AUSTIN, Texas —
Is he or isn’t he? Texans want to know.
Since spring, movie star Matthew McConaughey has been toying with the idea of a run for governor of Texas but has refused to commit, relishing the spotlight celebs are accustomed to while promoting his new memoir, “Greenlights.”
For the record:
5:18 p.m. Oct. 17, 2021An earlier version of this report referred to “this week” throughout the article instead of “last week.”
4:56 p.m. Oct. 17, 2021 An earlier version of this report said Matthew McConaughey played a gay AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club.” He played an AIDS patient.
An earlier version of this report said Matthew McConaughey played a gay AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club.” He played an AIDS patient.
But while the actor, who lives in the Lone Star State’s capital, Austin, remains on the sideline without saying what he plans to do, some who want to occupy the office either have placed themselves in a holding pattern, choosing to wait and see what McConaughey does, or are wringing their hands about his possible run. McConaughey is seen as a potential lock for Democrats, who have not won statewide office since 1994, even if he has not publicly revealed his position on many key issues facing Texans.
The 51-year-old actor, who describes himself as a “statesman-philosopher, folk-singing poet,” is a high-profile figure in the state, turning up at University of Texas football games to gin up the crowd, but remains an enigma. The question is, can he win?
In a poll last month by the Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler, 44% of voters favored McConaughey, 35% favored incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, and the rest would choose another candidate. But it’s unclear what party McConaughey would join.
“He appears to be simply enjoying the publicity. It doesn’t work that way. He needs to pick a party,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “Nobody knows what this guy stands for.”
Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, has yet to conduct a poll about the actor because, he said, “I’m deeply skeptical.”
“I’m not really interested unless he commits. If he’s going to do it, he would do everyone a service by not stringing us along,” Henson said.
The filing deadline for the March 1 primary is Dec. 13. Abbott, a former Texas attorney general and judge, is running for reelection to a third term and already faces two far-right challengers. The progressive Democrat Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, a former congressman and candidate for president and Senate, is also exploring a campaign.
“No decision has been made,” O’Rourke spokesman David Wysong said last week. “He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state.”
McConaughey’s spokeswoman declined comment last week about whether he plans to run.
This month, McConaughey — who rose to fame playing Texans in “Dazed and Confused,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “True Detective” — told the New York Times’ Kara Swisher he was still “measuring” a possible campaign, while dismissing politics as “a bag of rats.”
“Is that a place to make real change, or is it a place where, hey, right now, it’s a fixed game?” he said during Swisher’s “Sway” podcast, describing himself as “aggressively centrist.”
“I don’t know if you can walk down the center and not be in trouble,” he said. “It can be very hard down the center.”
During the podcast, he tried to avoid sensitive topics — difficult, given that the current governor has embraced far-right bans on abortion and COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
When pressed, McConaughey said he supports mask mandates and was troubled that the state abortion ban took effect at six weeks of gestation and made no exception for victims of rape and incest. But the actor, who has often talked about his Christian faith, stopped short of condemning the ban. He said he didn’t know enough about Texas restrictions on voting rights to weigh in.
Those close to McConaughey in Austin — including Richard Linklater, who directed “Dazed and Confused,” and Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote “True Detective” — have been tight-lipped about his plans.
“We wouldn’t say anything prior to him announcing,” Pizzolatto’s representative said. “Feels premature.”
Karl Rove, the GOP strategist who shepherded George W. Bush into the Texas governor’s mansion and then the White House, told Politco last spring that a possible McConaughey campaign had his pal Lawrence Wright, the Austin-based author and New Yorker writer, “hyperventilating.”
“Karl has gotten me in a lot of trouble,” Wright said via email last week. “I’ve been dealing with this over and over. I’d be happy to talk if and when Matthew actually declares.”
Rove last week chafed at a potential McConaughey campaign, calling it “unlikely” and the actor’s election as governor “impossible.”
“He hasn’t staked out positions with Texans,” Rove said. “It says something about the shallowness of our politics that we’re even talking about somebody who has no declared position or record of policy involvement. Where does he stand on the great issues? What are the priorities?”
Austin-based GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser disagreed.
“Personality trumps policy,” he said, likening McConaughey to former President Trump or Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler turned governor of Minnesota. “I’m not sure how important specific stances will be to a general election audience when you have someone like Matt McConaughey running. These celebrity candidates have a different appeal.”
McConaughey’s brand resonates among Texans, Steinhauser said: “He’s from Texas Hill Country; he’s a real Texan. The cool factor is there, whether it’s the Wild Turkey ads or the Lincoln ads.”
“I definitely would bet on him running,” he added.
McConaughey was born in the west Texas town of Uvalde to a kindergarten teacher and oil pipe supplier who later moved the family to north Texas. He graduated from Longview High School (as did Abbott) and the University of Texas at Austin (also Abbott’s alma mater).
In 1993, while a film student, McConaughey landed his first role in “Dazed and Confused,” ad-libbing one of his signature slacker phrases: “Alright, alright, alright!” He went on to star in a string of romantic comedies and the occasional legal drama, including “Failure to Launch,” “Lincoln Lawyer” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” He developed a reputation as a playboy and pothead. In 1999, he was arrested at his Austin home, stoned and naked, for late-night bongo drumming — a “jam session” he joked about in his book, noting, “Two days later, BONGO NAKED T-shirts were all over Austin.”
McConaughey also detailed in the book how, a decade later, he rethought his image. He returned to indie films, playing Texas lawmen in Linklater’s “Bernie” and HBO’s “True Detective” and an AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he won an Oscar in 2014. He married Brazilian model Camila Alves in Austin and settled there to raise their three children and start a youth foundation.
McConaughey has since co-taught communications courses at the university and was appointed minister of culture, a celebrity mascot responsible for revving school spirit in garish, burnt-orange, tailored suits, often flashing the “Hook ’em horns” signal. McConaughey’s Instagram is replete with posts promoting Longhorns football and the Austin FC soccer club, which he also represents (in green suits, sometimes paired with bongos).
He filmed public service announcements during the COVID-19 pandemic and handed out masks at local hospitals. His “We’re Texas” virtual concert raised more than $7 million in a matter of hours after the deadly freeze in February, prompting the Texas Monthly headline “Matthew McConaughey and Beyoncé Did More for Texas Than Ted Cruz.” Austinites have spotted him with his kids at a local skate park or walking the streets, usually low profile, blond mane tucked under a cap and sunglasses.
“He’s a hero in Austin and throughout much of the state,” said David Schneider, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s communications school. “He’s very much a Texan.”
Sitting outside the school last week, Schneider, 64, said he’d met the actor there, and he seemed like “a nice guy, a fairly normal person.”
He said he did not think the actor would challenge Abbott.
“His life is too good to mess it up by running for governor,” Schneider said. “There are some issues you can’t be neutral on. I think he would hurt his brand.”
Both Abbott and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in interviews this year that they take McConaughey seriously as a candidate. McConaughey would attract more moderates than O’Rourke would progressives, according to the poll last month by the Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler. Even 22% of Trump voters said they’d back McConaughey, according to University of Texas at Tyler political scientist Mark Owens, who directed the poll.
“McConaughey is just likable. When Texas is in need of help, he shows up,” Owens said.
Owens said the poll showed that McConaughey’s popularity among moderate Texans could suffer if he takes public stances on controversial issues like the abortion ban, voting rights, immigration and gun control.
Sitting last week at a bus stop on Guadalupe Street, the Austin university’s main drag, Antoine Fuller said he hopes McConaughey runs.
“I like his movies. He seems down to earth,” said Fuller, 36, a chef at the university who said he’s seen the actor walking around town in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts.
Walking nearby, Nicci Haynie also said she hopes McConaughey runs. Haynie, 50, is studying communications after serving in the Army. She’s a Democrat and a supporter of gun rights who has voted for O’Rourke but said she admires McConaughey because he embodies what drew her to Austin from Dallas 20 years ago.
“It’s a measure of chill, just carefree joy — he just exudes that,” she said. “He’s very much an Austinite. What we say is ‘Keep Austin weird,’ and that’s him. Especially as a football ambassador, he’s so smooth and savvy.”
Some listening to bands play last week on Austin’s 6th Street had similarly glowing opinions of McConaughey. Danielle Crovo nearly swooned at the possibility that the man in the Wild Turkey ad on display across the street might enter the race.
“Of course we want him to run — he’s beautiful! Who wouldn’t want him representing us?” said Crovo, 34, who works at a hotel.
A male colleague standing next to her rolled his eyes.
“Of course,” she added, “he’s smart too.”