Texas has been a red state for the past twenty years, but with the recent announcement of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, is there a chance the state will finally turn blue?
The last time Texas saw a democratic Governor was Ann Richards, who took office in 1991 after defeating Republican Clayton Williams. A Baylor graduate, Richards was the first woman in fifty years to be elected to a statewide office, according to the University of Texas archive, when she became State Treasurer in 1986. She ultimately lost her re-election to George W. Bush in 1994. So, what exactly does this have to do with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke? Well, with the recent announcement of his run for Texas governor, a win could mean a Democratic leader for the first time in roughly 27 years.
Background and Where O’Rourke Is Now
O’Rourke first announced his run for Texas governor against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on November 15 after “months of speculation,” according to The Texas Tribune. O’Rourke originally ran for Texas senator in 2018 against long-running Texas Senator Ted Cruz and lost by a close margin of two percent. While O’Rourke lost, the election gave him more local and national attention. He announced in March 2019 that he would be entering the presidential race, but eventually dropped out after running out of campaign funds. Since his announcement for governor, according to Dallas Morning News, O’Rourke has fallen six points behind Abbott in approval ratings, but Abbott’s ratings themselves have been progressively sliding for months. According to KXAN, 50% of Texans disapproved of Abbott’s job performance in September, with it recently lowering to 48% while 35% of Texans disapproved of the government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, as of October 2021.
Legislative Aide Kelvin Bass stated that to him, O’Rourke’s campaign should hone in on issues such as the economy, public education and healthcare if he’s looking to improve his viability/chances to succeed in the race for governor.
“He should go back and do some campaign[s] on issues related to education — public education, health care, all of those are still out there,” Bass said.
In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll that was done in October, it was shown that 42% of citizens disapproved of Texas officials’ handling of public education. O’Rourke touched on the issue of public education as well as expanding Medicaid in his campaign announcement. He also heavily focused on the power grid failure in February (an issue that 60% of officials disapproved of officials handling), and that topics such as Senate Bill 8 (which limits the timeframe for abortion to six weeks) are attempts to focus on divisiveness.
“Instead, they’re [those in a position of public trust] focusing on the kind of extremist policies around abortion or permitless carry or even in our schools that really only divide us and keep us apart and stop us from working together,” O’Rourke said in his campaign announcement.
The Significance of South Texas
According to Bass, O’Rourke’s chances hinge on his ability to engage with a broader audience.
“He’s going to have to appeal to a broader, and growing or a trending demographic and that demographic is going to have to largely come from South Texas,” Bass said.
St. Edwards Associate Dean and political science professor Dr. Brian Smith backs this, arguing that Rio Grande Valley should be of particular concern with its increasing competitiveness.
“We’ve seen the [Rio Grande] Valley, which was once a Democratic stronghold, with low turnout become a higher turnout area and an area that’s more politically competitive. Democrats just can’t count on Valley turnout going Democratic at lower numbers. Now, they’re going to have to try and get every vote they can,” Smith said.
Smith argues the three things that will ultimately help O’Rourke in this election are to “shore up the Democratic base,” appeal to moderates and flip Republicans who have some disdain for Abbott. O’Rourke seems to be taking the initiative on this by outright stating his intention to appeal to the people rather than a party.
“A big lesson that I take from anything I’ve been a part of that’s been successful is you gotta keep the focus on people,” he said. “And if this becomes about a single candidate or political party instead of the people of Texas, it’s just not gonna work.”
Abbott, however, is continuing to lean on his argument from the 2018 election, that O’Rourke is too radical for Texas, focusing on his ties to the Biden administration and stance on police.
“From Beto O’Rourke’s reckless calls to defund the police to his dangerous support of the Biden Administration’s pro-open border policies, which have resulted in thousands of fentanyl deaths, Beto O’Rourke has demonstrated he has more in common with President Biden than he does with Texans,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said.
O’Rourke and Guns
There is another issue that could pose a threat to the viability of the O’Rourke campaign, guns and the second amendment. In the past, O’Rourke has voiced support for mandatory buyback of assault rifles, creating a national gun registry and a nationwide gun licensing system according to CNN.
At the 2019 Primary Debate O’Rourke stated, “If it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield … Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47.” This year, his views on guns have not budged, with him stating “I still hold this view,” when asked if he still stood behind those words. Bass stated that if O’Rourke’s campaign wants to continue, he is going to have to change his position on guns.
“He’s definitely not gonna get the people who voted Republican to ever support positions like that [taking assault rifles],” Bass said. “So it’s gonna have to come from a different group and he’s going to have to steer his energy away from that and he’s gonna have to try to remediate that type of rhetoric that will get him beat again.”
When speaking to KOMO News, Smith doubled down on this, stating that in an area that is more socially conservative like Rio Grande Valley, he is going to have to be careful to tone down his comments regarding guns while not losing the larger Democratic cities (i.e. the areas that may be more in favor of strict/stricter gun laws).
The Issue of Redistricting
O’Rourke is not facing up against the same political landscape either. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down section five of the voting rights act, ruling out preclearance by the Department of Justice for changes to voting laws, new redistricting maps and changes to “laws governing elections” according to The Texas Tribune. This led to the new redistricting map that was signed in October 2021 being criticized for failing to show the increase in Black, Brown and Asian demographics.
“It’s a map that does not reflect that the tremendous growth of our state is 95% attributable to Texans of color. It gives the two new districts that Texas received to Anglos,” Democratic Rep. Chris Turner said.
Bass stated that under the new redistricting rules, areas that tend to vote for Democrats will be dismantled.
“Under that new redistricting deal at the Texas state senate level, it completely destroys or demolishes a district that has tended to vote more democratic over the last three to four election cycles,” Bass said.
While Chief Map Drawer Rep. Joan Huffman stated that the map is “race-blind” according to The Texas Tribune, it also faced similar accusations from current Tarrant County Rep. Beverly Powell. Powell stated that the new redistricting map will demolish the voter power of Tarrant County.
“The proposed map intentionally, unnecessarily and illegally destroys the voting strength of District 10’s minority citizens,” Powell said.
Nailing Down an Identity and a Lasting Strength
Smith argues that in order for O’Rourke to make a turnaround in his campaign, he is going to have to find a way to mobilize Democrats and he has to nail down a message.
“In 2020, his message moved all over the board. Now he has a chance to say, ‘Okay for 2022, this is who Beto O’Rourke is,’” Smith told KOMO News. “But he’s got to find a message that really mobilizes the Democratic base. If he’s unable to mobilize the Democratic base, he has no chance against Greg Abbott.”
So, what are going to be O’Rourke’s standing strengths in this election that helped him in 2018? For Bass, it’s the time and legwork put in by O’Rourke that could carry him in his run for governor.
“That strategy was that he had to visit all 254 counties he put the leg work on in 2018 and he was able to come up with a message that resonates,” Bass said. “He should be able to find plenty of issues from just this session, this year, this political year that people are gonna disagree with Greg Abbott about.”
O’Rourke has already started putting in the leg work, hitting the campaign trail just after announcing his run for Texas governor by visiting South Texas for six events spanning three days. O’Rourke stated that he plans to make interacting with a demographic (South Texas) taken advantage of by Democrats and disenfranchised by Republicans a priority.
“We should never assume or predict how anyone is going to vote based on their ethnicity or their race, or how others who look like them or speak like them have voted in the past. We’ve got to show up, and listen and work with them,” O’Rourke said. “That’s why I’m going to show up in these really important communities and go there very early in the campaign.”