Democrats face tough road in Texas as O'Rourke mounts governor bid


Beto O’Rourke’s entrance into the race for Texas governor on Monday delivered a dose of hope to Democrats, even as doubts remain about the party’s ability to gain ground in a state that has largely eluded them for years.

O’Rourke, a former congressman who rose to prominence during his 2018 bid against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), is already a proven fundraiser, and his campaign announcement marked a major recruitment win for Democrats who are hoping to compete aggressively against Gov. Greg Abbott (R) next year.

But Democrats are also facing a long list of challenges in Texas. Former President Trump carried Texas by 6 points in the 2020 election and made significant gains among many Latino voters. At the same time, Democrats saw their push to capture control of the state House fall flat, while they also came up short in their effort to oust Sen. John Cornyn (R).

“There’s nothing wrong with saying we’re going to compete, we’re going to be serious here,” one Democratic strategist said. “But when we think about where we should be putting the resources and where we are going to have the best shot at winning, Texas just isn’t at the top of that list.”

O’Rourke, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is also sure to face his own set of challenges.

Not only is he up against an incumbent governor with some $55 million in the bank, he’s getting a much later start than he did in 2017, when he kicked off his Senate campaign. At the same time, there are doubts that O’Rourke has the same appeal that he had four years ago, when he burst onto the national political scene as a fresh face taking on one of the left’s most-despised boogeymen.

The strategist also said that O’Rourke is starting his campaign in a weaker position. A recent University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll found O’Rourke’s favorability rating underwater among Texas voters. That same poll showed him trailing Abbott in a head-to-head match-up 46 percent to 37 percent.

“He’s a good candidate. People know him. He’s not going to have to spend the first several months trying to introduce himself,” the strategist said. “I think, though, that with everything going on right now, it’s hard. Everything is just kind of different than where we’ve been.”

Indeed, Democrats are in very different territory than they were four years ago, when O’Rourke first ran for statewide office. Trump is no longer in office, and Democrats now control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

President Biden’s approval rating is underwater, and polls show that more Americans believe the country is on the wrong track than the right one. What’s more, the party in power almost always loses ground in midterm elections, meaning Democrats are already facing historical headwinds in 2022.

The challenges for Democrats are also structural. The decennial redistricting process is poised to give the GOP a significant edge in the battle for control of the House next year. Last month, Abbott signed a new congressional map into law that would protect Republican incumbents and diminish the political influence of voters of color, giving Democrats another obstacle to overcome in Texas next year.

In a video announcing his campaign on Monday, O’Rourke sought to separate himself from the national implications of the governor’s race by talking about the failure of the state’s power grid earlier this year. He cast that failure as evidence that elected officials had “abandoned” Texans in a moment of crisis.

“It’s a symptom of a much larger problem that we have right now,” he said. “Those in positions of public trust have stopped listening to, serving and paying attention to and trusting the people of Texas. And so they’re not focused on the things that we really want them to do, like making sure that we have a functioning electricity grid.”

Democrats had been urging O’Rourke for months to challenge Abbott, and no other high-profile Democrat had jumped into the race. Mike Nellis, a Democratic digital strategist, lauded O’Rourke’s campaign announcement as an important development for Democrats, even if he faces an uphill battle in the race.

“Maybe he can't win. Who knows!” Nellis tweeted. “But it's important for Democrats to compete seriously everywhere. It builds the bench and strengthens the party. I'm glad he's running — win or lose.”

In a potential nod to the challenges Democrats face in Texas next year, O’Rourke is set to make his first campaign swing through South Texas, a predominantly Hispanic part of the state where Biden underperformed during the 2020 presidential election.

But even as O’Rourke prepared to hit the campaign trail on Monday, Texas Democrats were dealt a piece of bad news. Longtime state Rep. Ryan Guillen, who represents a South Texas district, announced that he would leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican, saying that his values “are no longer in-step with the Democrat Party of today.”

Of course, Guillen’s switch may come with a key advantage. Under Texas’s new political maps, his district is much more favorable for the GOP.

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