The other day, Public Policy Polling released a poll of Texas showing Republican Greg Abbott leading Democrat Wendy Davis 51-37. That was what everybody focused on.
What a lot of people seemed to miss, though, was the poll of the Senate race, where incumbent Republican John Cornyn holds a 49-32 lead over David Alameel. We've always looked at being under 50 percent as a danger sign for an incumbent, and while Alameel is unknown, he at least can throw millions of dollars at this race. Cornyn's favorables are underwater at 31-40; both of these would normally point to danger signs for an incumbent. So why isn't this race getting more (any) attention?
First things first -- should Alameel manage to lose the Democratic runoff to crazy Kesha Rogers, this won't be competitive at all. (I will not vote for Rogers.) Digging deeper, though, you start to see where Cornyn's problems are -- and why this race might wind up being closer than a lot of people think.
The Republican base
Now, reading crosstabs in polls can always be problematic. The sample sizes in the toplines lead to margins of error, and the smaller sample sizes in the crosstabs lead to even bigger margins of error. But at the very least, comparing the crosstabs in the Abbott-Davis race to those in the Cornyn-Alameel race is an apples-to-apples comparison. Abbott fares very well (86-9, with 5 percent undecided) among voters who describe themselves as "very conservative," as well as among voters who describe themselves as "somewhat conservative" (74-12, with 14 percent undecided.) His favorability ratings with those two groups, respectively, are 69-9 and 56-12. At the moment, though, Davis beats him pretty handily among moderates (53-26, 21 percent undecided), "somewhat liberal" (73-12, 15 percent undecided), and "very liberal" (84-16.) Basically, Abbott is liked by the Republican base but hated by pretty much everyone else, which unfortunately is a pretty good way to win elections in Texas.
Cornyn, on the other hand, currently sees a relatively smaller margin (61-21, 18 percent undecided) among "somewhat liberal" voters and moderate voters (43-29, 27 percent undecided.) But the Republican base is less solidly behind him than Abbott: he leads 68-10 among "somewhat conservative" voters with 22 percent undecided, and 75-10 among "very conservative" voters with 15 percent undecided. His favorability is actually underwater (36-42) among very conservative voters.
On the surface, at least, being distrusted by the conservative base while being able to draw at least some support from moderates and liberals doesn't seem like a terrible problem for a Republican Senator to have in a general election. After all, the conservative base isn't actually going to vote for a Democrat, are they?
The protest vote problem
Ah, but they don't have to vote for Alameel to hurt Cornyn. As of this writing, according to the Texas Tribune, a Libertarian candidate and four Independent candidates will also be on the ballot along with Alameel and Cornyn. None of those candidates were included in PPP's poll... but any one of them could be an outlet for conservatives to vent their frustrations with Cornyn (without actually pulling the lever for a Democrat.)
Basically, if enough conservatives defect and cast a protest vote for a non-viable third party candidate, that would lower the bar for Alameel to clear. If third-party candidates can pull 5-10 percent of the vote, Alameel would not need to get to 50 percent. 50 percent might not be doable, but 45-48 percent? Maybe.
And, let's just say right now that Cornyn's support among centrist and left-leaning voters may or may not hold up. He's still John Cornyn, Extremist Republican (but not Ted Cruz), after all.
It presents an interesting needle for the Alameel campaign to thread: you don't want to define Cornyn as too much of an extremist (which might actually shore up his support among the base), but at the same time you do want to chip away at Cornyn's support among those outside the Republican base.
This race is, obviously, a longshot. But it's also one that presents a sort of interesting opportunity, and with Alameel's ability to self-fund it's also one that the DSCC won't have to throw any money at.