The case against Beto
Disclosure: The author has donated to, introduced, and volunteered for Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign and 2020 Presidential campaigns.
As 2021 dawned, the party in power was worried. While their governor had a massive amount of campaign donations, he’d made some critical mistakes, particularly on COVID, that had resulted in a negative approval rating by voters. The media was making the election a referendum on the incumbent, and even though the governor’s party had a massive numerical advantage and had rarely lost an election, they worried that the consistent negative media attention on their COVID policies would lead party base voters to stay home.
However, everything changed when a fiery challenger from the opposition party declared his candidacy and embraced social positions that were unpopular with the majority of the electorate, but resonated with the challenger’s party base. Overjoyed at the opportunity to make the election about the challenger rather than his own record, the incumbent governor seized the chance to make a contrast, bring out the party base, and ended up riding to a double digit victory.
This was the story of the 2021 California recall election, when far right Republican Larry Elder helped Democratic Governor Newsom hold onto office despite his facing a recall election. However, it could just as easily turn out to be the story of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign against Texas Governor Abbott with Beto playing the role of Elder to Abbott’s Newsom.
Readers who are more left-leaning will no doubt scoff at the parallel, but the data bears it out. Similar to Newsom, Abbott is currently held in favor with a narrow majority of the electorate though this has deviated by around 2-5% monthly as the pandemic or electric grid woes have drawn media attention. And similar to Elder, Beto is viewed as the standard-bearer of social policies that are toxic to many Texas voters. As a result, he threatens to make the race a choice between extremes rather than a referendum on Abbott’s record. And such a shift could be disastrous for Texas Democrats’ chances in 2022. After all, in order to beat Abbott narrowly by just 1%, a Democratic candidate must:
- Beat back headwinds from a very negative national Democratic brand for Biden and differentiate themselves to win voters who dislike Biden as well as Abbott
- If on election day, Biden has the same approval rating he does now, and a Democratic candidate only wins voters who like Biden, while Abbott only wins voters who disapprove of Biden, then the Democratic candidate would only win around 32% of the vote.
- Win independent voters by a margin of 10 points, around a 55-45 split
- Get the Democratic base to turnout at near Presidential-year levels, since the GOP base will likely turnout in protest as it does not control the White House.
In theory, it’s possible for this to happen with any candidate, but it’s not clear that Beto is well suited to execute this mission, aside from the third point.
Another candidate, likely one with more lower name recognition, could potentially attempt to differentiate themselves from the national Democratic brand of Representative Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and President Biden (who has a record -32 net approval rating by Texas voters with 32% approving and 64% disapproving). By contrast, Beto is well-known as a Democrat by Texas voters. Beto actually had a fairly positive Texas brand until he went “national” in his ill-fated 2020 Presidential campaign, tainting himself with extremely unpopular positions that are wildly unpopular in Texas. After gun violence organizations had spent decades denying that Democrats were for gun confiscation, Beto went there when he said “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15”, forcing even Julian Castro to distance himself. Beto declared war on most places of worship in America when he vowed to remove their tax exemption status for holding anti-LGBTQ views, forcing his own campaign to later walk back his position. Last but not least, his 2019 vow to tear down the border wall is also unpopular in a state where Abbott’s steps to build and fund the wall are actually narrowly popular (5% net approval). In order to even have a shot of winning, Beto would have to consider repudiating his own positions, which is difficult both because it could damage his credibility, while also possibly conflicting with his own strong moral sensibilities on how the world should function.
To his credit, Beto is seen as a bit distinct from national Democrats; Texas voters give him a comparatively better -11 net approval rating. However, a negative approval rating is still negative, and to even have a ghost of a chance to beat Abbott, Beto will have to gain more distance from a radioactive Joe Biden. He’s not exactly been able to create as local of a brand as Joe Manchin, which is the only way to win in a red to purple state. These efforts will also be difficult considering that if you visit Beto’s website, there is no issues page. His comments criticizing Biden on the border were a start, but in order to win, he will have to do much much more, and even then one wonders if it’s even possible to change voters' views on a candidate whose stances on deeply divisive moral issues have become so widely known.
In his 2018 race , Beto came within 2.6 points of beating Cruz, better than any Democrat statewide in the last 25 years, but could not get over the edge. Crucially, in this race, Beto beat Cruz with independents, but only by 3 points. To beat Abbott, he will not only have to improve on the high-water mark of his career by three points, but also do so 4 years later after his original feat, at a point when much of the Texas electorate has soured on him. Abbott currently is winning independents by a 10 point margin, and Beto will have to orchestrate a 16 point swing in his favor by election day to win. Though much of the Democratic base is fond of talking about how Democrats do not have enough money and are constantly outspent, Beto spent over $80M in 2018 on his Senate race, and over $17M in his Presidential race. Despite all of this spending, he still has a -11 net approval rating among Texas voters.
This aside, politics is dynamic, and polls just measure voter sentiment at a point in time. Though immigration and border policy—both issues on which Beto is seen as weaker—are the current issues that rile up voters the most, all of this could easily change in a heartbeat if the Supreme Court (as is widely suspected) ends up overturning Roe v. Wade, thrusting abortion rights into prominence as the most important issue. Another winter ERCOT failure could also irreversibly sour Texas voters on Abbott, paving a path to a Beto victory.
The verdict on Beto is out. Many Texan Democrats argue that 2022 is going to be a hard cycle with headwinds against the party in the White House, so if they’re going to lose anyway, they might as well lose with someone who can bring out the base and stop them from losing too badly. It’s an argument that makes sense, but it’s too early to be throwing in the towel. It’s been 27 years since Democrats have held the governorship in Texas, and Democrats deserve a candidate who actually has a shot at bringing their long spell out of power to an end.