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December 18th, 2017:

Early polling on the AG race

It looks sexy, but keep your salt handy.

Justin Nelson

The 2018 election for the job of the state’s top lawyer could be a tight race if voters go to the polls knowing about Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal indictment, according to a Democratic pollster.

GBA Strategies, a Democratic polling operation based in Washington D.C., surveyed 500 likely Texas voters and found Paxton, the Republican incumbent, enjoyed a 7 percentage point lead over Austin attorney Justin Nelson, a Democratic newcomer, the firm reported in a memo Wednesday released by the Nelson campaign.

Once voters were informed of Paxton’s 2015 felony indictment and attacks on Nelson, respondents shifted their support, giving Nelson a 1 point lead, according to the firm. The survey, which was conducted Oct. 9 through Oct. 12, has a 4.4 percentage point margin of error and 95 percent confidence interval.

[…]

The poll also found Texas voters split on whether they approve of President Trump, finding 49 percent approve and 49 percent disapprove.

You can see Nelson’s statement about the poll here and the polling memo here. The key passages:

• Paxton starts with a narrow lead against a largely unknown opponent. Paxton carries 46 percent of the electorate in the initial vote with Justin Nelson garnering 40 percent. After undecided are asked which way they lean, Paxton leads 50 – 43 percent. Given Texas’ Republican leaning and Nelson being unknown, this is a weak starting point for Paxton.

• Paxton’s corrupt behavior is very damaging and moves Justin Nelson into the lead. When voters are informed about Paxton’s indictment, 62 percent say it raises serious doubts about him. After voters hear positive statements about both candidates and learning about Paxton’s indictment, the race moves from a 7-point Paxton advantage to a 5-point Nelson lead (49 – 44 percent). The additional information dramatically shifts Independents to Nelson’s side, while he also makes inroads with Republicans. Even after voters hear attacks against Nelson, he maintains a 1-point lead.

This is an internal poll and there’s no detailed data available, so the skepticism level is high to begin with. A few specific things to note:

– The number of undecided voters in this sample is amazingly low. For a point of comparison, look at the UT/Trib poll from June of 2014. They surveyed all of the statewide races, as the primary runoffs had concluded in May. I quote: “In the race for attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton leads Democrat Sam Houston 40 percent to 27 percent, with 27 percent undecided.” That’s a lot more undecided voters, in a poll conducted six months later into the race. With all due respect to Justin Nelson, not nearly enough people know who he is to get to forty percent in any poll.

Now to be sure, people are way more engaged than they were at this point in the 2014 cycle, and given that Paxton has been a high-profile miscreant since even before he was officially nominated. It may just be that people are expressing a strong level of disapproval of Paxton, which translated into a higher than usual amount of support for a newbie candidate like Nelson. I can’t discount that possibility, but I’ll want to see similar numbers from other polls before I buy it.

– The 49/49 approval numbers for Donald Trump are noteworthy, and as I’ve said before the fact that we’re operating in an environment where Democrats have more intense opinions about the President than Republicans do should have a real effect on 2018. That said, these numbers are actually a little better for Trump than what we’ve seen before – he was at 45/49 in an October UT/Trib poll, and at 42-54 in an April Texas Lyceum poll. I don’t want to read too much into any of this – different polls, different methodologies – but that’s very much a factor to watch.

– Finally, note the “when voters were informed” bit in the polling memo. You know what it takes to inform voters? Money, to fund an effective communications strategy in a big state with more than two dozen media markets. Of course, Ken Paxton goes on trial for a felony charge next year, with more charges in reserve depending on how that trial goes, so there’s a chance that Nelson will get a big, free assist in communicating that information. Or Paxton could beat the rap and turn that liability into a big ol’ rallying cry.

Anyway. I do think Ken Paxton is vulnerable, and I’m glad to see Justin Nelson be aggressive right out of the gate. But I would like to see some other polls before I get too excited about this one.

One small piece of relief for Harvey-affected school districts

It’s not much, but it’s something.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is not changing state standardized test dates for students affected by Hurricane Harvey, but he is waiving some requirements for certain students, his agency said Thursday.

Students across the state will be still required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, as scheduled in March and May. But after pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott, Morath sent a letter to Harvey-affected school districts today saying students who fail required standardized state tests in fifth and eighth grade twice can graduate, as long as their local districts officials agree they are ready.

Normally, fifth- and eighth-grade students, who must pass the STAAR reading and math tests to graduate, must take the tests up to three times if they fail. If a student doesn’t pass on the third try, he or she cannot graduate unless a committee of his or her educators and parents unanimously agrees to promote the student.

With Morath’s announcement, Harvey-affected districts will have more leeway to decide whether to require students to take the test a third time and to decide locally whether students who fail the tests can graduate.

Rescheduling the STAAR tests was never really an option, as it would have been disruptive to many school districts. Indeed, a large majority of superintendents were opposed to rescheduling the STAAR. This at least gives some kids who have been traumatized in one way or another by Harvey a chance to stay on track, with their classmates. Morath may still make further adjustments to the accountability system later, which if it does happen will probably be after the tests are taken and we get some idea of how the scores were affected. At least the TEA is being open to suggestion.

The war on coal is over in Texas

Coal lost, and good riddance.

Wind power capacity edged out coal for the first time in the Texas history last week after a new 155-megawatt wind farm in Scurry County came online. The farm in question is the Fluvanna Wind Energy Project, located on some 32,000 acres leased from more than 130 landowners.

Fluvanna pushed total wind power capacity in the state to more than 20,000 megawatts, while coal capacity stands at 19,800 megawatts and is slated to fall to 14,700 megawatts by the end of 2018 thanks to planned coal powerplant closures. Next year, Luminant will shutter three coal-fired plants—Monticello, Sandow, and Big Brown—and San Antonio’s CPS Energy will close J.T. Deely Station. Wind capacity in the state will reach 24,400 megawatts by the end of 2018, according to projections from Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at UT Austin’s Energy Institute.

But capacity is one thing, electricity generation is another. In the first ten months of 2017, wind generated 17.2 percent of power in the state, and coal 31.9 percent, according to ERCOT. But wind should soon see large gains there. “By our analysis, in 2019 we’ll have more energy from wind than coal,” Rhodes said.

Don’t anyone tell Donald Trump.