AUSTIN — Attorney General Ken Paxton and his Democratic challenger, Rochelle Garza, are neck and neck in a new poll, a sign the embattled incumbent is vulnerable in November.
Paxton leads Garza 34%-32% among registered voters — the tightest margin of any statewide contest, according to a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday.
Eight percent supported Libertarian candidate Mark Ash, 7% opted for “someone else” and 18% are not sure.
The results suggest the race could be Democrats’ best shot at winning a statewide office after a nearly three-decade lockout.
The poll, conducted August 1-7, surveyed 1,384 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
Paxton, a Republican and close ally of former President Donald Trump, is seeking a third term under a cloud of legal troubles. Garza, a civil rights attorney from South Texas, is a political newcomer unknown to many voters.
Both have strong support within their own parties, the poll found. But Garza has a 5-point lead among independents, who also make up the biggest chunk of undecided voters and could swing the election.
Half of independent voters said they disapprove of Paxton’s job performance, the poll found, up from 41% in May. A falling number (18%) think Paxton has the integrity needed to serve in the office he’s held since 2015.
Paxton has been under indictment for securities fraud for almost his entire tenure, but a trial has been delayed by wrangling over where to hold one, how much to pay prosecutors and non-legal reasons, like Hurricane Harvey and the pandemic. In late 2020, the FBI began investigating Paxton after former aides accused him of illegally helping a campaign donor. No federal charges have been filed. Paxton denies wrongdoing.
The legal problems, however, fueled attacks by Republicans and Democrats that may be resonating with voters on the fence.
“What Paxton is seeing is a real challenge of getting the swing voters and independent voters in Texas, against someone who might be a new face to Texas politics and is talking about bringing change to Austin,” said the poll’s director, UT-Tyler political scientist Mark Owens.
What would benefit Paxton, he said, is if the high-profile governor’s race between Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke sucks up all the political oxygen, leaving Garza little space to introduce herself to voters.
“Those independent voters might not have a reason to choose to vote for her,” Owens said.
The poll results show the top reasons voters prefer Garza over the GOP incumbent are because she’s a Democrat (23%) or “not Paxton” (13%).
Paxton’s top attribute among supporters is also his party affiliation (20%), the poll found, and 16% said they like him because he’s a “good AG.”
With only three months until the midterm election, the race has so far been a sleepy one. Since winning their respective primary runoff elections in May, neither Paxton nor Garza has held any big campaign rallies or bought television ads. Both are trailing other top candidates in fundraising.
Over recent months, Garza netted nearly $520,000 in campaign donations compared to the $340,000 raised by Paxton. Yet, Paxton is sitting on a $3.5 million war chest, compared to Garza’s $450,000.
Matthew Sokol, a 42-year-old who lives outside Houston, is one of those independent voters trying to make up his mind. He likes to vote for the person, not the party, but is struggling with his choices.
Paxton’s legal problems give him pause, and he finds Garza too liberal.
“A very important part of our state election is a complete question mark for me,” he said. “I’m going to start having to do more research.”
CORRECTION, 12:10 p.m. Aug. 14, 2022: An earlier version of the graphic contained the incorrect percentages for Black and white voters’ choices in the race for Texas governor.