The Border Is the Biggest Issue for Texas Voters

And both whites and Hispanics prefer Governor Greg Abbott to handle it over Beto O’Rourke — for now

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 11, 2022

Quinnipiac University has released a poll of 1,224 registered Texas voters, taken between December 2 and December 6. Respondents identified the “Texas-Mexico border” as the most urgent issue facing the Lone Star State, by a significant margin. The issue will plainly play a role in the November gubernatorial election pitting Governor Greg Abbott (R) against his likely Democratic opponent, former representative (and presidential and senatorial candidate) Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, and perhaps other elections in border states, as well.

The Border is the “Most Urgent” Issue in the Minds of Texas Voters. Respondents were given a list of 12 different issues from which to choose in identifying the “most urgent” facing Texas (Covid-19, the economy, climate change, the Texas-Mexico border, health care, election laws, racial inequality, schools, crime, abortion, taxes, and gun policy), as well as “other”.

Thirty-three percent of respondents picked the Southwest border. The only other response that scored in the double digits was the economy (at 11 percent). Although Texas’s recently passed abortion law (and courts’ review of that law) has received a lot of national attention in recent months, “abortion” came in third, with 9 percent of respondents identifying it as the most urgent.

Covid-19 tied with election laws in fourth place with 8 percent, followed by health care and schools (5 percent for each), and racial inequality and “something else” (4 percent, respectively).

The internals of that poll are even more interesting, as they usually are.

Just 3 percent of Democrats said that the border was the most urgent issue (election laws and Covid-19 tied for first among them, at 16 percent apiece, followed by abortion at 15 percent). Fifty-eight percent of Texas Republican voters, on the other hand, ranked the Texas-Mexico border as the most urgent issue, with the economy a faint number two (at 14 percent).

Almost one-in-three Independents (32 percent), by comparison, ranked the border as number one, with abortion (10 percent), the economy, and election laws (9 percent for each), and Covid-19 (8 percent) trailing by a wide margin.

The border was also the leading issue for white voters generally, with 46 percent identifying it as the most urgent issue (rising to 50 percent among white men). Abortion was well behind at number two with 11 percent of white respondents identifying it as the most urgent issue facing Texas.

The Border Is Also the Most Urgent Issue Facing Texas According to Hispanic Voters. Significantly, however, the border was also ranked as the most urgent issue facing Texas by 24 percent of Hispanic respondents, drawing 50 percent more responses than the number two issue (the economy at 16 percent) and twice as many as the third leading issue (Covid-19 at 12 percent).

In September, I examined why the Democratic party has been losing its traditional edge with Hispanic Texans, including for reasons that are unique to that state.

“Tejanos”, native Texans of Hispanic heritage, have resided there since well before statehood, and in south Texas are increasingly voting like their “white” neighbors (I hate such demographic descriptors, which are usually inapt, especially so in Texas).

Half of Border Patrol agents are themselves Hispanic, and more than half of all Border Patrol agents are stationed in the agency's five Texas sectors. Simply put, the odds that a Hispanic resident of Texas is, or is related to, a Border Patrol agent are much higher than for a similarly situated voter in another state.

Texas Has Received the Brunt of the Current Border Disaster. More importantly, however, those five sectors have been ground zero for the border disaster that has continued unabated since the inauguration of President Biden. That means that Texas has borne the brunt of the most recent migrant surge.

Be it Covid-positive migrants wandering around unsupervised in La Joya (in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley) in July, or thousands of Haitian nationals who crossed the Rio Grande at Del Rio, Texas, in September (turning “Del Rio” into shorthand for a border in chaos), Texas border towns and the state as a whole have largely been left to deal with the fall-out of the president’s immigration policies.

In response, Governor Abbott has implemented “Operation Lone Star”, which has flooded the border with resources and officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Even the state troopers that the governor has sent, however, are being overwhelmed by the migrant crisis.

The Situation at the Border in the “Abbott vs. O’Rourke” Match-Up. Interestingly, the Biden administration’s failures at the border may be one of the reasons that Abbott has compiled a sizeable lead over his likely Democratic opponent, O’Rourke.

The Quinnipiac poll reveals that Abbott leads O’Rourke by a 52 percent to 37 percent margin, and the current governor has an even bigger advantage over his challenger one on certain issues.

Sixty percent of respondents prefer Abbott over O’Rourke on the economy and on gun policy (O’Rourke draws 32 and 33 percent preference on those issues, respectively), but Abbott gets higher marks than O’Rourke on the border, as well.

When it comes to handling the situation at the Mexican border, 58 percent of respondents stated that Abbott would do a better job, compared to 35 percent who favor O’Rourke. That trend holds true even among Hispanics, who favor Abbott’s handling of the border compared to O’Rourke’s by a 54 percent to 37 percent margin, and Independents (57 percent Abbott; 35 percent O’Rourke).

Given the fact that then-Rep. O’Rourke held a seat in a border district (Texas 16, which includes all of El Paso), it is not like the challenger is an unknown quantity when it comes to the issue.

Likely recognizing the political winds, O’Rourke criticized the Biden administration for its handling of the border in November, asserting: “It’s clear that President Biden could be doing a better job at the border, it is not enough of a priority for his administration”.

Curiously, however, O’Rourke also criticized the Biden administration for its response to “Del Rio”, complaining in a local opinion piece in late September: “The scores of Haitian immigrants who were living in filth under the city’s bridges, corralled and charged by mounted Patrolmen like they were animals, had in many cases been on an odyssey lasting more than a decade.”

The challenger announced his latest candidacy after making those September remarks, on November 15.

Will the Border Improve, or Will Concerns Spill Over into Other States? There are no signs that the national security and humanitarian disaster at the Southwest border will be abating anytime soon. Monthly apprehensions continue to run at all-time highs, a situation compounded by thousands of unaccompanied alien children entering the United States illegally in recent weeks.

There are signs of a shakeup in Biden’s immigration team, however. That does not necessarily mean, though, that (in O’Rourke’s words) the border is becoming “enough of a priority” for the administration. Unless the White House gains more control of the situation there, the Quinnipiac poll suggests that Democrats could be facing a rough road in Texas come the November mid-term elections.

Interestingly, the border situation is also heating up in Arizona, particularly near Yuma. Arizona will be the setting for another key November election between incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D) and a Republican challenger to be named.

Kelly won a close election in November 2020 against then-incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R), and his ability to keep that seat is crucial to Democratic control of the Senate in the 118th Congress; at the present time, the Upper Chamber is evenly split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving the Democrats the advantage as president of the Senate.

To win, Kelly will likely have to capture the border counties of Pima and Santa Cruz, both of which have a strong Democratic “lean”. If the border concerns of Texas voters begin to spill over into the Grand Canyon State, Kelly may have a tough row to hoe.

Biden Changing His Border Policies Is the Key. The border is plainly a concern among Texas voters and a factor that will likely weigh down the prospects of Democratic candidates there. Ameliorating the worries of voters there about the border is a must if the president wants his party to make electoral gains in the state. The same may also become true of voters in Arizona, as well.

That means that Biden and his immigration staff will have to rethink the immigration policies that encouraged a record number of migrants to cross the Southwest border in FY 2021.

Trashing Donald Trump on the campaign trail was a good election strategy for Biden in 2020. Trashing his predecessor’s border policies, however, has led to the disaster along the U.S.-Mexico line, as even the editorial board at Bloomberg Opinion has been forced to admit.

If the human cost of the chaos at the Southwest border is not enough to convince the president to change his policies, perhaps the political cost will be.