Can Beto O’Rourke Get Past November 8th?

Texas has changed, largely because it’s population has almost doubled in 30 years. Those new people have brought new ways of thinking, acting and living with them. Nowhere are the changes more evident than in Texas politics.

Can Beto O’Rourke Get Past November 8th?
Beto O’Rourke greets crowds at a rally in East Austin on Jun. 26.

Two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts on Greg Abbott’s chances of being re-elected Governor. This week it’s Beto O’Rourke’s turn in the barrel.

Here’s the reality of Texas politics over the last 30 years: If you take fungible GOP Senate candidate Jones and put him up against fungible Democratic Senate candidate Smith, Jones will get about 55% of the vote. And that’s the best case scenario for Mr. Smith Going to Washington. That’s the math. The only thing that changes that outcome is if voters a) really don’t like the GOP candidate, b) really like the Democratic candidate, or c) both.

How did this happen? Part of it is the wholesale abandonment of the Democratic Party by Southerners after Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights laws in the 1960s. For another thing, Texas has 12+ million more people than it had in 1990, a 71% increase in 30 years. That makes Texas the fastest-growing state in the Union over that period. And breakdowns of that growth into demographic subcategories have revealed that …

… CRAP! I just wasted four hours trying to find a succinct, readable analysis of Texas’s demographic growth over the last 30 years that was not contradicted by every other succinct, readable analysis of Texas’s demographic growth over the last 30 years. Too many people from California (actually, everyone seems to agree about that). Too many international immigrants. Too few international immigrants. Too many babies. Too many people with high school degrees moving from the Rustbelt. Too many people with Ph.D.s moving from Boston or Stanford. Too many people in the big cities. Too many people in the suburbs. Too many people in the “exurbs,” which was not even a thing in 1990. However, pretty much everyone agrees there are not too many people moving to the rural areas, except for Marfa, which they’ve ruined, and Terlingua, which they’re ruining.

Terlingua is a good case study of what's happening to Texas. It used to be the end of the civilized world. Terlingua was a certified “ghost town” then, where even dogs had to pack in their own food and water.

Desperado dog with suitcase in Terlingua, circa 2010. 

There was a general store that offered air conditioning and cold beer. Much of what passed for the town was off the grid – rundown adobe houses with no electricity and an outhouse 25 yards away. A terrific solitude vibe. Now there are 292 AirBnB listings there. Lajitas, the next town down the road, was run for years by a vicious autocratic goat who, like most autocrats, tried to install his progeny in office permanently, with dire results.  Now there’s a resort (home to discredited Confederate statues) and 198 AirBnB listings there.

… Where was I going with all this? Oh, yes, Texas has changed, largely because it’s population has almost doubled in 30 years. Those new people have brought new ways of thinking, acting and living with them.

My point is, it’s part of the human condition to a) remember the past through slightly unfocused, romantic eyes, and b) to see new people, and new lifeblood, as an unsettling invasion. But it feels … more these days.

Nowhere are the changes more evident than in Texas politics.

Texas was never a Worker’s Paradise, or a Farmer’s Paradise, or a Small Businessperson’s Paradise. It certainly was never a paradise for women or people of color. In fact, Texas was a Railroad Robber Baron’s Paradise, and then an Oil Robber Baron’s Paradise, and then a Bank Swindler’s Paradise, and then a Real Estate Land Speculation Swindler’s Paradise for most of its history. And much of the robber-baroning and swindling took place while Democrats controlled state government for about a century, from 1876 to 1978 or so.

But now the cowboy boot is on the other foot, so to speak. Texas has been under one-party control by the GOP since at least the early 2000s.

One-party control over time is like inbreeding; the recessive traits, values and ideas that used to be marginalized assert themselves more strongly and eventually become dominant. Hence, the Texas GOP's recently-adopted platform, which "read[s] like a cross between a QAnon website and cocktail napkin scribblings by Rudy Giuliani and Phyllis Schlafly after a three-day bender," according to fellow Outlaw Roger Gray. (To be honest, I did not have the heart – or the stomach – to read the thing.) Also hence, the deplorable condition of statewide GOP elected officials, who end up somewhere between mediocre and corrupt because no one will hold them accountable.

Thus, for instance, we are saddled with Indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was under investigation for securities fraud – crimes he’d essentially confessed tobefore he was first elected in 2014. He’s managed to delay being tried on those charges for seven years now. He is also under investigation by the FBI for giving political favors to a rich donor and firing his agency’s top lawyers for calling him on it. By the way, Paxton pretty much admits that their firing was retaliatory; his defense now is that the state’s whistleblower statutes don’t apply to him.

Our Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, is frequently confused about ethics laws, e.g., whether Texas taxpayers should have to pay for him to travel out of state for a “Jesus shot.” He follows in the colorful footsteps of such Ag Commissioners as Reagan Brown, who famously stuck his hand in a fire ant mound.

At the top of the ticket is the incumbent Governor, Greg Abbott. He has formidable advantages heading into the fall – incumbency, a heretofore docile electorate, a political war chest north of $50 million – but also a troubling record as a Governor who chokes up in the clutch, whether during a global pandemic, a brutal winter storm or after another of Texas’s increasingly common mass shootings. He doesn’t really govern, having spent the last four years pandering to the worst parts of the GOP base – nativists impressed by wastefulborder securitystunts, homophobes pushing for caregivers of transgender children to be treated as child abusers, and clueless parents frightened their kids are being taught critical race theory – in kindergarten. The reactionary base loves him, but it is not clear how much loyalty he inspires among the moderate Republicans and independents he needs to get re-elected.  A survey taken last month found his job approval in negative numbers for the second time in his tenure as governor.

Part of Abbott’s dilemma is that he is simultaneously running for re-election as Governor and trying to position himself as a credible presidential candidate for 2024. To do both, he must appeal to different parts of the GOP base. In Texas, he has to convince middle-of-the-road Republican voters – what we used to call “mainstream conservatives” – that he is a) competent and b) wants to make life better for all Texans, in spite of growing evidence to the contrary. Nationally, he has to stand out among the cranks, grievance mongers and culture warriors vying for primacy in the GOP presidential stakes, including former president Donald Trump.

The Texas GOP, to paraphrase a great statesman of our time, is not sending us Their Best People.

And even though the GOP dominates in statewide elections, Texas is far from a monochromatic red state. All the densely-populated areas, including the big cities and the Valley, trend blue, while GOP voters are increasingly limited to rural and exurban areas of the state. Texas is a purple state, trending bluer all the time.

Texas: from blue to red to ... purple.

Which brings us to Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke. He may be the best shot Democrats have of electing a governor since the halcyon days of Ann Richards – who, by the way, suffered from the perception by her fellow Democrats that she was the “weak” candidate compared to those Tired Old White Guys, Marco Blanco and Jim Mattox, who tried to take her down in a particularly nasty primary battle. Richards went on to beat Midland oilman Clayton Williams, perhaps on the strength of multiple sexist gaffes he committed. (Here's an interesting thought experiment: would either White or Mattox have beaten Williams in a straight-up Battle of the Good Ol’ Boys?)

Fortunately, Beto O’Rourke has not had to endure a withering and expensive primary battle. Right after Beto came within two and a half points of beating Ted Cruz in their 2018 Senate battle, Demo Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa offered him the keys to the Governor’s Mansion if he would just pleasepleaseplease run against Abbott this year. Beto took a couple detours, including a well-publicized stunt as a vacation blogger seeking his roots. He also detoured into an ill-considered race for President that ended four months before the primaries even began. But with his head cleared and his ambitions tempered, he has turned his talents and energy to the Texas gubernatorial race.

Beto has an opportunity this fall.

Beto’s path to victory lies in making this election a referendum on Greg Abbott – his incompetence, his wasteful spending, his unseemly ambition for national office, and his lack of compassion or, for that matter, any human emotion.

Oh, and making Abbott promise that, if re-elected, he will NOT run for President in 2024. Beto should ask it in a debate – if Abbott agrees to one – but so should every reporter in every press conference between now and November 8th.

Abbott, on the other hand, wants to make it a choice between himself and the crazy, socialist, Marxist-Leninist, atheist groomer and pedophile he will try to make Beto out to be. And $50 million can buy you a lot of making out, so to speak.

Beto has been working hard, outraising Abbott during the most recent fundraising period, hauling in $27.6 million to Abbott’s $24.9 million, And while Abbott hunkers down in Austin during the brutal summer, Beto has been out on the road, drawing lively crowds in places where Democrats often fear to tread: Snyder, Lubbock (where 1,000 people showed up), Wichita Falls, Quanah, Bowie, and on over to East Texas as part of his 49-day, 70-event Texas campaign tour.

O’Rourke may also be helped by independent groups like Mothers Against Greg Abbott — “a MAGA we can believe in,” as its members like to say. The organization, started by a mother angered by Abbott’s refusal to protect her son (and millions of Texas schoolchildren) from COVID-19, now numbers 54,000 members. It is explicitly trans-partisan, claiming Democrats, moderate Republicans and independents among its membership. They put out a “who we are” video which went viral. They also released a viral ad that punches hard at Texas’s draconian abortion laws. In the first 24 hours it was available on Twitter, it was viewed over four million times.

Time will tell if Abbott’s unpopularity and O’Rourke’s energetic campaigning can, with a lot of grassroots energy from groups like Mothers Against Greg Abbott, produce an upset victory in November. The results of last Tuesday's Kansas constitutional amendment vote ought to give progressives some inspirtation – and some good ideas about messaging.

But how much would that really matter? A Beto win would be a psychic victory of immense proportions, if for nothing else than ending the political career of the Worst Governor of Our Lifetimes. But barring a series of down-ballot miracles, Beto would soon become the Maytag Repairman of Texas — the loneliest guy in town. Dan Patrick would still run the Texas Senate like his own personal fiefdom, abusing its 31 members at will and forcing them into more despicable acts of self-degradation as the price of getting anything done. The other statewide offices would still be held by the GOP. The Texas House, currently 87 Republicans and 63 Democrats, will become even more lopsided because of gerrymandering.

The only thing that changes this wretched dynamic is if lots of new voters register and — this is important — actually show up on Election Day. Lots of groups are organizing voter registration drives for the fall. If Beto can get enough traction to give them something to vote for, we might see some actual, welcome change in Texas.