Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is much better known among Texas voters than his best-known political rival, Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The incumbent faces some headwinds: 38 percent of voters said they have favorable opinions of Cruz, while 45 percent have unfavorable opinions of him. In O’Rourke’s case, 16 percent have favorable views and 13 percent have unfavorable views.

“Ted Cruz’s greatest asset — his strong support among the Republican base — remains pretty intact,” said Jim Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

But it’s in the no-views-at-all numbers that Cruz has an advantage: only 17 percent said they have either neutral or no opinion of the incumbent, while 69 percent registered neither positive nor negative opinions of the challenger. More than half had no opinion of O’Rourke at all — an opportunity and a danger for a new statewide candidate who is racing to describe himself to voters before Cruz does it for him.

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"Beto O'Rourke does not appear to have done much to improve his standing or, perhaps more importantly, to soften up Ted Cruz," said Daron Shaw, a professor at UT-Austin and co-director of the poll. "This is the problem Democrats face in Texas — you have to grab the attention of voters and drive the issue agenda, but doing so requires a demonstration of strength that is almost impossible. Absent some substantial change in the issue environment, O'Rourke is on the same path as Paul Sadler and Rick Noriega," two Democrats and former legislators who fell well short of defeating Republicans in statewide races.

Texas voters give better job performance grades to state officials and institutions than to their federal twins. Like Cruz, President Donald Trump and the state’s other U.S. senator, Republican John Cornyn, have more negative marks than positive ones in the latest poll. The voters have special scorn for Congress, with 12 percent saying they approve of the job Congress is doing, while 69 percent disapprove.

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Compare that with the Texas Legislature, which got positive ratings from 28 percent of voters and negative grades from 37 percent. That’s still underwater, but the Texans have some room to work with.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick each got more positive than negative marks. House Speaker Joe Straus was, like the Texas Legislature, more likely to get negative marks. He’s also less well known than his statewide colleagues; 29 percent of voters said they have neutral opinions of Straus, a San Antonio Republican, and 20 percent have no opinion of him at all.

"In terms of more general assessments of public officials and institutions, there isn't much going on. The numbers from June to October are remarkably stable," Shaw said. "The one slight exception is that more "moderate" Republicans — such as Joe Straus and John Cornyn — appear to be underachieving compared to the conservative stalwarts. It seems likely that they are having some problems with the GOP base."

One subgroup — Tea Party Republicans — lowered their opinions of the state players between the previous UT/TT Poll, in June, and the new one. That group’s approval of the Legislature dropped 23 percentage points. Their grades for Straus dropped 20 percentage points, for Patrick by 7 percentage points, and for Abbott by 3 percentage points. Overall numbers for those three officeholders changed only slightly but shifted among those conservative voters.

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“Straus dropped significantly among Tea Party and conservative [voters],” Henson said.

“Nobody really gained from the special legislative session, but Abbott might have gained something from his leadership during and after Hurricane Harvey,” he said.

Congress persists as the least popular branch of the federal government, with only 5 percent of Texas voters saying they trust it the most. The judiciary topped that list, with 36 percent calling it the most-trusted branch, followed by the executive branch with 27 percent. A third of the voters chose not to pick any of the three branches.

Voters also have a dim view of the news media, though they think it’s important to democracy. Three-fifths said the news media mostly serves people in powerful positions, while 23 percent said it serves “people like you.” Asked about the media’s role, however, 72 percent said it’s important to democracy in the United States; 20 percent said it’s not.

The partisan splits are stark, with 80 percent of Republicans saying the news media is more likely to serve the powerful, while only 34 percent of Democrats said that. “When Donald Trump says the media serves the elite, he finds a ready audience for that among Texas Republicans,” Henson said.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from October 6 to October 15 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

This is one of several stories on the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Also today: Texans grade President Trump, his qualities and his response to top issues. Coming Friday: Texans’ views on responses to Hurricane Harvey and on what should top the post-storm to-do list.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Analysis: 5 takeaways from our last UT/TT Poll in June. [Full story]

  • In June, the UT/TT poll found Gov. Greg Abbott remained Texas voters' favorite state official. [Full story]

  • In 2010, a UT/TT poll found that nearly a third of Texans believed humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time. [Full story]

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