How Texas Democrats Bet on Beto O’Rourke

It’s fair to say that 2020 will be a pivotal election for Texas Democrats. The Lone Star State has a history of bucking national trends, and in the upcoming presidential primaries, three of its four registered US Senators, as well as the governor, are running for their party’s nomination. The most recent polling indicates that among registered voters, incumbent Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (D) has a slim lead over her GOP challenger, Attorney General Chip Roy, but well within the margin of error.

Hyde-Smith is one of several Democrats seeking reelection in a state that Donald Trump won by 9 points in 2016. The president’s popularity has been hampered by his inability to pass major legislation and his apparent affection for strong leaders like Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose support he has both solicited and received.

Roy is likewise one of the GOP’s most vulnerable members, as his nomination would signal a desire to upset the status quo. A former state prosecutor, Roy has positioned himself as a thorn in the side of the Justice Department, rebuking a judge over her sentencing of a sexual predator and then refusing to recuse himself in the case. He’s also opposed to civil rights for LGBTQ people.

The most high-profile gubernatorial candidate is former Congressman Beto O’Rourke. The six-term lawmaker announced his intention to challenge Governor Greg Abbott (R) in the 2020 GOP primary in May 2019, attracting national media attention and inspiring Democratic fundraising.

Since then, O’Rourke has established himself as the leading challenger to the governor, a position he has reinforced with a string of strong showings in Democratic primary elections. The most recent poll, from Emerson College, indicated that O’Rourke had the support of 25% of likely primary voters in the state, compared to 15% for former Dallas County Sheriff and GOP candidate David Wills and 13% for Abbott.

A Frontrunner With Trajectory

It would be an understatement to say that O’Rourke is popular among Democrats in Texas. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll taken shortly after the announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy found that 82% of respondents had a favorable opinion of the former congressman, compared to 11% who had an unfavorable view.

In the wake of his landslide reelection to the House in 2018, O’Rourke made a concerted effort to court Texas Democrats, hosting a series of big-name Democratic speakers, including former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and former Florida Congressman Joe Garcia, at his El Paso rally. In addition to galvanizing the state’s progressive voters, the speeches helped O’Rourke position himself as the early front-runner in the 2020 gubernatorial primary. (Trump’s El Paso visit on Saturday was likely a factor in his decision to hold a rally there as well.)

The Texas Tribune reported in September that O’Rourke had raised $13.8 million in the second quarter of 2019, easily surpassing the other two announced Democratic candidates, Wills and Abbott, and putting him well-positioned to take on the governor in November 2020.

Meanwhile, Wills and Abbott have split the Republican vote in the primaries so far. The Dallas Morning News reported in August that Wills had raised $8.9 million and Abbott had raised $8.3 million through the end of July 2019.

Even before O’Rourke entered the race, political observers predicted that his presence in the Democratic field would create a wild card contender. In July, Texas Monthly wrote that O’Rourke’s “popularity and star power could help to sweep aside the Republican field in November,” pointing to his 2018 congressional reelection campaign as an example of his unmatchable fundraising potential.

An Opportunity For Trump

With a crowded Democratic field, political observers in Texas and beyond see an opportunity for Trump to gain from a weakened GOP. Several prominent Republicans have already announced their candidacies for the Senate seat held by retiring Senator John Cornyn, including former Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and state Representative Chris Stewart. Cornyn is chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee, giving him an important role in selecting the party’s nominee.

Stewart is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a right-wing group of hardline conservatives that is chaired by former House Speaker and presidential candidate, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH). The Freedom Caucus’ role in stoking divisions in the GOP ranks will be difficult for party leaders to tamp down, and the group’s insistence on far-right policies and rhetoric could play well in a general election, according to one observer. (In 2011, Stewart was one of the leaders of the “Tea Party” revolt against Boehner and then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).)

One reason why Stewart has emerged as a top candidate is that Cornyn’s seat is arguably the most competitive in the nation. The incumbent senator is one of 20 Republicans who are running for his party’s nomination, and several high-profile GOP challengers have already drawn significant interest and support. (The only other Republican senators up for reelection in 2020 were Susan Collins (Maine) and Cory Gardner (Colorado), and both were easily reelected in 2018.)

The GOP’s ‘Red to Blue’ Strategy

Republicans in Texas have a clear strategy for capturing the governor’s office and Senate seats in 2020: Identify and mobilize voters in “blue” states like Vermont, Minnesota, and Maine, where the GOP has little presence, and hope to flip some Democrats in red states like Texas and Georgia. (Trump won Alabama by a 27% margin in 2016, and incumbent Senator Luther Strange lost his reelection campaign to Roy Moore by a 64% to 33% margin.)

The map released by the Republican Party of Texas in early May shows a significant focus on gubernatorial race, with Moore, Stewart, and Gardner listed on the top of the document. Cornyn’s Senate race is also highlighted, with Paxton, former Texas Education Agency Commissioner Stephen Bramer, and Pastor John Hagee, among others, seeking to unseat the Republican incumbent.

While that may be the case, in the first quarter of this year, the GOP also saw an opportunity to expand its Senate majority by winning the open Georgia Senate seat held by retiring Senator Johnny Isakson. Incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler’s (R-GA) election victory in September 2018 was a boost to GOP hopes, as was Martha McSally’s win over Democrat Tom O’Rourke in November 2018. Those were the only two close races in the state in 2018, and they proved that Republicans can compete in Democratic strongholds if they put the right candidates in the field.

Trying To Unite The Party

Republicans had a banner year in Texas in 2018, electing Doug Lamborn and Chip Roy to the House and filling the governor’s office and both Senate seats with hard-liners. But their near-total control of the state government has not translated to unity among Texas Democrats, who remain sharply divided around a number of issues, from healthcare to taxation. (The Texas Tribune, in an April 1 article, cited “deep rifts” among Democrats, even as they try to unify around a preferred candidate in the 2020 primary.)

This presents an opportunity for Trump to try to bring the two parties together. The president has repeatedly said that he wants to unite the country under one conservative banner, and he seems determined to pursue that goal in Texas.

On Thursday, the president tweeted that he will be campaigning “hard” for the Texas Democrats, saying that he “looks forward” to campaigning for the party’s candidates. (Trump also tweeted his support for Moore, tweeting that the Alabama senator will “be a great Senator” and “work hard to get things done.”)

That effort will be difficult, given that most Democratic voters prefer candidates who run on a platform of inclusion and civility, as evidenced by the large presence of women and millennials in the party’s activist base.

O’Rourke’s Campaign Platform

In a March interview with The Atlantic, O’Rourke outlined some of the major issues that he will prioritized as the basis of his campaign. The former congressman said healthcare, climate change, and gun control will be his top three priorities, although he did not elaborate on how he plans to address those issues specifically.

On healthcare, O’Rourke said that he will propose a “single-payer, Medicare-for-all” type plan, which would eliminate private insurance and give everyone access to healthcare. (More than half of Texas voters already have healthcare coverage, through their employer or the Medicaid program, and a little over a third have private insurance. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 12 million people are uninsured in the U.S., and the percentage of uninsured population is on the rise.)