Defend Texas Liberty, a PAC run by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), released a poll that shows O’Rourke up only 2 points on Gov. Greg Abbott in Harris County, the state’s largest. Four years ago, Abbott lost the county by 6 points and 68,000 votes.
That same year, O’Rourke won the county by 17 points and over 200,000 votes in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Conducted by CWS Research, the poll surveyed 938 likely general election voters from September 24 through October 1, and also found Republican county judge candidate Alex Mealer up 4 points on Democrat incumbent Lina Hidalgo.
If those results are accurate at that moment in time, it likely has a lot to do with another section of the poll.
In Harris County, certain public safety-related issues are consuming oxygen on par with consistently heavy-hitting ones like the border and abortion. Lax bail policy and police funding are playing an outsized role due to various developments.
Since 2018, at least 183 people in Harris County have been killed by violent or repeat offenders out of jail on low cash bail or personal bond for previous offenses. Last month, the county reported 720 homicides during 2022, a 65 percent increase from 2018.
Both of these topics were raised by Abbott during the recent gubernatorial debate, as expected. Abbott specifically criticized O’Rourke’s 2020 comment lauding “Black Lives Matter and other protesters [for putting] this front and center, to defund these line items that have overmilitarized our police and instead invest that money in the human capital of your community.”
The quote has also been featured in an Abbott campaign television ad airing across the state.
When asked at the debate if he supports “measures to defund police,” O’Rourke said, “Of course I don’t.”
Mealer has also made it a focal point of her campaign, calling for an addition of as many as 1,000 new law enforcement officers in Harris County.
Last session, after the City of Austin cut and redirected $150 million from its police budget, the Texas Legislature passed and Abbott signed a bill establishing penalties for cities above 250,000 population that make cuts to their law enforcement funding.
The legislature also passed a bail restriction law limiting the instances in which judges may approve personal bond, and Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) has called for building upon that statute next session.
Voters view both police funding and bail restrictions as important, according to the CWS poll. Just over half of respondents agreed that “bail reform has increased crime in Harris County” with 28 percent unsure, while two-thirds said that law enforcement funding in the county should be increased.
A slightly higher percentage of Independents agreed on the bail reform question than the overall total, while 62 percent wanted to see law enforcement funding increased.
The same poll showed Abbott and Hidalgo’s net favorable rating at negative 7 and 6 points, respectively. O’Rourke’s net favorable rating is pegged at negative 1 point.
A July poll by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs had O’Rourke up 9 points over Abbott in the county and Mealer just 1 point behind Hidalgo.
The same Hobby poll showed crime and public safety as the issue of most concern to those surveyed: 78 percent of likely voters, 72 percent of likely Hidalgo voters, and 84 percent of likely Mealer voters all stated its importance.
Specifically on bail reform, the percentage of voters touting its importance was in the low 40s for each of those groups.
In a recent statewide poll, Abbott had a 14-point advantage over O’Rourke in voters’ confidence to reduce crime.
O’Rourke and his fellow statewide Democratic candidates have increasingly hedged their electoral bets on the abortion issue, making it a feature of their campaigns after the demise of Roe v. Wade.
But the wedge issue rising up the Abbott campaign’s totem pole is public safety, both in the form of police funding and Democratic bail reform — and its epicenter is the state’s largest county.
Any ground the Republican incumbent gains on his Democratic challenger in Harris County makes it that much harder for O’Rourke to close the already wide polling gap in Texas’ highest-profile race.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.