Interrogation

So, Does Beto Have a Shot?

A close-up of Beto O'Rourke with head slightly bowed, looking up, with dark circles under his eyes
Among Beto O’Rourke’s many challenges is that, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, while he’s well known in Texas, he’s not well liked. Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

Beto O’Rourke is running.

Again.

And this time his eyes are on the Texas governor’s mansion.

O’Rourke announced his candidacy in a video on Monday, with the Texas hills in the background and a common man approach. He spoke about his mobilization efforts during the Texas power outages earlier this year, of the unprepared officials who literally left their constituents out in the cold, and of the need to build public trust.

This is O’Rourke’s third campaign for a major office after losing a Senate race to Ted Cruz in 2018 and a failed attempt at the White House in 2020. Republicans immediately responded to his candidacy by linking him to President Joe Biden, who has a 35 percent approval rating in Texas, and calling his positions “reckless” and “dangerous.”

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Expect to see a lot more of that, says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who specializes in Texas politics and has experience working on campaigns for both major parties, Green Party candidates, and independents in the state. Our conversation about O’Rourke’s chances has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julia Craven: So, is O’Rourke a viable candidate?

Brandon Rottinghaus: The problem for O’Rourke is that he’s well known in Texas, but he’s not well liked in Texas, and the polling bears this out. He’s got strong name identification, but lags in approval of his political approach. That’s problematic for him, because most Democratic candidates for governor have had the opposite problem. His favorable numbers are pretty low. And Greg Abbott is a political juggernaut. He has got a turnout advantage, since midterm elections tend to favor Republicans, and he’s got poll position as an incumbent who’s built a tremendous ground game and has a massive war chest.

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To put it bluntly, winning as a Democrat in a midterm election with a president who is unpopular in Texas, a sour economy, and a strong incumbent is not a good recipe for Democrats.

There’s an ad Gov. Abbott put out that morphed Beto into Joe Biden’s face. This definitely telegraphs where the Abbott camp intends to go politically. Abbott doesn’t need to run against O’Rourke when he can run against Joe Biden instead. It’s an interesting dynamic. Texas politics used to be a unique entity unto itself, but as the national trends have seeped into the politics of the state, it’s become much more about universal issues of Republican versus Democrat. If that is the nature of the race, then it’s an advantage for Abbott. If this is a base versus base election, given the context of where things are, the Republicans have got a major advantage.

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Democrats were hoping for a well-known, well-funded figure to run against Abbott. They got their wish, but that wish is tempered by the realization that O’Rourke is not the perfect candidate for them.

O’Rourke came out the gate swinging at Abbott’s record. But how does his own record play out—particularly his comments during his presidential campaign where he famously said: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” a position he has not backed down from.  

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In some ways, the gun debate is more a metaphor for the cultural fights that the state’s been involved in over the last year, which the Republicans would like to play up in 2022. Most people don’t have assault weapons. But the point that Republicans are emphasizing when they bring this up is that there are cultural differences between the Democrats and the Republicans that will connect to bigger issues—like whether or not people who are transgender should participate in certain sports, whether or not critical race theory should be taught or race in general should be identified in core curriculum. These are questions that the Republicans are going to use as a wedge against Democrats.

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​​How will recent gerrymandering affect O’Rourke’s bid? 

The new district lines won’t directly affect O’Rourke’s bid because he’s running statewide.  However, if Democrats are demoralized in races down ballot because of fewer opportunities to win or have fewer incumbent Democratic candidates to vote for because of retirements, it might mute voting enthusiasm. O’Rourke needs all the turnout boost he can get in a rough year for Democrats nationwide.

We’ve seen voter groups, particularly Black voter groups, flip states like Georgia and Pennsylvania by getting more people out to the polls. Is that a possibility for O’Rourke, especially when you take into consideration his ground game during the power outages earlier this year? 

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I think it is. Texas added 4 million new voters since Greg Abbott was first elected. There are a sizable number of new Texans who don’t know who Greg Abbott is and who are unsure of who Beto O’Rourke is. So there are opportunities for both parties to fill in that information and to use that to their advantage. The 2020 exit polling said that more people who were first-time voters in Texas voted for Joe Biden.

I guess that’s what O’Rourke is hoping for: a whole new electorate in Texas who can be persuaded about the correctness of his policies and the problems that Republicans have faced since they’ve been in office for 20-plus years. I also think he hopes to harness the tremendous amount of young energy that’s emanating from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Texas. But it is a challenge in an off-year election when there’s been a bit of an enthusiasm gap for Democrats.

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O’Rourke can fix that problem because he’s electric for so many Democrats. The problem is that as much as he elevates Democrats, he also draws the ire of Republicans. He’s a polarizing figure, and that can create opportunities for Democrats in some places, but also may close off other opportunities such as trying to pull in the rural vote.

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Why is he so polarizing?

Running against Ted Cruz became a red versus blue battle. And that initially puts him into a position where it looks like he’s much more aggressively partisan than he actually was in that race. By the time he ran for president, he was perceived as being pretty far to the left. The things he said during the campaign also kind of magnified that fact—the way he talked about the gun issue and border security.

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These are things that made him look like he was to the left of most people in the Democratic Party. I think that narrative took root. There’s also a case to be made that he’s polarizing because it looks like he’s abusing his privilege. He comes from a political family. He’s married into wealth. There’s a sense, for Republicans, that he’s not who he portrays himself to be, so that tends to polarize things too. Here’s a good example of that: His nickname is Beto, right? His real name is Robert. Republicans still call him Robert Francis even though Beto has been his nickname from birth.

What about his chances with Latino voters?

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O’Rourke underperformed among Latino communities in 2018, but investment since then and the fact he’s kicking off his tour in South Texas shows he’s serious about winning them over. The Latino community is not homogeneous—Republicans in Texas have historically gotten 30 to 35 percent of the Latino vote. But younger Latinos who typically live in urban and suburban areas are more progressive, and those are the voters O’Rourke needs to excite and turn out to vote.

Should Biden’s performance with Latino voters in 2020 change the way O’Rourke approaches them? Are there any lessons to learn?

There are concerns that the Democrats have taken Latinos in Texas politically for granted. Long-term engagement early and often is key. This means not just running ads in Spanish—it means holding events, engaging with local community leaders, being attentive to community interests. The Latino community in some parts of the state are more working-class, so left-leaning policies like guns and abortion rights and abolishing ICE won’t fly. O’Rourke has to talk about the issues that affect people in these communities, not repeat points from a progressive party platform. He’ll have to shade some of his past liberal statements.

Is there a centrist Democrat in Texas who would be a better, safer bet?

There are many elected, and not elected, centrist Democrats in Texas, but none are as high-profile as O’Rourke. A Texas Democratic candidate has to walk a fine line ideologically—they need to be liberal enough to excite the base but centrist enough to appeal to leaning Republicans and moderate independent voters.

But given the natural advantages Gov. Abbott has and the national landscape, going for a high-risk, high-reward candidate like O’Rourke might be the best strategy for the Democrats.

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