They didn’t even come close. Trump beat Biden by nearly 6 percentage points in Texas, and Republican Sen. John Cornyn won re-election by almost 10. Democrats, after picking up 12 state House seats in 2018, failed to make gains in the downballot races. Rather than celebrating progress, Democrats nationally saw in Texas a worrisome sign: Perhaps America’s changing demography wouldn’t automatically float them into power. In the heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley, for instance, Trump over-performed.
The results also darkened the outlook for O’Rourke’s political future. “He’s young, but he’s in a super tough state,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “Where do you go if the statewide races are impossible, no matter how good you are?”
The reality today is that O’Rourke, if he runs for governor, will be starting from behind. A poll by The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas, Tyler, in June put Abbott’s approval rating at 50 percent, including 29 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of independents. O’Rourke was rated very or somewhat favorably by just 31 percent of voters, while 40 percent had an unfavorable view. O’Rourke’s favorability rating was, in fact, worse than Cruz’s. And in a head-to-head matchup against Abbott, he was losing 45 percent to 33 percent. A Quinnipiac University poll similarly had O’Rourke’s favorability rating in the 30s, while Abbott stood at 49 percent.
Many Democratic political professionals both inside and outside of Texas believe the prudent political choice for O’Rourke would be to sit the governor’s race out and wait to take on Cruz, a more polarizing figure than Abbott.
“I don’t think the demographics in the state have moved far enough in Beto’s favor for him to be able to pull it off, and he’s a smart guy, so I’m pretty sure he knows that,” said Russell Autry, a pollster who worked for O’Rourke during his time on the El Paso City Council. “If you look at the demographics and numbers that are against you in a governor’s race, why would you do it?”
Autry said, “He lost the Senate race, he lost the presidential race, and I think a third time would probably be a significant image problem. So, if he were to ask my advice, I’d say do what you’re doing now and wait it out … You lose three times and it’s tough.”
Right now, it’s impossible to count the 2018 Senate run, in which O’Rourke came far closer than expected, as a loss for him politically. He was widely credited after the election with spiking turnout, contributing to the party’s sizable gains that year in the state House. It set him up to run for president. But Republicans in 2020 found O’Rourke useful, too, yoking downballot Democrats to progressive policy positions O’Rourke took during the presidential campaign, including his support for mandatory buybacks of assault weapons. Dave Carney, the Republican strategist who advises Abbott, said he hopes O’Rourke does run, calling O’Rourke “unelectable in Texas.” If O’Rourke does run and the result is not as close as it was in 2018, Cruz may not even have to worry about him running two years later.
Eliz Markowitz, a Democrat whose effort to flip a Houston-area state House seat in 2020 drew national attention, recalled that O’Rourke and his organizers “set up shop” in her district to help her for about a month ahead of the election, drawing hundreds of volunteers from as far away as New York, Canada, Wisconsin and Spain. But it was not all positive.
“I think there were benefits and there were drawbacks,” she said. “Beto is obviously a big name out in Texas, and so his presence definitely fired up the Democrats to come out and vote. But on the flip side, when you fire up the Democrats, you’re going to fire up the Republicans.”
Markowitz called O’Rourke “the best shot we have at actually winning that gubernatorial seat, and he’s the individual who has put the most effort into actually changing the state of Texas. Even when he’s not on the ballot, he’s constantly working.”
Still, she said, “There’s a certain calculus that needs to be addressed. It would be difficult to have another loss.”
Markowitz said she wished she knew if he planned to run. “And I wish he would tell us!”
If not O’Rourke, the question for Texas Democrats is, “Who?” Neither Julián nor Joaquin Castro is likely to run for governor next year. Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary, also ran for president in 2020 and didn’t have much better luck than O’Rourke. This cycle, he said “it’s not likely that I’m going to run” for governor. “I feel like I just ran a marathon in the 2020 campaign,” he said in an interview, “and you know, just happy to support others right now and shine a light on issues that are important to the state and to the country, and then consider running in the future.” Hidalgo has said she is focused on running for re-election in her county-level seat. Rep. Joaquin Castro’s former district director, Cary Clack, wrote a column in the San Antonio Express-News last month headlined “O’Rourke needs to run for governor.” Seventy-seven percent of Texas Democrats want him to run, according Quinnipiac.
During the march into Austin, the Tejano music legend Little Joe, who performed at fundraisers for O’Rourke in 2018 — and who said that after O’Rourke lost, “sometimes I’d lay awake and ask what more I should have done” — embraced O’Rourke and addressed him as “governor.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who walked beside O’Rourke, said he wants O’Rourke to run, calling him “my guy … He’s a purifier. He purifies the water. He shows up and knocks the sludge out of the tank.” A Burger King employee came to the steps of her store as the crowd passed, shouting, “Hey, Beto!”
“Of the available choices they have, he seems like the Democrats’ best bet, but it’s the best bet in the context of very long odds,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “And I don’t know. I think that makes it a hard decision for him.”
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