AUSTIN, Texas — Beto O’Rourke came closer to turning Texas blue during his 2018 run for Senate than any Democrat has in decades, losing by under 3 percentage points. To win his campaign for governor against incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this year, he’s looking to again drive up massive Democratic turnout, particularly among women in the state’s rapidly growing suburbs.
“We’ve always known … that if the same people vote in this election as are voting in every other election, we’re likely to lose,” O’Rourke told reporters at a rally here Saturday, just after several highly rated polls found him in striking distance of Abbott.
Though the notion that suburban women are persuadable is nothing new in American politics, O’Rourke, a singularly popular figure among Texas Democrats since 2017, might be the first member of his party capable of competing for them in the state.
And he has a carefully crafted pitch to suburban women that includes hammering Abbott for rising property taxes, for failing to fix the state’s power grid, and for not addressing gun violence in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting. He’s campaigning on expanding Medicaid, legalizing marijuana, and investing in public schools, while highlighting the threat to democracy and voting rights posed by Republicans. But if there’s any one issue he’s counting on, it’s outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and Texas’s enactment of what he called the “most extreme abortion ban on the books in America.”
I spent time earlier this month in Austin’s suburbs in Williamson and Hays counties — both areas O’Rourke won in 2018. In dozens of conversations with voters O’Rourke needs to turn out, I found some troubling signs for him about whether that pitch is going to be enough to create the wave he needs from suburban women. Many I spoke with were still undecided, despite the fact that we talked just days before early voting started on October 24 — and many said they felt alienated by both parties, that politics has become toxic, and like they had to choose the lesser of two evils.
That apathy doesn’t suggest suburban women are primed to swoop in to rescue O’Rourke, who needs every Democratic vote he can get in a state as red as Texas.
O’Rourke’s path to victory is through the suburbs
There’s a lot of opportunity for O’Rourke to find new Democratic voters in the suburbs: Between 2010 and 2020, all 10 of the state’s fastest-growing counties were suburban, with the top five counties accounting for 44 percent of the state’s population growth. A large part of that trend is due to rapid population growth fueled by people moving in from out-of-state and Texans priced out of ballooning housing costs in the city centers, especially in Austin. Texas’s suburbs are also increasingly diverse and closing the gap with urban voters in attainment of college degrees — a characteristic that, on a national level, has made voters more likely to turn away from Republicans in recent elections.
In the suburbs, as was the case in 2018 and remains true in other parts of the country, women are a key demographic: they typically vote for Democrats at higher rates than suburban men. Overall, women also backed O’Rourke by a 9-point margin in 2018.
An October Marist poll suggested O’Rourke was having some success with them: Registered suburban voters preferred him over Abbott, 50 to 44 percent. It also showed him with a 2 percentage point advantage among women (and a bigger advantage among those under the age of 45.) Recent internal polling by the Abbott campaign also reportedly showed the governor down in critical suburban areas outside Dallas and Houston.
Two October polls have O’Rourke within their margins of error: He’s only behind by 4 points in the Marist poll and by 2 points in a Beacon Research poll of likely voters for the Democratic Policy Institute. In 2018, the polls underestimated his final performance; that may not be the case this time, but if it is, the gubernatorial race will be the closest in decades. Beyond the tight polling, O’Rourke has a massive fundraising advantage: He’s also outraised Abbott for two consecutive reporting periods and set a new record for fundraising in Texas state-level politics.
Still, there are a lot of Republican voters in Texas, enough to set turnout records in the March GOP primaries, and the pace of change in the suburbs might not match what O’Rourke needs to make them as reliably blue as they’ve proved in other states. And that means the odds are stacked against O’Rourke. Another October poll, this one by the University of Texas’s Texas Politics Project, found Abbott ahead by 11 percentage points among likely voters. The Marist poll also showed more Republicans are planning to vote than Democrats.
My interviews reflected the findings of these polls in part: I found both Abbott and O’Rourke are household names, and this is a race that really matters to voters. Typically, voters who plan to vote for O’Rourke told me that his stance on abortion rights was the primary reason for their support. But it might not be motivating voters in the kind of numbers that O’Rourke needs.
Roe might not be the galvanizing force that O’Rourke hoped it would be
Texas’s trigger ban makes it a felony punishable by up to life in prison to perform an abortion except in cases where it’s necessary to save the life of the pregnant person. On the day that the ban went into effect in late August, O’Rourke seized on it and ran his first TV ads.
“Women will die because of it,” one ad says. “It’s too extreme.”
He’s also since framed abortion as an economic issue: “Try attracting or retaining talent when no woman in Texas can make her own decisions about her own body or her own future,” he told Vox at the rally, where some voters were wearing his campaign T-shirts reading “Pro-choice, Pro-Texas” and “Women for Beto.”
But as in races in other parts of the country, abortion might not be the decisive factor that Democrats predicted it would be. Polling shows that most Texas voters oppose the state’s near-total ban on abortion, but they still only rank it as the fifth most important issue facing the state, with their top four being border security, immigration, political corruption and leadership, and inflation, in that order. And unlike other states, Texas hasn’t really seen a Roe-related surge in voter registrations: only about 40,000 more people have registered since the Supreme Court’s decision came down compared to the same period in 2018, according to the Texas Tribune.
It’s worth noting that in 2018, there was similar speculation that the Me Too movement and Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial nomination to the Supreme Court would boost O’Rourke’s candidacy among women. That benefit didn’t materialize, and this year, it’s again unclear whether there are enough staunchly pro-abortion rights voters to outweigh the rest, something reflected in my conversations with women near Austin.
Mandy Outon, an undecided voter in Round Rock, said she prioritized women’s right to bodily autonomy but that she’s “open to listening to both sides.”
“I don’t think either party is bad or evil. Just depends on how you look at it,” she told me.
Still, abortion was the No. 1 issue, or close to it, for many of the younger women I spoke to, who said they’re voting for O’Rourke with certainty.
Caylor Jackson, an esthetician in Kyle, said that she’s “against everything that Abbott is for,” especially on abortion rights: “It shouldn’t be anybody’s choice but a woman’s choice. No matter what happens, it should be her choice.”
Audrey Adams, a resident of Georgetown, said that she thinks there should be some restrictions on abortion, but not to the degree that Abbott has enacted. “I don’t agree with everything that Beto says, but I do think he’s better than Abbott,” she said.
And, suggesting O’Rourke’s pitch is resonating with at least some persuadable voters, Charity Simeri, a Georgetown resident, said while she was undecided and doesn’t strongly identify with either party, O’Rourke might be the better choice because of his stance on abortion. “You can’t take away a woman’s right like that. It’s their body, their choice. It just doesn’t sit right with me,” she said.
Affordability was a top concern
Though there are signs that the Texas economy is slowing, the state hasn’t suffered as much as others amid the global economic downturn. Job growth is still projected to exceed 4 percent this year, which is above the state’s historical average growth rate. One upside here from high gas prices is that oil and gas companies are paying much more in state taxes and royalties. And few states are poised to benefit more from President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act than Texas.
Some voters credit Texas Republicans, including Abbott, for shoring up the economy, citing their efforts to keep businesses open during the pandemic: “I was in favor of the freedoms that they were trying to protect, especially during Covid,” said Kristen Bergman, a Georgetown resident who considers herself an independent. “I feel like Texas has a pretty good job market and a good economy.”
But the state isn’t immune to national concerns over inflation: 49 percent of voters told the University of Texas pollsters that their family’s economic situation is worse than a year ago, which is the highest since the inception of the poll in 2008, and nearly three in 10 voters ranked inflation as the most important issue influencing their vote in the Marist poll.
O’Rourke blames Abbott for the 20 percent rise in property taxes since 2017, high electricity bills, and the fact that more Texas workers are earning the state minimum wage, which is just $7.25 and not a living wage, than in most other states. It’s an attempt to speak to the concerns of voters who are working too hard for too little, but it’s not clear they’re persuaded.
Kyle resident Yamhel Garcia said she’s looking for better-paying jobs because of how expensive everything has gotten. Currently, she’s working part-time but not breaking even on fuel costs for her commute to work. Sometimes, her employer gives her extra hours, but that’s not income she can depend on. “That’s my life every day. I’m hurting,” she said.
She said she isn’t sure whether she’ll vote and says she “used to believe in politics” but “it feels like the world is falling apart.”
“I’m disappointed, whichever party gets elected,” she added.
O’Rourke said Saturday that in the final weeks before Election Day, he’s planning on targeting disaffected voters like Garcia, telling volunteers that he’s not going to ask them to knock on the doors of people who are guaranteed to vote for him or for Abbott, but instead “the people who are likely to be with us but need a nudge or an invitation to come in right now.”
Suburban women are at the forefront of the education wars
Besides the economy, education was a top concern of many voters I spoke with, even if it’s not the main issue on their minds. That tracks with polling showing that education is a top-10 issue for Texans.
A key part of Abbott’s pitch centers on “school choice” — the option to use taxpayer dollars to send a child to charter or private schools instead of public schools — and a “parental bill of rights” proposal that he introduced at the beginning of the year. Amid nationwide Republican battles at the state level against the teaching of “critical race theory” and LGBTQ issues in public schools, school choice is Abbott’s attempt to appeal to parents with promises of more control over their children’s education.
O’Rourke argues that Abbott’s proposal “will defund our kids’ public schools,” which he says are already chronically underfunded. And he’s advocated for eliminating annual standardized testing in schools, which he sees as a waste of classroom time and state education funds, but he wouldn’t be able to do so unilaterally as governor.
Some mothers were worried that public education is under threat in this election due to potential funding cuts and Republican-led disputes over curriculum, and that’s consistent with polling showing that many Texans fear Abbott’s school choice proposal would take away resources from public schools. O’Rourke’s stance on the subject may not make or break his campaign, but it’s clear his policy proposals have an audience.
Emily, a mother of two from Round Rock who asked not to be identified by her last name, cited a particularly contentious school board race in her district where she said there are “extremists” who are, in her view, running to dismantle public education. She’s voting for O’Rourke.
Sade Jones, an Austin public school teacher and mother who lives in Kyle, said she is undecided and doesn’t tend to vote for any particular party. But supporting public education matters to her, especially in the current climate: “We see a lot of contention. I think it’s always really important for parents to be involved ... in my students’ curriculum. But I think access to public education is really important and always something that I’ll be voting for.”
For some parents, the idea of having even more control over their children’s education is appealing. Karissa and Jacob Bradley, residents of Liberty Hill, pulled their second-grader out of public school and are now homeschooling. They said they feel as though the public education system failed their child by focusing too much on teaching what to think rather than how to think — particularly on issues like gender, sexuality, and religion — but they support funding public education for others.
O’Rourke’s pitch — on education or anything else — hasn’t convinced Karissa Bradley, who said she is undecided for now and feels like neither party represents her views, but she intends to vote. She’s exactly the type of voter he recently encouraged his volunteers to seek out, and the type he needs to turn tight polling into victory. But it’s not clear O’Rourke will be able to sway her, and many others like her, to vote for him.
“I’m not really involved in this season. Maybe not willfully ignorant, but choosing not to get into that right now for mental health reasons,” she said. “I often feel stuck in the middle.”