36 percent in the general election race for a Texas seat in the U.S. Senate, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Neal Dikeman, the Libertarian Party nominee for U.S. Senate, garnered 2 percent, according to the survey. And 20 percent of registered voters said either that they would vote for someone else in an election held today (3 percent) or that they haven’t thought enough about the contest to have a preference (17 percent).

In the governor’s race, Republican incumbent Greg Abbott holds a comfortable 12-percentage-point lead over Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez — the exact same advantage he held over Democrat Wendy Davis in an early-summer poll in 2014. Abbott went on to win that race by 20 percentage points. In this survey, Abbott had the support of 44 percent of those polled to Valdez’s 32 percent. Libertarian Mark Tippetts had the support of 4 percent of registered voters, while 20 percent chose “someone else” or said they haven’t made a choice yet.

“The safest spot for someone running in a general election in 2018 is to be able to rely on your in-state advantages without running afoul of the national environment,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the UT/TT Poll. “Abbott has been able to do that. He took center stage in the aftermath of the Santa Fe school shooting that avoided alienating conservatives while taking a leadership role with other Texans.”

“It’s not like he’s made a big sale to Democrats, but Republicans have stayed with him. And he’s not having to elbow his way onto the stage like some of the officials lower in the executive branch,” Henson said.

The June UT/TT Poll, conducted from June 8 to June 17, is an early look at the 2018 general election, a survey of registered voters — not of the “likely voters” whose intentions will become clearer in the weeks immediately preceding the election. If recent history is the guide, most registered voters won’t vote in November; according to the Texas secretary of state, only 34 percent of registered voters turned out in 2014, the last gubernatorial election year.

The numbers also reflect, perhaps, the faint rumble of excitement from Democrats and wariness from Republicans who together are wondering what kind of midterm election President Donald Trump might inspire. The last gubernatorial election year in Texas, 2014, came at Barack Obama’s second midterm, and like his first midterm — the Tea Party explosion of 2010 — it was a rough year for Democrats in Texas and elsewhere. As the late social philosopher Yogi Berra once said, this year could be “Déjà vu all over again.”

Accordingly, voter uncertainty rises in down-ballot races where even previously elected officials are less well known. Republican incumbent Dan Patrick leads Democrat Mike Collier in the contest for lieutenant governor, 37 percent to 31 percent. Kerry McKennon, the Libertarian in that race, had the support of 4 percent of the registered voters surveyed, while the rest said they were undecided (23 percent) or would vote for someone other than the three named candidates (5 percent).

“As you move down to races that are just less well known, you see the numbers drop,” said Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “They drop more for the Republicans. Part of that reflects the visibility of those races, and of those candidates.”

Henson said Patrick and other down-ballot incumbents work in the shadow of the governor, especially when the Legislature is not in in session. “That said, he’s still solid with the Republican base, though he lags behind Abbott and Cruz in both prominence and popularity,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual about that.”

And indecision marks the race for Texas attorney general, where Republican incumbent Ken Paxton has 32 percent to Democrat Justin Nelson’s 31 percent and 6 percent for Libertarian Michael Ray Harris. Four percent of registered voters said they plan to vote for someone else in that race and a fourth — 26 percent — said they haven’t chosen a favorite.

Nelson and Harris are unknown to statewide general election voters. Paxton, first elected in 2014, is fighting felony indictments for securities fraud — allegations that arose from his work as a private attorney before he was AG. He has steadily maintained his innocence, but political adversaries are hoping his legal problems prompt the state’s persistently conservative electorate to consider turning out an incumbent Republican officeholder.

“If you’ve heard anything about Ken Paxton in the last four years, more than likely you’ve heard about his legal troubles,” said Josh Blank, manager of polling and research at UT’s Texas Politics Project. Henson added a note of caution to that: “There’s also no erosion in Ken Paxton support by the Republican base. This reflects some stirrings amongst the Democrats and Paxton’s troubles. But it would premature to draw drastic conclusions for November based upon these numbers from June.”

Shaw noted that the support for the Democrats in the three state races is uniform: Each has 31 percent or 32 percent of the vote. “All the variability is on the Republican side, it seems to me,” he said. When those voters move away from the Republican side, Shaw said, “they move not to the Democrats but to the Libertarian or to undecided.”

Trump is still getting very strong job ratings from Republican voters — strong enough to make his overall numbers look balanced, according to the poll. Among all registered voters, 47 percent approve of the job the president is doing, while 44 percent disapprove. Only 8 percent had no opinion.

Compare that with Congress, an institution getting approving grades from just 18 percent of voters and disapproving ones from 59 percent.

“What you saw very early on in public reaction to Trump is that Democrats always hated him and were never on board,” Shaw said. “And he would have been in a disaster area, except Republicans really ran to him. They like the way that he deals with the Democrats.”

At the state level, Abbott is getting high regard from registered voters at the moment, with 47 percent saying they approve of the job he’s doing and 36 percent disapproving. Patrick got about as many positive as negative marks, as did Cruz. But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who’s not on this year’s ballot, had approving grades from 27 percent of voters and disapproving grades from 38 percent.

One characteristic of this year’s race for U.S. Senate is that Cruz, the incumbent, is well known and O’Rourke, the challenger and a U.S. Representative from El Paso, has some catching up to do. Cruz is less well liked: 41 percent of the voters said they have a favorable impression of him, while 42 percent said they have a unfavorable one. In O’Rourke’s case, 37 percent said they have favorable impressions, while 24 percent said they have unfavorable opinions. The non-answers — voters with neutral or no opinions — tell the tale: They account for 17 percent of voters in Cruz’s case and 40 percent in O’Rourke’s.

In the other ballot-top race, 48 percent of registered voters have a favorable opinion of Abbott while 35 percent have unfavorable views. Valdez gets favorable rankings from 30 percent, unfavorable ones from 25 percent. As with her fellow Democrat, O’Rourke, a large number of voters — 44 percent in her case — have neither a favorable nor an unfavorable impression of her.

The major parties don’t fare as well as their standard-bearers, largely because of the partisans who oppose each of them. Texas Democrats get favorable marks from 37 percent of registered voters and negative ones from 48 percent. Texas Republicans get positive marks from 35 percent and negative ones from 49 percent.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from June 8 to June 17 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

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