There’s something especially appropriate about former representative Beto O’Rourke becoming the front-running Democrat for the top of their 2022 ticket in Texas. Like his party, O’Rourke has shown lots of recent potential as a statewide candidate. Like his party, he hasn’t won yet.
In 2018, O’Rourke, a three-term House member from El Paso, became a national political celebrity by exploiting coast-to-coast Democratic hostility toward Republican senator Ted Cruz, eventually posting record fundraising numbers and throwing a scare into the former presidential candidate, losing by less than three points. (Cruz had won by 15 points in his first general election in 2012.) Even as many Democrats urged him to run against Cruz’s GOP sidekick (and Mitch McConnell crony) John Cornyn in 2020, O’Rourke decided to go long with his fame, running for president instead. For a hot minute, he looked like someone who might thread the needle in a big Democratic field, balancing personality-based appeal to young and Latino voters with promotion of a generally moderate platform with some edge. But he faded as he failed to strike much of a chord in the early states and then got outperformed by Pete Buttigieg in the “lane” assigned to charismatic young moderates. In the ultimate twist of fate, the 2018 fundraising champ dropped out of the presidential race on November 1, 2019, because he ran out of money.
So now O’Rourke is returning to what might have been Plan A for his political career with a second statewide run in Texas. Most Texas Democrats seem to be onboard with his candidacy, and at this point the only cloud on the horizon in terms of the Democratic gubernatorial nomination is the possibility of a primary challenge from actor Matthew McConaughey, who has managed to create and sustain speculation that he will run for governor as a Democrat, an independent, or even a Republican. Despite all the buzz over McConaughey, it’s likely his appeal will fade once he does declare a party preference, and today’s polarized environment is not great for indies.
The McConaughey question aside, O’Rourke is hoping that despite Greg Abbott’s incumbency and the GOP’s continuing advantage in Texas (which may be strengthened temporarily by the national midterm swing against Democrats as the White House party), the incumbent may be vulnerable due to his missteps in dealing with the state’s energy grid during winter storms and the tack to the right (including extremism on masks and COVID-19 vaccines) he has undertaken to head off a serious GOP primary challenge. Indeed, some observers think Abbott is overlooking a 2022 general-election challenge and planning a future presidential run, which dictates lots of MAGA posturing. And Democrats may be easy to energize in 2022 thanks to the extreme laws Texas Republicans have passed in 2021 restricting voting rights and all but outlawing abortion.
But O’Rourke has his own problems owing to presidential politics. Not long before his 2020 campaign petered out, he tried to regain attention and relevancy by taking left-bent positions on hot-button cultural issues, endorsing a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons and suggesting a revocation of tax-exempt status for churches that oppose same-sex marriage. Messing with guns and conservative Christianity is not exactly a prescription for political success in Texas, and Republicans will be sure to remind voters of O’Rourke’s heresy on these issues early and often.
Still, polls show Abbott potentially vulnerable and O’Rourke at least competitive. Polls from both the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas/Texas Tribune show O’Rourke within single digits of Abbott, and a November 1 survey from Rice University had Abbott’s lead down to a single point. The same Rice poll also showed McConaughey as an indie pulling only 9 percent against O’Rourke and Abbott.
But there is a recent history of Texas Democrats underperforming early polls when voters actually vote. In the long run, the Donkey Party will have a demographic opening in Texas, much as it has demonstrated in previously red states like Arizona and Georgia, so long as Democrats can figure out how to reverse the pro-Republican trend among Hispanic voters that was so evident there in 2020 (which is far from being a given). But it’s unclear a midterm election taking place under newly restrictive rules as a Democrat struggles in the White House will present an opportunity for the long-awaited Democratic breakthrough.
If O’Rourke does lose again, it could be a lethal blow to the once-promising career of the politician who is still south of his 50s. Presumably he’d rather take the risk of becoming a three-time loser than the answer to political trivia questions about what “Betomania” once meant.