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Is Beto O’Rourke Really the Candidate to Beat Greg Abbott?

Throwing cold water on Betomania.
September 20, 2021
Is Beto O’Rourke Really the Candidate to Beat Greg Abbott?
(Photos: GettyImages)

I want to start with a confession that will contextualize the journey that has led me to the forthcoming armchair #analysis.

In the aftermath of the November 2016 horror-that-shall-not-be-named, I was despondent, bingeing on sad fiction, taking in multiple viewings of Manchester By-the-Sea, and having lengthy weeknight wine sessions in the back corners of bars where I hoped nobody would see me. Among the many sources of my depression was a sense that I truly didn’t understand my country, community, and colleagues the way I thought I had. It was disorienting.

Two years later Beto O’Rourke suffered a loss of his own and in the fallout he began a Knausgaardian “blog” where he alternatively traveled middle America getting into adventures with the local working folks, ruminated on life’s mundanities, reflected upon America’s persistent racial resentment, and passed along the raw emotion that underlied his generalized existential dread.

As a result, he was brutally mocked by much of the media class.

The social justice left saw it as another privileged white man abandoning his wife for self discovery. The right called him a beta boy in need of mommy’s soy milk.

But while all the rest of y’all were mocking him, I ate that shit up like a famished traveler stumbling on a warm meal. I was jealous. Back in 2016 I, too, had wanted to get in a truck and travel to random towns in Oklahoma where my great uncle once lived! I, also, was feeling the feelings!

At the time I thought it was possible the media was missing something and that Beto might actually resonate with what I presumed was a broody Democratic base and despite his loss to Ted Cruz, could even propel himself into presidential contention in 2020.

Turned out that was a miss, and in the class of young upstarts it was the vaguely emotionless Pete Buttigieg who caught the political wave.

But now Beto might be back.

Axios reports that Beto is preparing to fill the current void in the Democratic field and challenge Texas Governor Greg Abbott in 2022.

They report, ”O’Rourke has been calling political allies to solicit their advice, leaving them with the impression that he’s made his decision to run in the country’s second-largest state.” An O’Rourke spokesman says “no decision has been made.”

In the wake of this news, I noticed a lot of buzz on Twitter dot com from Democratic influencers who were desperate for a big name candidate to take on Abbott following the signing of Texas’ abortion bounty bill.

But now, with a few years of distance and the 2016 wounds scabbing over, I find myself on the opposite side of the coin, bearish on a Beto reprise in a state where the Democrats need to do everything perfectly to get a state-wide win.

Some quick takes on why Beto might not be right for the moment. (And the ramifications of what it means if he is.)

2022 Isn’t 2018 

In 2018 the Democrats netted 41 house seats in a year that saw the highest nationwide turnout since 1914. For the 2022 cycle, Beto will be facing national political headwinds. The first midterm for a new president is historically a challenge for the incumbent party and while any specific projection this far out would be foolish, the idea that 2022 will be a “blue wave” year like 2018 is a . . . very low-probability event.

Meanwhile some of the gains Democrats experienced in Texas in 2018 (thanks in large part to Beto) were clawed back in 2020. Statewide the “popular vote” in House of Representatives races (which isn’t really a thing but gives you a generalized sense for the electorate) went from +3 GOP in 2018 to +9 GOP in 2020.

In particular, Republicans saw gains among Hispanic voters in the Rio Grande Valley. Whether Beto would be positioned to reverse that trend is an open question, but reading local experts’ analysis of why it happened makes me pretty skeptical that Beto is the right elixir—in part because of his changing brand.

Beto’s Brand 

In 2018, Beto ran a smart campaign that was atmospherically and culturally unifying. He traveled to red corners of the state where Democrats don’t usually go. He went on road trips with Republican colleagues. He appealed to the college-educated red dogs in the suburbs of the big metropolises. On the issues he was more of a conventional liberal, but he was pragmatic in finding ways to maintain a brand based around crossover appeal.

In the intervening years Beto has become much more polarizing, partly due to his own choices and partly due to the nature of the insurrectionist opposition party that is driving out any Republican who might otherwise be inclined to drive around with him.

But the why question about Beto’s brand is less important than the reality of it. In an election where a raging border crisis will be a persistent issue, where the incumbent governor has brought abortion to the forefront, and where Beto’s own decision to flirt with gun confiscation will make 2A questions even more salient than they were in 2018, Beto is necessarily going to find himself at the vanguard of a multi-front culture war.

Is a rally-the-base, lightning-rod candidate the best way to dethrone Abbott? Color me skeptical.

Texas is not as uniformly monoparty as, California but it is still red. And my unheeded advice to California Republicans ahead of the recall also applies here:

The [base first] strategy might make sense if you are running on home turf. It might even make sense if you are running in a swing state—particularly in a cycle when the political winds are at your party’s back. But on hostile political turf, running a base-first campaign is madness.

How can Beto navigate immigration, abortion, and guns—not to mention whatever other culture wars sprout up in the meantime—and still manage to:

  1. Not motivate Republican voters through intense negative polarity, while also
  2. Inching into crossover territory with culturally conservative hispanics and traditionally GOP voters in the big metros while also;
  3. Keeping his low dollar donor base—which supports the far left position on these issues—happy.

It will be tough. Focusing on vaccines and the energy freeze is a start. But where he goes from there is less clear. Figuring out a way to do it is the first, second, and third challenge for his campaign.

2024 

Look: I was wrong about Beto in 2020. Maybe he’ll surprise me again in 2022 (but in the other direction). If so, it must be said that in a party that’s establishment and “fusion” wings seem to have an absence of a presidential bench after the vice president and maybe the Transportation secretary, the stakes for Beto are enormous.

If he were to beat the man who put in place abotion bounties and ascend to Ann Richards’ chair in a year that was otherwise bad for Democrats, then well, the political class would assuredly make him Kamala Harris’s rival as heir to the Biden coalition, regardless of whether either side wanted it.

So Beto’s decision and the result will have massive Texas-sized implications for what’s to come in our politics. An upset win in the face of substantial political winds would propel him to the top of the Democratic hierarchy and finally force Republicans to reassess whether their pernicious minority rule strategy is viable.

On November 15, 2018, Beto blogged broodily: “The sleet stinging my face, I wondered if the winds had changed too.”

The same existential rhetorical question faces him now. I’m just not sure that in 2022, Beto is the man to change their direction.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, communications director for Jeb Bush 2016, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.