By Patrick Svitek
Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign is ratcheting up its down-ballot efforts in the final weeks before the November election, working to defend the Republican majority in the state House and to remind voters about the importance of electing the party’s judges farther down the ballot.
In what his campaign described as a “mid-seven-figure” total expenditure, it is putting its weight behind two dozen House races and running statewide TV and radio commercials about judges. The news of the effort, detailed to The Texas Tribune, comes as early voting is underway and both sides have already invested millions of dollars in the House fight.
Abbott’s campaign is confident Republicans will beat back the Democrats’ drive to capture the majority, which would be a major prize ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.
“They’re spending a lot of money — there’s no question about that — and that’s nothing we didn’t expect from Day 1,” Abbott’s chief political strategist, Dave Carney, said in an interview. He acknowledged Republicans “will lose some members,” but noted the possibility that the party could win back some seats it lost in 2018.
“I think there’s zero chance that they can take control of the House,” Carney added.
Democrats are currently nine seats short of the majority in the 150-member House, after picking up 12 in 2018. Some Democrats see as many as 34 seats on the November battlefield — the 12 seats that they won two years ago and now have to defend, and 22 other pickup opportunities. Abbott’s campaign has zeroed in on 24 districts. Ten of those are held by Democratic freshmen, 10 are represented by GOP incumbents and four are open seats in battleground territory.
Across those 24 districts, Abbott’s campaign is appealing to 1,030,000 voters who Carney described as “either Abbott supporters or high-likelihood swing voters.” The campaign has already been targeting that group of voters with digital ads touting Abbott’s candidate endorsements, with mentions of specific issues that poll well in each district.
In one of the more recent — and aggressive — prongs of its offensive, Abbott’s campaign is running digital ads tying Democratic candidates to Beto O’Rourke, who has made himself a central figure in the House battle through his Powered by People political group. Abbott’s campaign has produced 96 spots — four for each of the 24 districts — highlighting O’Rourke’s positions separately on guns, taxes, the Green New Deal and police funding. The ads are served to targeted voters in each district depending on what the Abbott campaign has modeled as each voter’s top issue.
Before naming specific candidates and showing photos of them with O’Rourke, each ad begins the same way: “Extreme liberal Beto O’Rourke wants to turn Texas into California — and he’s recruiting a team to do it.”
The O’Rourke-centered strategy is a broader repeat of the one Republicans used in the January special election for House District 28, where Republican Gary Gates won by 16 percentage points despite massive national Democratic attention and assistance. While O’Rourke has argued Republicans attack him because they are threatened by his work to make the state more competitive, Abbott’s campaign believes O’Rourke remains a liability in battleground districts.
An August poll from Rice University and the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation found that O’Rourke was the least popular politician statewide out of 10 who were tested, with a net favorability rating of negative 16 percentage points.
Abbott’s campaign has also cut a digital spot in which state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, an anesthesiologist, defends Texas Republicans on health care, the subject of many Democratic attack ads in the House fight. Oliverson says in the spot that Republicans in 2019 “passed legislation to protect patients with preexisting conditions from losing access to health insurance.” That is a reference to state Senate Bill 1940, which would temporarily bring back Texas’ high-risk insurance pool covering people with preexisting conditions, though experts say it would provide far less protection than current Obamacare provisions.
“So, remember, on health care, Texas Republicans are working for you,” Oliverson says.
The House Democratic Campaign Committee scoffed at the Abbott campaign offensive.
"Gov. Abbott's 11th-hour entry into the battle for Texas, after millions of votes have already been cast, confirms he is seeing the same numbers we are. They are losing,” Andrew Reagan, executive director of the HDCC, said in a statement. “Frankly, given the now open warfare among Texas Republicans, Abbott's move seems more about the next GOP primary than this election."
Abbott’s campaign is concerned with more than just the House majority next month. This is the first Texas election without straight-ticket voting, and both sides are anxious about what that could mean for lower-profile races toward the bottom of the ballot.
In a radio interview last week, Abbott acknowledged the high excitement around the presidential race, but said it “could be catastrophic for the future of the state of Texas” if Republicans only vote for Trump and then leave.
The TV ad that Abbott’s campaign is airing on behalf of judicial candidates seeks to rouse Republicans to vote all the way down the ballot by invoking recent protest violence and the “defund the police” movement, flashing headlines about how it has unfolded in Austin and Dallas.
“We need to support our police and elect Republican judges who will enforce the law and get tough on criminals, so vote for Republican judges for the Supreme Court and down the ballot,” Abbott says while the commercial shows boxes being checked off on a ballot scrolling downward.
In the radio spot, Abbott puts a finer point on the message, twice urging support for judges “all the way down the ballot.” He adds, “Every office matters so we can keep Texas safe.”
Abbott’s political standing
The governor, who is not up for reelection until 2022, has long made clear that keeping the state House in Republican hands is his top political project this November. In a speech last October, before the coronavirus pandemic upended the election cycle, Abbott promised to campaign in the lower-chamber battle “as though I am on the ballot myself.”
Abbott’s campaign certainly has the funds to make a difference, holding $37.7 million cash on hand as of the end of June.
However, the scale of Abbott’s financial commitment to the House fight has been something of an open question recently. On its latest campaign finance reports, which covered July 1 through Sept. 24, Abbott’s campaign had spent only $36,000 to help House candidates after the July 14 primary runoffs.
But it is not unusual for some candidates and PACs to wait until after the end of a reporting period to ramp up their spending so as not to tip off their opponents earlier than they need to. That appears to be the route Abbott’s campaign has gone, and its ramped-up spending could be reflected in the next wave of reports to the Texas Ethics Commission, which is due Oct. 26.
Abbott’s political stature has taken a hit as he has navigated the coronavirus pandemic, with his approval ratings sagging over the summer. That has left Democrats confident that he is no longer as reliable an asset for down-ballot Republicans.
Carney said he is not concerned about Abbott being a liability for candidates down the ballot, adding that the governor’s internal numbers have been “picking up” since the summer. Plus, Carney noted, the campaign is communicating to voters in House races who it knows already like the governor.
“He’s the most popular political figure in the state still,” Carney said. “We don’t feel queasy about [it] — we’re doing no harm.”