Matthew McConaughey’s Big Risk (and Opportunity) If He Runs for Texas Governor

Matthew McConaughey’s Big Risk (and Opportunity) If He Runs for Texas Governor

BY JAMES HIBBERD | HollywoodReporter.Com

Troy Warren for CNT #EditorsPicks #Entertainment #Celebrity

As the star vaguely embraces the idea of seeking higher office and leads a hypothetical statewide poll, Texas political insiders weigh in and warn: “People will start to hate him.”

Does “Texas Gov. Matthew McConaughey” sound all right? (All right, all right?)

The Oscar-winner has been openly flirting for months with the prospect of entering what could be a pivotal race in 2022 to lead the country’s second-most-populous state at a time when the traditionally deep-red territory is increasingly edging toward purple. But is McConaughey serious? And if he is, what are the chances he’d actually defeat Republican incumbent Greg Abbott?

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that the actor hasn’t been fundraising or gathering a potential staff, aside from a few exploratory phone calls. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t declare his candidacy anyway and then figure out the details later, but right now there doesn’t appear to be behind-the-scenes movement in that direction.

Texas political insiders are likewise skeptical the 51-year-old Texas native will ultimately leap into the fray, yet are by and large bullish about his prospects if he does — particularly when compared to another potential as-yet-undeclared candidate, Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who narrowly lost a senate bid to incumbent Ted Cruz in 2018 and has recently emerged as the only prospective serious challenger to Abbott. 

A July survey by the University of Texas, Tyler, suggested 44 percent of Texans would vote for McConaughey in a hypothetical election versus just 35 percent for Abbott, with 54 percent believing the state was “on the wrong track.” When Abbott is paired against O’Rourke, the outcome reverses, with the governor garnering 42 percent to O’Rourke’s 37 percent. 

The actor could have other advantages, too, such as the ability to potentially raise a massive war chest and dominate media interest. Texas includes 20 different media markets, second only to California in number, which makes it a highly difficult state for a typical campaign. “You either need money or ‘earned media’ — the ability to get coverage no matter what,” says Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston. “If McConaughey goes to Tyler, he’ll get coverage. We’re also a no-limit [fundraising] state,” so if a Hollywood backer “wants to write him a million-dollar check,” they can. In March, the actor held a “We’re Texas” concert fundraiser, raising $7.8 million in relief for families impacted by February’s devastating winter storm that killed more than 50 people.

In a New York Times podcast interview with Kara Swisher published on Oct. 7, McConaughey confirmed he’s “measuring” getting into the race — but also said he’s “not interested” unless he can effect real change. “Right now, it’s a fixed game. You go in there, you just put on a bunch of Band-aids, in four years you walk out and they rip them off and you’re gone?” 

Pressed about his political positions, he continued to be vague, and, he admitted, deliberately so. “I don’t talk politics, I talk people,” he pivoted.

Instead, the actor simply branded himself a centrist. It’s a perceived lack of commitment that potential rival O’Rourke spotlighted in a September interview at the Texas Tribune Festival. “He’s a really popular figure whose political views have not in any way been fixed,” the former Democratic presidential candidate said. “I don’t know, for example, who he voted for in the most consequential election since 1864 in this country.”

But experts counter that such ambiguity has an upside. “Traditional political folks will criticize him by saying that nobody knows where he stands,” says Texas political consultant Keir Murray. “But for a true outsider candidate, it’s actually advantageous. It’s a blank canvas to paint a candidacy, and it’s harder to be defined out of the gate — unlike Beto, who has a record of his positions.”

Murray adds: “I’ve heard some in the political class be dismissive of his prospects, but I am not.”

However, the professor and pollster behind the recent University of Texas, Tyler, survey, Mark Owens, is a bit more hesitant about the actor’s chances despite his early numbers edging out Abbott’s. “McConaughey presents an alternative choice [to Abbott and O’Rourke], with a name they recognize but still know little about. There’s a potential of 44 percent of the electorate willing to vote for somebody who was likable — but that’s also troubling for him because that’s not enough.” The actor’s strongest polling quality, Owens found, is his perceived honesty, but Abbott scored higher on measures like “shares your values” and experience.

As a testament to McConaughey’s political vagueness, it’s not even clear which ticket he would run on. He presumably wouldn’t run as a Republican since Abbott seemingly has that primary locked down. The actor could enter the race as a Democrat or an independent, and each option has its pros and cons. 

As a Democrat, should McConaughey win the primary, he would have the advantage of reducing the contest to a clear two-man race. “But then he gets all the Democratic baggage in a red state and risks running afoul of Democrats on their issues if he doesn’t conform to their orthodoxy,” Jones says. “His best option would be to run as an independent — it just works with his persona.” 

Independents are the fastest-growing political affiliation in America, and McConaughey polls highest among independents in a hypothetical matchup against Abbott and O’Rourke. The actor also seemed to lean toward the idea in his recent Times interview with Swisher, noting, “Texas is about independence. I think people want a third party. We’ve got one. It doesn’t have a name right now. And it is the majority. It is 60 percent of the population in America.”

Texas also eliminated straight-ticket voting in 2020, which boosts the likelihood of voters splitting their ballot among candidates of different parties, a move that could likewise benefit a third-party run. Still, an independent hasn’t been elected Texas governor since Sam Houston in 1859 (beloved writer-musician Kinky Friedman famously ran as an independent in 2006 and came in fourth place). Plus, there are institutional advantages to having the branding and resources of a major party in a two-way race rather than trying to trail-blaze as a party-crashing outsider. “It’s a hard choice if he’s one of three candidates versus just him and Abbott,” Owens notes. 

Regardless of ballot rules or party affiliation, there are also certain realities to entering politics that observers point out would make the race uncomfortable for the actor. “Right now, he can be everything to everyone,” Jones says. “Democrats and Republicans would want to know: What’s your position on gun control? Abortion? Natural gas pipelines? And the moment he starts taking positions, he starts losing people.”

Murray puts the danger to McConaughey’s reputation even more bluntly: “He’s got a positive and favorable brand, but as soon as you dip your toe in the political pool people start to hate you. Does he want to change that brand and damage it? Because that’s inevitable. His brand will never be the same again.”

McConaughey’s universal likability is not just an important aspect to his personal comfort and career as an actor, but also as a spokesperson who’s appeared in ads for companies such as Wild Turkey and Lincoln. 

Then there’s the procedural reality of what the governor of Texas can actually accomplish. A Gov. McConaughey couldn’t wave a magic wand and, for instance, reverse the state’s highly controversial new abortion law. (Democrats would have to flip the Texas House and Senate first. The law was halted by a federal judge on Oct. 7.)

And the day-to-day work of governorship is far from glamorous. “The question I have in the back in my mind: Does he really want to be the governor for four years and be tied down to Austin?” Jones says. “I can see him being enamored with the idea of running for governor. But does he want to be on the hook when the power goes out in February? Or be the person who has to decide whether to pardon somebody on death row? Or be briefed for 15 hours on legislation?”

McConaughey’s decision will be clear fairly soon. Candidates for Texas governor must file no later than Dec. 13. Until then, Murray points out, just one thing is for certain. If McConaughey runs, “the entertainment value of the race would go way up.”

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By Troy Warren

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