Disclosure: The author was an employee of Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Campaign for US Senate and donated to his 2020 Presidential Campaign.
Beto O’Rourke is probably not going to win, but he is the best Texas Democrat to challenge the governor. It is easy to underestimate him due to his abysmal presidential campaign two years ago where he started his campaign apologizing for everything, proceeded to stumble through debates, and ended his campaign about two months after saying “Hell yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15, your AK-47,” in a nationally televised debate. Some might say that his presidential campaign swung him too far left to attempt a statewide election in Texas. And to make matters worse, Greg Abbott is a more formidable opponent than Ted Cruz.
But this election would be a long shot for any candidate. (When the five editors conducted a mock draft of the most electable potential challenger, none of us thought to select a Democratic politician in the first round.) Long shot elections are not the time to try to piece together a candidate with just the right political views that polls say might give the candidate a chance. Instead, we need to take our shot with the politician with the most talent.
We need a prolific fundraiser like Beto, who raised more money in the first 24 hours of his campaign than Abbott’s previous challenger did in her entire campaign. We need the candidate who pushed Cruz to the brink in a 2018 campaign and that brought a sizable group of independent and conservative voters to their side. Beto has only a puncher's chance, but if he narrowly wins the election on November 8, 2022, it will be because we won the battle for the sizable segment of the electorate who voted for Abbot for Governor and O’Rourke for Senator on the same ballot in 2018 (nearly 400,000 voters). And he will need to do two things to win them over.
First, he needs to continue attacking Abbott for his mishandling of the power grid (which, to Beto’s credit, has been one of his primary arguments in his campaign launch). Over 200 people died during the freeze and Beto is correctly making the connection between the Republicans’ failures and the suffering our state had to endure. The message is that we should value competence over party loyalty.
Second, he needs to differentiate himself from national Democrats. On this end, he’s been making noises about Biden not handling the border as well as he should. He can build on this and call out the far left for well-meaning, but not-very-well-thought-out-and-incredibly-unpopular policies like “Abolish the police.”
To win this election, he needs to more aggressively represent the Democratic Party’s return to sanity by going out of his way to differentiate himself from the far left. He can discuss Abbotts mishandling of COVID while also calling out the national Democratic Party’s reluctance to reopen schools. He can attack the Texas Republican Party for leading the charge of censorship in education while noting that both sides of the education culture war battle seem to have lost sight of the fight to catch up with the rest of the world in literacy, STEM, and post-secondary preparation. In a political landscape that is becoming more defined by extreme polarization, Beto can fulfill the yearning of the general public for politicians to stop playing to the Twitter audience and focus on issues that can have the most positive effect on people in the real world - especially since he doesn’t have to play the primary like Abbott does.
It also appears that Beto has learned his lesson from over-apologizing in his 2020 presidential campaign. He has “held his ground” on his stance on gun reform. The offended gun enthusiasts clutching their pearls over his “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” comment during his presidential campaign were never going to vote for him anyway. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, if activists get upset about Beto using the term “Latino” or “Hispanic” instead of “Latinx” (or whatever the next iteration of the in vogue term will be), he should not waste airtime apologizing. We need a governor who will keep his eyes on the big issues and focus on what will bring people together. He did a masterful job at this in 2018 and he has the potential to recreate the magic in 2022.
If I were forced to make a wager on the election, the smart money would be on Abbott’s reelection. But if Beto pulls off a 50%-49% victory, it will be because he kept his focus on the important issues, distinguished himself from national Democrats, and appealed to the public’s desire for a unifying candidate while still firing up his base to exceed turnout expectations. I don’t think he will win. But if any Democrat can pull it off, it’s him.