Governors in the United States generally enjoy warmer relationships with voters than their colleagues serving in Congress. There are a number of reasons for that phenomenon, not the least of which is that governors are forced to be doers in ways that senators and members of congress generally are not. Governors are responsible for paving roads, funding schools, supporting intricate networks of local economies, and managing disasters and emergencies.
If you’re a governor who is half decent at their job, it’s usually pretty easy to get re-elected. If you hit speed bumps or fail to meet the measure of the moment, your fortunes can reverse dramatically.
That may be the situation Governor Greg Abbott is beginning to find himself in, with a bombshell new poll from the Dallas Morning News and UT-Tyler showing Abbott, a two-term governor who has enjoyed fairly strong approval ratings for most of his tenure, losing by a massive 12 point margin to actor/author/teacher/cool guy Matthew McConaughey.
Following Abbott’s re-election in 2018, it would have been hard to fathom a world where he could lose so soundly to a candidate who has articulated so little about their policy beliefs, but it reflects what a rough go of it Abbott and Texas Republicans have had since the beginning of the 2017 legislative session.
Suburban voters growing fatigued with the culture war climate the Texas GOP made their default posture largely abandoned the party in 2018, almost propelling Beto O’Rourke to the United States Senate and electing a slew of down-ballot Democrats to the state legislature and local offices.
It led to a more moderate legislative session in 2019, with the GOP proceeding with caution in an attempt to reverse their electoral fortunes. This session has been a nightmarish hellscape of bad conservative legislation, dragging the state into debates on incredibly divisive wedge issues.
That renewed, MAGA-infected environment, coupled with Abbott’s poor performance during the COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly winter storms and energy emergency we experienced in February have revealed Abbott’s significant vulnerabilities, and potentially set the stage for his most difficult re-election campaign yet.
And the fact that it’s Matthew McConaughey so thoroughly trouncing Abbott should raise its own eyebrows. McConaughey has been openly flirting with a gubernatorial bid for a while, but for many Texas voters, he remains a paradox, almost by design.
Very little is known about McConaughey’s views on politics or policy, but his public statements and persona would lead you to believe he’s a liberal-ish person. He has publicly said that he’s “radically moderate,” an expression that is itself a typically paradoxical contradiction in terms.
That a longtime governor like Abbott, who has appeared on statewide ballots since 1996 without taking a single loss, could be trailing such a uniquely unformed opponent is all the proof you need that a strong candidate against him in 2022 could defeat Abbott.
That creates a unique sense of pressure for Texas Democrats. Should they try to embrace and recruit McConaughey to make the race against Abbott as a Democrat, or invest that time and effort into recruiting candidates with a more established track record as Democrats?
What would it take for Texas Democrats to bring McConaughey over? As someone with little to no political experience himself, does McConaughey understand the value of having natural legislative allies once he’s in the governor’s mansion who can help him implement his agenda?
And what would that agenda even be? Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of what McConaughey says because he seems to be an outwardly, proactively empathetic person. But the longer he continues to dance around the idea of running for governor without more clearly articulating why he wants the job and what he would do behind the desk, the easier it is for him to be painted as an unserious candidate.
At any rate, the polling makes one thing abundantly clear in scientific terms: Greg Abbott is in trouble in 2022. Opportunity is knocking, whether that be for McConaughey, Beto O’Rourke, or another Texas Democrat. Whoever answers first may be able to seize it.
Photo: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.