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What Beto O’Rourke has to overcome in Texas

Democrats’ record — and his own.

Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks at a campaign rally on November 16 in San Antonio, Texas.
Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic Congress member from El Paso and 2020 presidential candidate, is officially running for governor in Texas. But while his statewide performance stunned during his 2018 Senate campaign, when he nearly unseated Republican Ted Cruz, his record and Texas’s current political climate make him a long-shot candidate.

O’Rourke is perhaps the most well-known Texas Democrat, having built up a local and national profile over the course of two campaigns in three years. But Texas is tough for any Democrat to crack. There have been three decades of Republican hegemony in the state, and even the most ideal Democratic candidate would be seen as an underdog.

O’Rourke’s strong performance against Cruz is proof of his talent as a politician, but he faces an even harder race than he did in 2018 when he was a little-known congressman introducing himself to voters by driving to all 254 Texas counties. This time, O’Rourke’s past positions, particularly his stance on guns, may prove a burden as he tries to persuade voters on the margins that he is a good alternative to incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott.

And Abbott might prove to be a more formidable opponent than O’Rourke has faced in the past. Abbott is not beyond reproach given his divisive response to several statewide crises, including the pandemic and a catastrophic winter storm that left millions in the cold and hundreds dead. But Abbott is the favorite to win in recent polls, has a robust fundraising machine, and has higher approval numbers than Cruz did in 2018.

What’s more, there is no blue wave for O’Rourke to ride this time. Republicans have made gains in Texas since 2018, President Joe Biden is historically unpopular, and Democrats appear to be facing a challenging midterm election season nationally.

O’Rourke might be the strongest challenger Texas Democrats have put forth in decades. But to win, he’ll need to overcome long odds, due to his reputation and Abbott’s advantages among the voters that need the most convincing.

O’Rourke has Democrats’ backing but will need to win over voters on the margins

The governor’s race isn’t going to be about convincing partisans already entrenched in their views to switch sides. It’ll be about turning out each party’s base while wooing moderates and independents, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Unsurprisingly, O’Rourke appears to have a lock on Democrats, though their positive feelings toward him are not as fervent as Republicans’ negative views of him. Among the 78 percent of Democrats who view him favorably, 47 percent view him very favorably and 31 percent somewhat favorably, according to the Texas Politics Project. Those numbers, though, are likely to improve for O’Rourke as Democrats begin to view him as a candidate and their standard-bearer again, Henson said.

Notably, O’Rourke hasn’t had trouble inspiring voters to show up for him; he helped fuel an 18 percent increase in turnout in 2018. This time, he has the opportunity to mobilize an estimated 7 million Texans who didn’t vote in 2020.

Registering and turning out new voters may be more difficult than in the past; Texas now has one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country passed by state Republicans earlier this year. The bill imposes a slew of new restrictions on 24-hour polling locations, drive-thru voting, voting by mail, and sending voters mail-in ballot applications. Opponents of the law have argued that it will disproportionately impact voters of color, who helped fuel O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign and who he’d again need to win the governor’s race.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and State Sen. Bryan Hughes shake hands after Abbott signed Senate Bill 1, also known as the election integrity bill, into law in Tyler, Texas, on September 7. The sweeping bill further tightened Texas’s strict voting laws.
LM Otero/AP

A University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll found that, in a head-to-head matchup, voters preferred Abbott to O’Rourke 46 percent to 37 percent. Neither candidate is particularly popular with independents, who make up roughly 11 percent of the electorate, but Abbott has a 5 percentage point edge with them and 27 percent support him.

O’Rourke’s record may prove to be a double-edged sword in persuading voters on the margins: He has also already turned people off.

“I think the presidential campaign ultimately was a net negative, mostly because of the way that it sharpened his negatives among Republicans and independents in Texas,” Henson said. “It gave his ideological opponents more ammunition for defining him.”

One issue that has emerged as an early flashpoint is O’Rourke’s comments on guns during a Democratic presidential debate in 2019. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said when asked about his position on mandatory buybacks of assault-style weapons in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in El Paso.

It’s a statement that Abbott, who signed a bill earlier this year allowing most Texans to carry a handgun without a license, has already sought to use against him in courting Texas’s many gun owners.

O’Rourke told the Texas Tribune that he isn’t backing down from his position, arguing that responsible gun owners can “vigorously protect that Second Amendment right and also protect the lives of those around us.”

That seems to be in line with public opinion: A 2019 UT Tyler poll found that more Texans — about 49 percent — supported mandatory buybacks of military-style assault weapons than the roughly 29 percent who opposed it. But troubling for O’Rourke is the fact that independents were less favorable toward buybacks, with just 39 percent supporting them and roughly a third opposing them.

That’s just one of the ways in which he might be forced to relitigate his positions in order to persuade voters in the middle. Texas independents have largely disapproved of Biden’s handling of the economy and the border, and may see O’Rourke as sharing the president’s approach.

Still, there are areas O’Rourke could capitalize on. For instance, Abbott’s response to Covid-19 and last year’s winter storm have been particularly polarizing: As of March, Texans were nearly evenly divided over whether they trusted Abbott to keep their community safe from the pandemic and whether he did well in responding to the power and water outages during the storm.

O’Rourke is already starting to emphasize those issues in his campaign, claiming that Texans were “abandoned by those elected to serve them.” But it’s not yet clear whether those attacks will mobilize voters in the middle.

Supporters hold campaign signs at a campaign rally for Beto O’Rourke on November 16 in San Antonio, Texas. O’Rourke drew a large crowd at his first campaign event since announcing his candidacy on Monday.
Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

Abbott comes armed with campaign funds and a loyal base

Overall, however, Abbott is a stronger opponent than any O’Rourke has faced before in the state.

Particularly in a state as large as Texas, money matters, and Abbott had amassed a whopping $55.1 million in his campaign war chest as of June. That number will have likely significantly increased by the time his next campaign finance reports are released. By comparison, O’Rourke, also a skilled fundraiser, ended up raising $80 million for his 2018 Senate bid, outpacing Cruz by nearly $35 million (and still ultimately losing the race by 2 percentage points). In his first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy for governor, O’Rourke had raised more than $2 million, but Abbott has a sizeable head start.

Abbott also has a passionate base. He embraced the policies and rhetoric of former President Donald Trump, becoming a prominent national right-wing figure who has waded into battles with the Biden administration over issues ranging from immigration to vaccine mandates. These are issues that many Texas Republicans prioritize.

For instance, Abbott set off on a misleading quest to construct a border wall on his own (the taxpayer funds he’ll use for the effort are enough for only a few miles of wall, at most) and has falsely claimed that migrants are behind Covid-19 surges. On Monday, he went to court to challenge the Biden administration’s requirement that all companies with at least 100 employees ensure their workers are vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

Those kinds of policies have built loyalty among Republicans, but there are also cracks starting to show in Abbott’s candidacy. A September 28 Quinnipiac poll found that his job approval rating had fallen to 44 percent, its lowest since 2018, and 51 percent said he did not deserve reelection, up from 48 percent in June. That’s largely due to overwhelmingly negative perceptions among Democrats and divisions among independents, with 43 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving. Still, Abbott remains more popular than Cruz was during his race against O’Rourke — in 2018, the senator had a 39 percent approval rating.

Those numbers, however, may mean Abbott will have a tougher primary than O’Rourke. He’s already facing challenges from high-profile candidates, including former Texas Republican Party chair Allen West, with his most important challengers coming from his right. If he wins the Republican nomination — as he is expected to — he would be a formidable but not unassailable opponent.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks alongside former President Donald Trump during a tour to an unfinished section of the border wall on June 30 in Pharr, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The political climate nationally and in Texas isn’t favorable for Democrats

The current political context is very different from when O’Rourke last ran statewide in Texas. In 2018, he was able to capitalize on what turned out to be a blue wave nationally with Democrats harnessing public outrage against the Trump presidency to their advantage. In Texas alone, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the state house, flipped two congressional seats, and narrowed the margins in difficult districts.

In 2021, there is no Trump to rally Democrats against. Nor is there a popular president: Biden’s approval ratings have been underwater for months, slipping to 41 percent as of October. That rising concerns about inflation and supply chain disruptions have come at a moment when Democrats are in power doesn’t help the party’s position. And polling has shown that a slight majority of voters plan to vote for Republican candidates in the midterms.

The Texas Republican Party also emerged from the 2020 election even stronger than it was before. Democrats didn’t take the state house as they had hoped, giving Republicans the opportunity to redraw the state electoral maps in their favor for the next decade. Trump made significant inroads in heavily Latino border districts, throwing doubt on Democrats’ theory that the state’s changing demography will bring about an inevitable blue wave. And Republicans felt the results gave them a clear mandate, marking the return of culture war-type issues that most energize their base in the Texas legislature.

Texas Democrats’ plan to fight those forces includes highlighting Biden’s key legislative initiatives: the bipartisan $550 billion infrastructure bill signed earlier this week and the upcoming reconciliation bill that is still being negotiated.

“It’s going to change and affect so many lives in Texas,” said Angelica Luna Kaufman, the senior communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. “It’s something that resonates with working families in Texas. It’s something that our candidates feel very strongly about.”

But they are also planning to point out the ways in which they believe Abbott has failed Texans, including his efforts to fight health and safety measures amid the pandemic.

Still, O’Rourke and his party are facing significant headwinds.

“They are going to need something to shake this race up from the fundamentals and from the national structural environment, which is obviously, as of now, heavily favoring Republicans,” Henson said. “It’s gonna be hard for him to overcome that, despite what talents and relative advantages he does bring to the table.”