Politics

Beto O’Rourke’s Texas bid hits on a culture war that hasn’t dimmed the state’s economic boom

No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1992.

Mark Felix
While O'Rourke has tried to position himself as a champion for everyday Texans concerned the governor hasn't done enough to make sure there won't be a repeat of the deadly February blackout that left residents shivering in their homes, he has little support outside of the biggest cities.


Beto O’Rourke took aim at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s conservative stances on abortion, guns and education Monday in announcing a bid to unseat him, saying the state needs a leader focused on bread-and-butter issues.

But the Democrat faces an uphill battle in the conservative state, where Abbott can point to a track record of overseeing some of the fastest economic growth in the country. Texas’s deep-red Republican voting base is on board with the issues he’s prioritized and the many businesses flocking to the state aren’t being dissuaded by the governor’s conservative tilt.

While O’Rourke has tried to position himself as a champion for everyday Texans concerned the governor hasn’t done enough to make sure there won’t be a repeat of the deadly February blackout that left residents shivering in their homes, he has little support outside of the biggest cities. After storming onto the political scene during a failed 2018 run for Senate against Ted Cruz and a short-lived campaign for the Democratic nomination for president a year later, he’s lost momentum. That’s put him nine percentage points behind Abbott in a recent Texas Tribune poll ahead of next year’s vote.

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Abbott, meanwhile, has shored up support with his base by staking out increasingly conservative positions in recent months, seeking to diminish the threat of a primary challenge from the far right. And he can point to a string of recent successes — notably Tesla Inc.’s decision to move its headquarters to the state — as evidence that his stances aren’t hurting Texas.

Then there’s the risk that the next election season could be tough for Democrats, particularly in a GOP stronghold like Texas, amid low approval ratings for President Joe Biden that hung over recent gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1992.

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“If you look at the policy failures of Governor Abbott over the past couple of years, there is a potential for Democrats and for Beto to break the Democratic losing streak,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “But, he still starts the race as a serious underdog.”

A few years ago O’Rourke was revered as a fresh young face in Texas, one who pundits thought might be able to break through on the back of his charm, ability to speak Spanish and celebrity allies. But despite polls showing the Senate contest as closer than expected, Cruz won by some 200,000 votes. O’Rourke dropped out early from the Democratic presidential primaries ahead of the 2020 vote.

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BETO'S RUN:

O’Rourke was able to “present himself in 2018 as a moderate, post-partisan figure who could be everything to everyone,” Jones said. “Today, after his failed 2020 presidential bid, he’s just seen as another Democrat.”

O’Rourke will face at least two challengers in the Democratic primary, though he is by far the best known candidate and broadly favored to get his party’s nod. Actor Matthew McConaughey, who lives in Austin, has mulled the idea of running for governor next year as a centrist, though he hasn’t said if he would seek office as a Republican, Democrat or independent.

Abbott is facing serious primary challengers within his own party for the first time, most notably Don Huffines and Allen West, who have relentlessly attacked the governor from the right. Amid their criticism Abbott has prioritized a deeply conservative agenda over the past year, which has included the law that effectively bans abortions beyond six weeks into a pregnancy, a rule that forbids transgender student athletes from playing on teams that don’t align with the gender of their birth certificate and a law that allows Texans to carry handguns without a state license.

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Those efforts have generated pushback from businesses concerned that they could make it harder to operate in the state and attract the best talent. But so far it hasn’t slowed one of the country’s most impressive economic booms, which has seen the state add 4 million people over the past decade and lure companies such as Tesla, Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Abbott criticized O’Rourke in a tweet, citing his stances on police, the oil industry, immigration and guns.

Matt Angle, the founder and director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic group in Texas, said Abbott may be in store for more of a challenge than he expects. The devastating blackouts during the deadly winter storm in February, and an inadequate response in the following months, is among Abbott’s biggest vulnerabilities. Angle pointed to the Texas Tribune poll that showed the governor is viewed negatively by 57% of independents.

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“That hasn’t been the case before,” Angle said. “The first thing people associate with him is the failed power grid.”

In a campaign video, O’Rourke said he would avoid divisive cultural issues and will prioritize shoring up the electrical grid. He also said he wants to expand Medicaid and legalize marijuana. He’s said in the past that he’s in favor of abolishing the death penalty and banning assault weapons. He’s also pro-choice.

Abbott’s administration is “focusing on the kind of extremist policies around abortion or permitless carry or even in our schools that really only divide us, keep us apart, stop us from working together,” O’Rourke said in a video. “It’s a really small vision for such a big state.”

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