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Another test of Trump's 5th Avenue hypothesis swamps Texas politics (again)

Hi All,

The announcement of a likely debate between Gov. Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke, and efforts by both campaigns to shape issue coverage to the comparative advantage of each, drove coverage of state politics early in the week. But developments in the 2022 Texas gubernatorial election were swamped by the aftermath of the search warrant executed by the FBI at Donald Trump’s domain at his Mar-a-Lago result on Monday. By Friday afternoon, the release of the warrant for the search and the FBI “receipt for property” made clear that the investigation goes far beyond the improper handling of government documents that were the focus of initial speculation about the search. 

There's much to be said about the latest descent into the political world that Trump has made, but this story isn't going away, and it's still moving fast. (I started writing and rewriting and rewriting this email Friday...) For now, I’ve compiled some data points related to some of these developments to provide context for both the latest Trump imbroglio as well as a couple of items in Texas politics – which were affected by events in Florida and Ohio. (While details about the documents the FBI re-possessed from Trump and the attack on the FBI office in Cincinnati came after we recorded on Wednesday, Josh Blank and I talked about some of these developments in this week’s Second Reading podcast.)

Upon news that the FBI had executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, key Texas Republicans leaped to his defense by attacking American political institutions and federal law enforcement. The speed with which Texas officials attacked the FBI and the Biden administration in terms that ignored the widely-reported background of longstanding negotiations with Trump and his lawyers illustrate just how willing many Texas elected officials and opinion leaders are to tap into conspiratorial, anti-government sentiment in the GOP base. (And to ignore any obligation to facts in doing so.) There is ample evidence in public opinion polling to suggest that such attitudes are there to be exploited. Responses to a battery of questions designed to look at Texans’ comparative ratings of various political institutions, there was a marked partisan divide in views of the federal government. Among Republicans, only 12% had a favorable view of the federal government, compared to 70% who approved of state government. Some of this is attributable to the difference in party control of the respective national and state institutions. But calling the Mar-a-Lago search, for example, “next-level Nixonian” and declaring “this weaponizes power to squelch dissent,” as Governor Abbott did Monday, invokes something much darker than simple partisan judgments of the party in power. (And, again, does not match the facts in evidence.) Senator Ted Cruz tweeted on the same day, “The Biden Admin has fully weaponized DOJ & FBI to target their political enemies.” The responses of Texas Republicans like Abbott and Cruz (and they were far from alone), does recognize one well-established set of facts: Trump remains well-liked among Texas Republicans. Might the fact that Trump may have been withholding highly classified national security documents, or the violent attack on an FBI office in Cincinnati Friday, change this dynamic? One might think so –  but for the evidence of the last seven years of Trump’s political career. 

Only slightly less surprising than Texas Republicans’ reflexive support for Trump was the outbreak of actual violence by a Trump supporter Thursday in Cincinnati, who was later killed in a confrontation with law enforcement after attempting to attack an FBI office. While all of the details are still being confirmed, it’s now been widely reported that a Truth Social Media account (a Trump-initiated alternative to Twitter) with the same name as the deceased shooter threatened violence on social media after expressing support for Trump in the aftermath of the Mar-a-Lago search. As reported in The Washington Post: “The…account appeared to be one of Truth Social’s most prolific posters, writing 374 messages there in the last eight days — mostly to echo Trump’s lies about election fraud and, in the hours after FBI agents searched Trump’s Florida home, calling for all-out war. “Be ready to kill the enemy,” [he] had posted on Tuesday. “Kill [the FBI] on sight.” I’ve sent our our result from the June UT/Texas Politics Project poll about Texans’ expectations of future political violence recently. We also found early evidence of increasingly partisan views of federal law enforcement when we asked Texans about their views of the FBI back in 2018.  On Friday, Chris Hooks wrote an interesting assessment of both the political and practical implications of what happens when “elected officials echo and amplify the most dangerous rhetoric coming from the fringe” for Texas Monthly. 

Back in Texas, the news that the campaigns of Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke have agreed to one televised debate certainly lacked drama compared to the week’s other events. It's hard not to note the familiarity of the whole exercise, characterized by the seemingly rote tactics of both campaigns as well as the predictable coverage of those responses in the press. The incumbent governor with a steady if comparatively modest lead in the overall public polling wants to debate as little as possible; the challenger's campaign wants as many joint events as possible in a format they expect plays to their advantage. The fact that the incumbent wants the debate to be on a Friday night invites seemingly universal reference to the hallowed tradition of Texas high school football – references familiar for the several previous instances of this tactic over the last few elections. Are you still awake? As of now, mark your calendar for September 30, for a debate held at UT Rio Grande Valley, if you’re one of the relatively small number of Texans (and if you’re reading this, you probably are) who will be watching live (and would watch this live on any Friday night). The latest Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler Poll released Sunday found Abbott with a 7-point lead over O’Rourke, on the slightly higher end of Abbott leads in public polls released in the last month or so. See a screen cap below taken from our updated poll tracker, and the topline document for the poll for more results.

Beto O’Rourke found a much more lively way to make some headlines when he dropped an (M)F bomb on a heckler at campaign event who laughed during his discussion of the Uvalde mass shooting. There’s video amidst the copious coverage.This reminds his base of O’Rourke’s earlier image as an unconventional candidate amidst the inside talk that he is running a more disciplined, mature campaign in 2022. It provoked the usual criticism from his detractors, and rebuttals from his defenders that he’s not the only one with a potty mouth. I will say, heatedly calling someone an MF at a campaign event ranks pretty high on the cussing scale compared to, say, a heavily rehearsed “kiss my ass.” All in all, probably a small net-positive for O’Rourke since it likely plays well with urban and younger supporters.

Meanwhile, Greg Abbott also played to type this week as the back and forth with New York City Eric Adams over Abbott’s bussing of migrants apprehended on the border to New York and Washington, D.C., continued. The governor has almost as much practice antagonizing big city mayors as Beto O’Rourke has swearing. The bussing is almost as light on policy relevance as is the cussing, but of course does tap into both the GOP’s relentless focus on immigration and border security, and, more specifically, the likely predispositions of Abbott’s base of rural and suburban support. We’ll leave the underlying content of those predispositions for another day.

Best of luck for the coming week, and, as always, keep in touch.


Jim Henson
Executive Director, The Texas Politics Project
College of Liberal Arts / Department of Government
The University of Texas at Austin
The Texas Politics Project
Copyright © 2022 The Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, All rights reserved.

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